Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Five Pop Culture Phenomena that Completely Passed Me By

I admit it: sometimes, as a break from my working day, I visit human-interest websites. I lead a small, quiet life; I like to see what the more glamorous are up to.

More and more lately, however, I don't have a clue about who these people are, and therefore have no idea about why I should care about them. In days of old, we had stars; now we have these weird people who've just decided they want to be famous, and don't seem to care what for.

Ripped from this morning's headlines, here are five things the tabloids think I care about, for reasons that evade me.

1. "The Hills." What is this? Is this still on? Who are these people? Does anybody watch it? I know — because I looked it up — that "The Hills" is a "partially scripted, reality-based" television program on MTV, based on the life of someone named Lauren Conrad who used to star on a show called "Laguna Beach" (another show I was unaware of; apparently, also a semi-scripted "reality" show about kids in Orange County). Anyway, the breakout stars of this show seem to be two fame whores named Heidi and Spencer, whose goal in life is apparently to live on free stuff and be on as many magazine covers as possible. So far they mostly seem to be famous for mouthing off and quitting. Welcome to America, 2009.

2. "How I Met Your Mother." I don't feel hostile about this show, I just missed it, and now I think it's too late to catch up. It's a comedy series on CBS that's been running for four years already, and stars Neil Patrick Harris, whom I really do admire. It seems to be this generation's version of "Friends," although fans (Claire?) might object to that characterization.

3. The Kardashians. They have a show on E!, but I have no idea why. One of them just got married to a football player — whoops, sorry, basketball player — but I don't understand why this is news, especially since it doesn't appear to have been a legal ceremony. Their father used to be OJ Simpson's lawyer, and their mother is married to Bruce Jenner, who looks more and more like a woman all the time. They all spell their names with a K, which unfortunately makes me think they'll have futures working at Krusty Burger or perhaps at The Krusty Krab.

4. Lady Gaga. She's a singer, right? But a real woman, not a drag queen — right? I can't pay attention long enough to figure it out. Does she sing anything I might have heard on my adult alternative radio station?

5. Jon Gosselin. Despite blogging about Jon and Kate's divorce, I still haven't seen this show. I never did understand why Jon Gosselin was supposed to be a celebrity, and now the powers that be at the Discovery Channel seem to agree; they've just announced that the show will go forward as "Kate Plus 8." And Jon Gosselin — seriously — has just announced that he wants to stop divorce proceedings. Strange, but I don't think I'm the only person who just doesn't feel like paying attention.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Five Favorite National Parks

Have you been watching the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea? Ken Burns is one of those artists who can't be denied. His style is so distinctive that it's easily parodied, but each film is fascinating and entertaining. I think my favorite is the one on the Brooklyn Bridge, but so far The National Parks has been breathtaking.

It's made me feel very grateful for the parks — grateful that I've been able to visit so many, but also eager to visit all the ones I haven't. (I do not own, but would love to have, a copy of Passport to Your National Parks, which lets you collect stamps from every park you visit. I might ask Santa for one.)

Anyway, these are five national parks I especially love. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section.

1. Colonial National Historical Park, Jamestown/Williamsburg/Yorktown, VA. An easy and frequent field trip for anyone who grew up in Tidewater Virginia. We went about once a year, alternating among Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. Jamestown and Williamsburg have guides who dress in period clothing and speak in character as people of their time. That must be hideously uncomfortable in summer.

2. Fort Sumter National Monument, South Carolina. Fort Sumter is an island in the middle of Charleston Harbor, and was the target of the first shot fired in the Civil War. The National Monument includes Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island, as well. My mother's family, who came from Charleston, used to spend summers on Sullivan's Island; my mother had early memories of seeing German prisoners-of-war sunbathing on the grassy lawns inside Fort Moultrie's walls. Fort Moultrie is accessible by car, but you have to take a ferry to Fort Sumter. The boat ride to Fort Sumter was always a highlight of any visit to my grandparents.

3. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Mesa Verde has to be seen to be believed: a city built into a series of cliffs, which housed a bustling community for more than 700 years (550 AD to 1300 AD). It's an unforgiving structure built into an unforgiving landscape. Ladders and steep stairs take you from one level of the city to another, temperatures range from the teens in winter to the 90s in summer, and the mesa stands at an elevation of 7,000 feet. But the views are spectacular, which was the point; the city was a natural defense against all enemies. Dried beans found in one of the dwellings were germinated after hundreds of years; you can order Anasazi beans descended from that discovery for your own dinner.

4. Yosemite National Park, California. An obvious choice, but pictures don't do justice to the scale and beauty of this park, which seems to distill everything good about the pioneer spirit. The sky goes on forever, over mountains and meadows and forests. In November 2001, still reeling from the events of September 11, a group of my friends and relatives rented a cabin in Yosemite for Thanksgiving weekend. We brought our own food and drink -- ridiculous quantities of both -- went hiking every day, looked at the stars every night, and were profoundly, deeply thankful for each other and the American dream. And then we did it all again two years later. I recommend it.

5. Zion National Park, Utah. The single most beautiful place I've ever seen, a combination of sandstone cliffs and forest that can be hot and cold, sunny and rainy and even snowy at the same time. Zion celebrates its 100th anniversary as a national park this year. It is a reasonable driving distance from Las Vegas (150 miles) and St. George, UT (46 miles). It is a place everyone needs to see, and a place I need to go back to.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Five Books that Survived Legal Challenges

This is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, and you may have been tagged in an Internet meme that asks you to count the number of frequently-challenged classics you've read. (For the record, I've read 92 of that list of 100; I never managed to finish Catch-22 or The Satanic Verses, and don't believe any non-English major who claims to have read Finnegan's Wake.)

But citing recognized classics that get challenged just allows us over-educated liberals to feel smug about our intellectual and cultural superiority. The reason banning books remains an issue we all need to pay attention to is that many challenged books don't have much to recommend them; they're not particularly insightful or well-written, they're not permanent works of art, they're offensive or creepy or just plain gross.

People's right to access to the asinine and disgusting is the point of the First Amendment. Why take the trouble to codify freedom of speech, except to protect the rude and obnoxious and iconoclastic? John Brown, hero of the abolitionist movement, was a not a man you'd have invited to dinner. Over the years our democracy has survived the crypto-fascism of Father Coughlin and the militance of Malcolm X; we'll get through the rantings of Glenn Beck and Michael Moore, too. Only through the juxtaposition of these extremes can a consensus emerge over time. (The people who wring their hands about how uncivil our discourse has become are ignorant sentimentalists, by the way; the American forum has always been brutal, it's just that the Internet makes it louder and omnipresent.)

Anyway, the ALA's position is that the First Amendment is for everyone, and it backs that position as a friend of the court in challenges against books, as unpopular as those books might be. Here are a few of the lesser-known books that have survived these challenges in recent years:

1. Male and Female Under 18, Nancy Merrick & Eve Merriam, eds. This book's subtitle is "Frank Comments from Young People about Their Sex Roles Today," which gives you a hint about why it was challenged. Published in 1973, it's an anthology of poetry that includes an especially frank poem, "The City to a Young Girl," written by then-15-year-old Jody Caraviglia. If you follow that link, you'll see that the poem is very raw — too raw, in fact, for the School Committee of Chelsea, MA, which voted to ban the book from the high school library. In the 1978 case Right to Read Defense Committee v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro ruled: "The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies."

2. Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden. Originally published in 1982 (and still in print), this is a novel for young adults about the romance between Annie Kenyon and Liza Winthrop, 17-year-old girls in New York City. It's won several awards, and was cited by the School Library Journal as one of the 100 most influential books in the 20th century. It's also #48 on the ALA's list of books most frequently challenged between 1990 and 2000. In Case v. Unified School District No. 233, the U.S. District Court ruled that the Olathe, KS School Board had violated its own materials selection policies in banning the book, by banning the book because of ideological objections.

3. Voodoo and Hoodoo: The Craft as Revealed by Traditional Practitioners, Jim Haskins. The challenge to this book (Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board) worked its way through the Louisiana courts and was finally settled privately, with the book being made available to students on special reserve. It's a history of voodoo and hoodoo practices that includes descriptions of specific rituals, and the school board took it off the library shelves. Several parents sued, charging that members of the school board hadn't read the book but were basing their decision on excerpts provided by the Christian Coalition.

4. Heather Has Two Mommies, Leslea Newman, and Daddy's Roommate, Michael Willhoite. If you listen to conservative talk radio, you already know all about these books, which survived a 2000 challenge in Wichita Falls, TX (Sund v. City of Wichita Falls, Texas). Here's the point of the First Amendment: it serves all sectors of the American public, including those who live in ways that other members of the community don't like. The fact that same-sex parents offend some people does not mean that my cousin's son shouldn't be able to read a book about a family like his own.

5. Ms. magazine. Okay, not a book, but an illustration of how silly these challenges can get. The Nashua, NH school board ordered the removal of Ms. magazine from a high school library in 1979; the U.S. District Court ruled that the school board "failed to demonstrate a substantial and legitimate government interest sufficient to warrant the removal of Ms. magazine." I'd guess the challenge made Ms. far more popular in that particular library than it was before the ban.

Which is something to keep in mind, when thinking about challenging a book. According to UNESCO, 172,000 books were published in the United States in 2005 (the most recent number I could find). Most of those books sank like stones, and no one remembered them a year later, much less 20 years later. Challenging a book makes it part of the permanent historical and cultural record, and is no more effective than spooning beach sand back into the ocean. It's time better spent reading to one's kids.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Five Random Songs

We had a hard freeze last night, and the outside temperature is still only 35F (it sounds worse if you say 2C). Dizzy is still in bed, having hollowed out a nest at one end of the duvet; he is smarter than I am.

1. "Side by Side by Side," from the 2007 Company revival. I like a lot of this revival better than the original, and this arrangement in particular feels cleaner and sharper.

2. "Cranked Up Really High," Slaughter and the Dogs. A thrashing punk rock song off the compilation Zero: A Martin Hannett Story, which I got for Christmas a couple of years ago. Excellent music to beat one's head against the wall, which is unfortunately appropriate for my current mood.

3. "Jump Into the Fire," Harry Nilsson. This is from the collection of Nilsson — All-Time Greatest Hits, but in my mind it's permanently attached to the movie Goodfellas, where it's part of a manic, cocaine-fueled montage.

4. "Everybody Takes a Tumble," The Waterboys. It borrows its opening riff from the band's biggest hit, "Fisherman's Blues," but hey — why not build on success? A genial, bouncy reel about the beginning of a love affair that probably won't work out, but will be fun while it lasts.

5. "You Make Me Like Charity," The Knife. A spooky, mysterious sound from a deeply strange electronic music duo from Sweden, a brother and sister; they rarely perform in public, and when they do, they wear masks. This track is from a live performance in Gothenburg, on April 12, 2006. I told the friend who gave me this CD that it makes me wish I lived the kind of life that would make me cool enough for this music . . . I'd be a performance artist if I could, except that I wouldn't have anything to perform. The female half of The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson, is now recording as Fever Ray, and the same friend gave me that CD, too.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Five Random Questions with JENNIFER JORDAN

Renaissance woman Jennifer Jordan is, among other things, the fiction editor of Crimespree magazine, and the editor of two excellent collections of short fiction: EXPLETIVE DELETED and UNCAGE ME. You can buy both of these from The Mystery Bookstore-Los Angeles, and I suggest that you do so before this year's Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention), where many of the contributors will be happy to sign them for you.

1. What is the first book you remember being able to read all by yourself?

Oh! Katy and the Big Snow! That was the year I learned to tie my own shoelaces after having my friend Carol tie them for the whole year. When I tied my own, the entire class applauded. Ah. The same year I broke the Naughty Chair in kindergarten. A banner year.

2. Can you play a musical instrument?

Badly, can I play a few. Well? Not a damned one. Yoda-like can I type.

Which one, if any, would you most like to learn?

Just to be able to sing without making people (including me) wince or laugh.

3. What would you request for a last meal?

A Never Ending Pasta Bowl.

No. No, I wouldn’t.

It would have to be a lovely piece of cow still mooing that morning, made bloody and served with a pinot noir.

4. What non-email website do you visit most?

Fark. All those headlines full of human idiocy. Visual Thesaurus is a new favorite and should be with all who love to literally play with words.

5. Santa Claus is bringing you a gift certificate to the store of your choice this year. Which store, and what do you spend it on?

Apple store. I love those Apple boys with their “slept in” hair and geek boy style. I love all the gadgets and brightly colored stuff to put on gadgets and things to turn your gadgets into mega-gadgets that can communicate with other mega-gadgets. Mmmmmm . . .

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Five Cocktails Nobody Drinks Anymore

I had decided on the topic of today's post before Laura Benedict told me it was National Punctuation Day, and now I'm sorry I don't have anything to mark the occasion. Later today I'll resume copy edits on an engineering textbook, so I'll be celebrating in my own way . . . but without you guys, sorry.

Anyway, last night before and after "Glee," the best new show on television, I watched a broadcast of New York, New York, a dark, strange musical directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. The movie is full of Scorsese's trademark attention to detail, from the costumes to the automobiles to the things the characters eat and drink. One of the cocktails a character ordered in a nightclub inspired today's post.

Fashions in alcohol come and go, just as in anything else. I left Washington at the height of the martini revival, and learned to drink mojitos in Los Angeles. Here in Maine the unofficial state cocktail is the mudslide -- in the bartender's manual, a combination of vodka, coffee liqueur and Bailey's Irish Cream, but here more frequently just a mix of milk and Allen's Coffee Brandy.

Anyway, here are five cocktails you never hear anyone order anymore, except on "Mad Men."

1. Brandy Alexander. One and a half parts brandy, one part crème de cacao, one part cream, shaken with ice and strained into a glass. If you want a milkshake, just order one . . . originally made with gin, called simply an Alexander. The idea of mixing gin and cream makes me feel a little queasy, but I'm allergic to gin anyway.

2. Grasshopper. A Thin Mint in a glass: one part green crème de menthe, one part light cream, one part white crème de cacao. I've seen these served as shooters, which says a lot about the way our culture has changed over the last fifty years.

3. Harvey Wallbanger. One part vodka, half a part Galliano (a liqueur flavored with licorice and vanilla), and four parts orange juice. I've never tried one; the combination of licorice and orange doesn't appeal.

4. Pink Squirrel. Ordered by a character in New York, New York; I had to look this up. One part cream, one part white crème de cacao, and one part crème de noyaux, an opaque liqueur flavored with apricot kernels that happens to be pink. I could swear they told us in Girl Scouts that apricot kernels (and peach kernels) were poison. Cyanide, aren't they? Didn't somebody's cousin's neighbor die from eating them? Sheesh, no wonder no one drinks these anymore.

5. Vodka Stinger. Immortalized in the song "Ladies Who Lunch" from the musical Company, this is a cocktail that doesn't mess around: one and a half parts vodka, one part white crème de menthe, shaken with ice and strained into a glass. Or you could just drink Scope.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Five Life-Changing Bruce Springsteen Songs

My sister Susan reminds me that today is the 60th birthday of the one and only Bruce Springsteen, American hero and prophet of the church of rock-and-roll. Bruce's 40-year career forms the soundtrack not only of a lot of my own life, but of the entire history of the United States over the past four decades. I genuinely do not understand people who don't get Bruce, and must fall back on the assumption that they're European, and it's probably equivalent to my not getting the appeal of soccer.

The Bruce Springsteen catalog is a big chunk of my iTunes library. But here are five of his songs that shaped and maybe even saved my life, in chronological order. Thank you, Bruce, happy birthday, and many more.

1. "For You," from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., 1973. I was seven years old when this song came out, and didn't hear it for the first time until I was 14. The boy I had a crush on recited the lyrics to this song in a near-manic torrent from behind the wheel of his father's blue Datsun B210, and I thought he was a genius. (I still know him; he is a genius, though not in the way I thought when I was 14.) The song is a frenzied plea to an old girlfriend the singer's trying to win back: "You were born with the power of a locomotive/Able to laugh and cry in a single sound . . . I came for you, for you, I came for you/But your life was one long emergency . . ." I use that line almost every day.

2. "Rosalita," from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, 1973. Think about this: Bruce released his first two albums within nine months of each other. They're equally great, and sound just as good 36 years later. This is a full-blown rave-up, featuring Clarence Clemons' immortal saxophone. It's a promise of freedom to sheltered teenaged girls everywhere, which at the same time makes no promises: "Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor/Closets are for hangers, winners use the door/So use it Rosie, that's what it's there for." Some day we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny . . . I can't embed the video, but you can watch it here.

3. "Candy's Room," from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978. I was only 13 or 14 when I first heard this song, and had no idea that it's about a man who's the boyfriend of a hooker. Even if I'd understood that, I wouldn't have cared. I cared about the rising, driving guitars on this track, which promised redemption and salvation. You can see a video of a contemporary performance of this song here -- the video is shaky and black-and-white, but it can't obstruct the sheer power of this song. "In that darkness there'll be hidden worlds that shine . . ."

4. "Bobby Jean," from Born in the U.S.A., 1984. This was Bruce's breakout album, but it's probably my least favorite -- except for this song, which I don't think was even a single. In the summer of 1984, I got to see Bruce live at what was then the Capital Centre in Landover, MD. The song is a farewell to an old friend. In the summer of 1984, I was trying to process losses beyond my capacity or control; Bruce showed me how to do it, and offered me the hope of reunion. It seemed at the time that this song saved my life, and even at a distance of 25 years I see no reason to reconsider that.

5. "Mary's Place," from The Rising, 2002. What he did for me in 1984, he did for the whole country in 2002. The Rising was an extended meditation on the events of September 11, 2001, and "Mary's Place" is about a wake. "Tell me, how do you live brokenhearted?" You get your friends and family together, and have a party. The weekend after September 11, my friends and I gathered at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles for karaoke, and we drank and danced and sang until we cried and we laughed and we knew that we would all wake up again the next morning, and probably the morning after that too. "Mary's Place," which didn't come out until the following year, brings that whole night back to me. Turn it up.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Five Maine Harvest Festivals

The sun passes its autumnal equinox late this afternoon, which means it's either the last day or summer or the first day of fall, depending on how you see these things. (Sorry, "autumn" for my European readers.) The whole week is supposed to be be unseasonably warm here in Maine -- well, "warm" meaning in the 70s -- and I feel a near-desperate desire to be outside as much as possible, before the snow flies.

It's not just me. Everyone in Maine wants to be outside, and it's the season of harvest festivals. Here are five on my calendar between now and November:

1. Common Ground Country Fair, Unity, September 25–27. I'll be here on Saturday. It's a celebration of organic farming and sustainable living; if you think that sounds a little precious and smug -- and I admit I do, a little -- I've heard it has terrific food, lots of animals, and wonderful crafts. I'm especially interested to see the stonecutters' exhibition.

2. Cumberland County Fair, Cumberland, September 27–October 3. All the usual fair stuff, plus harness racing, a pumpkin contest, and maple cotton candy.

3. Fryeburg Fair, Fryeburg, October 4–11. Maine's largest agricultural fair, dating back to 1851. It's almost a two-hour drive for me to get to Fryeburg, but it's worth it: the Fryeburg Fair is everything a country fair is supposed to be. Woodsmen's Day features competitions in more than a dozen events, including axe throwing and log rolling.

4. Damariscotta Pumpkinfest, Damariscotta, October 4–12. I've never been to this, but it's on my calendar for Sunday, October 11, when the day begins with a Pumpkin Catapult & Chunkin event, and moves on to a Motorized Pumpkinboat Regatta in the afternoon. There's also a pumpkin pancake breakfast.

5. Harvest on the Harbor, Portland, October 22–24. This event is only in its second year; whether I actually get there this year will depend on how it fits in to my already-overbooked weekend. (October 24 is also the date of the first Boston Book Festival.) It's three nights and two days of classes and tastings designed to showcase Portland's food scene, which the New York Times recently cited as among the best in the country. The big event is the Food and Wine Marketplace on Saturday, from 12:00 to 4:00 at the Ocean Gateway Pier.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Five Heresy Trials

I've mentioned before that I'm rehearsing a production of Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, to be performed at ACAT in Waterville November 13–22. From the perspective of my character, Sister Aloysius, it's the story of a spiritual crisis.

At the same time, I'm currently listening to the audiobook of Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel, which tells the story of Galileo's correspondence with his beloved older daughter, a cloistered nun whose religious name was Sister Maria Celeste. The correspondence shows, among other things, how completely Galileo lived within his faith, to the extent that when for the greater glory of God he was asked to deny things he knew to be true, he did so.

The combination has me thinking about how a church defends itself from what it considers a threat, and how the nature of those threats -- and those defenses -- changes over time. Five different trials for heresy point up these changes.

1. John Wycliffe, May–November 1382. More than 125 years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the cathedral door, John Wycliffe set forth the principles of Reformation: Holy Scripture in the vernacular, a new priesthood marked by poverty and humility, and a practice of religion that included roles for laymen. In the summer of 1381 he proclaimed twelve truths laid out by Jesus at the Last Supper. The chancellor of Oxford declared several of these heretical. The Archbishop of Canterbury called a synod in London to review Wycliffe's propositions; a rare earthquake disrupted the meeting, which the Archbishop called evidence of divine wrath against these erroneous doctrines. The synod found fourteen of Wycliffe's propositions heretical, and ten erroneous, and declared that anyone promoting them would be prosecuted. Wycliffe had a stroke sometime that summer, but appeared at another synod against his views at Oxford in November. That meeting too rejected Wycliffe's theories, but did not excommunicate Wycliffe himself. He died of a stroke at Mass on the feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28, 1384. Thirty years later, the Council of Constance declared him posthumously "a stiff-necked heretic," and banned his writings and teachings.

2. Joan of Arc, January–March 1431. Inspired by visions that she believed were divine instructions, Joan of Arc led an army that placed Charles VII on the throne of France. When John of Lancaster, the first Duke of Bedford and regent for Henry VI of England, captured Joan at Compiègne, he put her on trial for heresy. Kings ruled by divine right; Joan's visions had to be blasphemous, in order to discredit Charles VII's claim to the throne of France. Wearing men's clothing was an additional heresy. The clergy who examined Joan were men of the world, and were either in Bedford's service or serving under compulsion. Even so, the record had to be falsified and Joan forced back into men's clothing in order to get enough evidence to execute her for heresy. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, and her remains crushed and scattered into the Seine to keep people from taking relics. Twenty-four years later, her mother won a retrial that cleared Joan's name, established her as a martyr, and laid the ground for her eventual canonization in 1920.

3. Giordano Bruno, 1599–1600. Giordano Bruno has the distinction of being the last person burned at the stake for heresy by the Catholic Church. I'd like to read a biography; he seems to have had a real talent for making enemies. He was a Dominican priest who was first accused of heresy at the age of 28, for criticizing Church doctrine in public. He left the order, fled to Switzerland and became a Calvinist, but they excommunicated him within a year. From there he went to France and then to England, where he joined the court of Queen Elizabeth I and became friends with Sir Philip Sidney. By 1585, however, he was back in France, and petitioning to be taken back into the Catholic Church. They refused, as he would not agree to rejoin the Dominicans. Instead he went to Germany, where he became a Lutheran, but they too excommunicated him. By 1591 -- he was 43 -- he was back in Italy, and was denounced to the Inquisition. Although he abjured the heresies he was accused of, he was condemned for writings in which he asserted, among other things, that Christ was not God, but merely a skillful magician; that even Satan could be saved; and that the Holy Spirit was a sort of pantheistic deity that was essentially the soul of the earth.

4. Galileo Galilei, 1633. Galileo was already an old man by the standards of his day when the Church called him to account for his findings -- based on the work of Nicholas Copernicus -- that the Earth and other planets revolved around the sun. The Vatican had told him to abandon the theory in 1616; he was forbidden from teaching or writing about the idea. The 1633 trial accused him of teaching the doctrine, which he denied under oath. He was convicted and sentenced to prison, which was commuted to house arrest. He went blind in 1638, and died in his country home in 1642, at the age of 77. The Catholic Church did not drop its official opposition to the theory of heliocentrism until 1758. In 1992, Pope John Paul II hailed Galileo's discoveries and cautioned against applying literal interpretations of scripture to scientific discoveries. The Vatican formally apologized to Galileo and others in 2000.

5. Anne Hutchinson, 1637. Anne Marbury Hutchinson moved to New England with her husband and 15 children in 1634, following the Puritan leader John Cotton. The Puritans wanted to cleanse the Church of England from all taint of Romanism; in particular, John Cotton and his followers believed that closeness to God did not require the intermediation of the Catholic Church's sacraments. Anne followed this belief to what seemed to her its natural conclusion: salvation was a gift of God that could not be lost, once accepted. This doctrine of "Free Grace" directly threatened the secular authority of Puritan leaders in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, as under Free Grace, sin and secular law-breaking are not enough to keep someone out of Heaven. Governor John Winthrop called Anne Hutchinson to trial for her heretical beliefs, charging her specifically with violating the commandment to honor her father and mother (i.e., the authorities). She was convicted and banished, and died with five of her children in 1643, in an Indian massacre at what is now East Chester, New York.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Five Random Songs

I'm heading to Bangor today for BangPop!, the Comic & Pop Culture Convention -- yes, I am a geek, but in my own defense, I am going only because Freeport Community Players and Gaslight Theater are giving a preview of excerpts from An American Werewolf in London, the US theatrical premiere -- which you can see for FREE in its entirety on October 30 and 31 at the Freeport Performing Arts Center. Come one, come all, some material may not be suitable for children.

Five random songs for a Saturday morning:

1. "Rollin'," JJ Cale. A near-perfect cover of the Randy Newman classic; Newman sings backup. It's a much cheerier version than Newman's original, and a great tune to start the weekend. "Never drink in the afternoon/Never drink alone/But I sure do like a drink or two/When I get home."

2. "Get in Line," Barenaked Ladies. I've gotta go see my doctor about this itchy pentagram-shaped rash . . .

3. "A New Argentina," from the Evita soundtrack. The big number that closes Act I, combining several styles and tempos until it all come together into one soaring march at the end. Say what you want about Andrew Lloyd Webber (and I have), this number is brilliant. Makes me want to go find a uniform. "We have ways of making you vote for us/Or at least of making you abstain." (Oh, and did I mention that The Mystery Bookstore is campaigning for Best Independent Bookstore on the MyFoxLA Hot List? Vote for us here.)

4. "Shredding the Document," John Hiatt. A strangely political set this morning; this was a single off Walk On.

5. "U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class)," Bob Seger. Dang, now I want to go out for a little social activism. Wonder if there's a Habitat build going on between here and Bangor . . .

Friday, September 18, 2009

Five Random Questions with REED FARREL COLEMAN

If literary prizes were winning lottery tickets, Reed Farrel Coleman would be a very rich man. His Moe Prager series has been nominated for every major award the crime fiction world offers, and he's won most of them. He writes equally good (and very dark) thrillers under the pen name Tony Spinosa. And now he's about to take Hollywood by storm, because his latest novel -- TOWER, co-written with Ken Bruen -- has just sold to the movies. Oh, plus he's an acclaimed poet and he has a license to drive trucks that contain hazardous materials. He was kind enough to agree to Five Random Questions. Please reward him by buying one of his books.

1. What was the first car you owned? How did you get it, and how long did you have it?

The first car I owned was a gold 1969 Pontiac Tempest four-door with a big engine and lots of body rust. I bought it from a guy in Coney Island for $600 and it lasted about three years.

2. You're asked to assign one book for high school seniors to read before graduation. What book do you pick, and why?

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell because it is for me a perfect book. It is both a YA book and as adult a book as you will ever read. It is full of unforgettable imagery. It is the story of an exotic place far away that is in the heart of America. It is a crime story, a love story, a coming of age story and more. It is the Odyssey in the Ozarks. It is all of this and it is 197 pages long.

And King Dork by Frank Portman. Like Winter’s Bone it is a book that seems to be about one thing, but is about a thousand things. It’s the un-Catcher in the Rye while at the same time re-inventing Catcher in the Rye. It’s one of the ten best books I’ve read in the last decade.

3. What's the last movie you saw?

District 9.

4. If you won the lottery and could move anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Australia, Italy, and India.

5. President Obama calls and says you can have any government position you want. Which one do you take?

Forget it! Being Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America was taxing enough.

Thanks, Reed! Look for TOWER in bookstores later this month, and see Reed in person on his tour, starting September 30.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Five Great Agatha Christie Novels

It's Christie Week, celebrating the life and work of Dame Agatha Christie, author of 80 novels and short story collections and more than a dozen plays.

Agatha Christie was my "gateway drug" into the world of crime fiction, and if you ask any group of mystery fans, I bet most of them would say the same. Some modern crime writers I know -- people I admire, respect and even love -- will occasionally dismiss Dame Agatha's books as formulaic, plot-driven, and not sensitive enough to the true impact of violence. Some of her books (the Tuppence and Tommy mysteries, in particular) warrant this criticism; but at her best, she was very good indeed, and acutely observant of the way that people behave.

You'll find lots of "best" lists out there, but these five are my personal favorites, in chronological order.

1. Death on the Nile, 1937. Obsessive love was a recurring theme in Agatha Christie's novels, and we see it at its most public and intense here. Simon Doyle jilted Jacqueline de Bellefort in order to marry her wealthy best friend, Linnet Ridgeway; Jacqueline shows up on their honeymoon cruise on the Nile. It's only a matter of time until Linnet is murdered -- but Jacqueline has an unbreakable alibi. Hercule Poirot, a passenger on the cruise, is the only man with the psychological insight needed to identify the killer.

2. A Murder is Announced, 1950. The quintessential Miss Marple novel, set in the village of Chipping Cleghorn. Miss Letitia Blacklock wakes up one morning to find a newspaper advertisement inviting people to her own house, Little Paddocks, for a murder on Friday night. People do show up, as does a man with a gun; the lights go out, shots are fired, and when the lights come back on Miss Blacklock has been wounded and the gunman -- an immigrant who worked at a local spa -- is dead. Miss Marple is the one who finds the truth buried in the secrets several people are hiding. Plot does trump character in this mystery, but the plot is so ingenious you can't help but stand back and marvel.

3. They Came to Baghdad, 1951. Anyone who faults Agatha Christie for character development hasn't read this delightful thriller, which stars young Victoria Jones. Victoria Jones, longing for adventure, pretends to be the niece of a prominent archaeologist and winds up in Baghdad at the same time as a secret summit of superpowers (the U.S., the U.K. and the Soviet Union). A man stumbles into Victoria's hotel room and dies, but not before gasping out three words that send her on a reckless journey into the desert. Implausible, silly, and just great fun.

4. Endless Night, 1967. Architect Michael Rogers tells the story of his courtship and marriage to heiress Fenella Goodman, which ends in tragedy. It's a rare first-person narrative, and completely different in tone from anything else Christie wrote; if you can finish this book without feeling shaken, you're stronger than I am.

5. Passenger to Frankfurt, 1970. I've written about this book before; it's another standalone, and more of a thriller than a mystery. British diplomat Sir Stafford Nye agrees to let a mysterious woman borrow his identity in order to escape people she says are trying to kill her; this launches him into an international effort to block a conspiracy for world domination. A spy novel for women by a woman, with a secret weapon only a female author could have devised.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Five Disciplinary Actions by the House of Representatives

Democrat or Republican, the behavior of certain members of Congress during last week's Presidental address was appalling. I'm not talking just about the outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC), either; on both sides of the aisle, quite a few Representatives and Senators barely pretended to pay attention to the President's remarks while feeding a constant stream of their own thoughts (so much more interesting and important) to the Internet.

It's a shocking lack of decorum and respect, but it's hardly unprecedented. The U.S. House of Representatives has a long history of rowdy behavior by its members, both on and off the legislative floor, and it has a disciplinary system in place to address it. The U.S. Constitution expressly grants the House the power to discipline its members for "disorderly Behaviour," and it does so with progressively harsher measures depending on the violation: letter of reproval, reprimand, censure, and expulsion, any of which may include fines, loss of seniority, and the loss of certain privileges.

The House of Representatives voted yesterday -- along partisan lines -- to reprimand Rep. Wilson for his outburst. In doing so, they were following rules set down originally by Thomas Jefferson, in his 1801 Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, and incorporated in official Congressional rules that date back to 1909:
Personal abuse, innuendo, or ridicule of the president, is not permitted. Under this standard it is not in order to call the president, or a presumptive major-party nominee for president, a "liar" or accuse him of "lying." Indeed, any suggestion of mendacity is out of order.

The reprimand could and should have been a routine episode of parliamentary procedure, with Rep. Wilson making a quiet apology from the well of the House. Instead it's been turned into a circus that serves no one.

But as I say, it's not without precedent, and on the scale of things the House has censured or reprimanded its members for, it's not so terrible. Here are five other episodes of House discipline over the years:

1. Censure against Rep. Laurence M. Keitt (D-SC), July 15, 1856. Rep. Keitt accompanied his friend, Rep. Preston S. Brooks (D-SC), to the floor of the Senate on May 22, 1856, and held Senators at bay with a pistol while Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) nearly to death with a cane. (Sumner, a noted abolitionist, had cruelly mocked Brooks' cousin, Senator Andrew Butler, for not only his support of slavery but also a speech impediment caused by a stroke. See what happens when civility breaks down?) Anyway, Keitt resigned from Congress after his censure, but was reelected by a landslide later that year, and continued to serve until South Carolina seceded from the Union. A colonel in the Confederate States Army, he was killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864.

2. Censure against Rep. Lovell H. Rousseau (Unconditional Unionist-KY), July 24, 1866. Rep. Rousseau assaulted Rep. Josiah B. Grinnell (R-IA) in the East Front House Portico after Grinnell had challenged Rousseau's Civil War record on the House floor. Once again, a cane was involved; once again, Rousseau resigned in protest after his censure. And once again, his constituents returned him to Congress in a special election, although Rousseau left Congress at the end of the term.

3. Censure against Rep. Thomas L. Blanton (D-TX), October 27, 1921. Rep. Blanton was censured for inserting "obscene" and "indecent" material into the Congressional Record; a vote to expel him failed to win the necessary 2/3 vote, but the vote to censure was 293-0. The official reason for the censure was "unparliamentary language." I can't find anything that says what the obscene material was; anybody know? I'm dying of curiosity. Blanton left the House at the end of that term, ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Senate in 1928, and returned to the house for three more terms (1930-36) after the death of Rep. Robert Q. Lee.

4. Reprimand against Rep. Charles H. Wilson (D-CA), October 13, 1978; censure against Rep. Charles H. Wilson (D-CA), June 6, 1980. The 1978 reprimand was for "Koreagate," as Wilson was one of 31 legislators who allegedly received payoffs from Korean businessman Tongsun Park. One of Wilson's colleagues, Rep. Richard Hanna (D-CA), wound up serving two and a half years in prison for the crime. The reprimand was for making a false statement to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, but Wilson didn't learn; he was censured (and removed from his position as Chairman of the Postal Operations and Services Subcommittee) in 1980 for converting $25,000 in campaign funds to personal use and accepting a gift of $10,500 from someone with an interest in pending legislation. He lost his primary that year, and died in 1984. (This Charles Wilson is not to be confused with Texas Republican Rep. Charlie Wilson, the subject of the film Charlie Wilson's War; although Charlie Wilson was a figure of considerable notoriety, he was never the subject of an official House reprimand or censure.)

5. Reprimand against Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), July 26, 1990. Yes, I'm including this one, because if I don't bring it up, someone else will. Rep. Frank, currently the Chairman of the House Banking Committee, may be the smartest man in Congress, but made a foolish mistake in befriending (and patronizing) male prostitute Steve Gobie in the 1980s. Gobie claimed that he used Frank's house for paid assignations, with Frank's knowledge; the House reprimanded Frank for using his position to fix 33 of Gobie's parking tickets. The reprimand, by a vote of 408-18, succeeded after an effort to expel or censure him failed. That effort, interestingly enough, was led by then-Rep. Larry Craig (R-ID), who left the Senate at the end of his last term after a 2007 arrest for lewd conduct in a men's room at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Five Great Patrick Swayze Roles

How could I let Patrick Swayze's death go unacknowledged? He was a tremendously successful actor and performer who also seemed to be a truly nice guy; he never got much respect as an actor, in part because he chose roles in movies that were unapologetic crowd-pleasers. But I can tell you this: I can quote far more of Patrick Swayze's best movie lines than Laurence Olivier's.

His two biggest films were probably Dirty Dancing and Ghost, but I'm not a big fan of either. Instead, here are five roles that I consider the man at his fearless, popcorny best.

1. "Dalton," Road House, 1989. Patrick Swayze plays the world's greatest bouncer, a man called in to clean up the worst, trashiest buckets of blood. I was late to understand the siren call of this film, which is may be the best TV movie ever; wherever you happen to click in, it's just plain entertaining. It also includes the immortal line, "I want you to be nice -- until it's time to not be nice."

2. "Vida," To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, 1995. He could dance, he could sing, and he was also a remarkably attractive woman. Patrick Swayze plays the most motherly of a group of drag queens stranded in a small town. His best line: "I want you to believe in yourself, imagine good things and moisturize. I cannot stress this enough."

3. "Bodhi," Point Break, 1991. If Dalton went to the dark side and became a surf god/bank robber, this is who he'd be. Keanu Reeves is the undercover FBI agent sent to bring Bodhi down, but even he struggles because Patrick Swayze in this role is just so damn cool. Signature line: “Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst dreams to come true.”

4. "Jed," Red Dawn, 1984. Patrick Swayze plays the older brother of Charlie Sheen, and the leader of a band of American teenagers who fight to defend the United States from Soviet invaders. He's ruthless but loyal, and ready to give his life for family and country . . . plus, he knows how to fill a radiator when you don't have any water. I read somewhere that they're remaking this movie, which I can't see any point to at all.

5. "Jim Cunningham," Donnie Darko, 2001. Probably Swayze's most complex role, and hard to say much about without giving away the movie to people who haven't seen it. Cunningham is a local celebrity and motivational speaker who keeps some dark secrets, and Donnie Darko's conviction that he is "the f***ing Antichrist" drives much of the film's plot. It's a shame that Swayze didn't play more villains, because he's scary as hell here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Five Books I've Read this Month

For the next several weeks, Friday posts will be guest blogs: Five Random Questions with author pals who have books coming out that deserve your attention. At some point I may resume the Friday reading lists, but in the meantime, here are five books I've finished since the beginning of the month. (I took a few days off over Labor Day weekend, and spent most of that time reading.)

Victor Gischler, VAMPIRE A GO-GO. A vampire novel for people who don't like vampire novels -- the vampires here are just an excuse for a smart, funny spoof of academic adventure fiction. The ghost of a drunken alchemist narrates this story of Allen, a hapless graduate student who winds up in Prague, doing the bidding of vampires and werewolves and some seriously kickass Jesuits. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see this become required reading on certain Jesuit college campuses.

Gregg Hurwitz, TELL NO ONE. An exercise in nonstop action, from the time a SWAT team rousts Nick Horrigan out of bed until the last shocking twist. Nick's been on the run, more or less, since he was 17, when his stepfather, a Secret Service agent, was killed. The man Nick's stepfather protected is now a candidate for President, and whatever secret everyone is hiding must have something to do with him...

Kate Wilhelm, THE CLEWISTON TEST. Kate Wilhelm has written dozens of novels and short stories in the crime and science fiction genres, but I'd never read anything of hers before I picked up this medical thriller. Written in the mid-1970s, it feels almost self-conscious in its modernity and feminism; the title character is Dr. Anne Clewiston, a top-level researcher whose work is jeopardized by her own injury in a car accident and some disturbing test results in animals. This is very much a novel of ideas, as Anne and her colleagues (including her husband) struggle with conflicting motives and hide their deepest secrets from each other.

Chris Mooney, THE DEAD ROOM. Mooney's third Darby McCormick thriller -- currently available only in the U.K. -- is his best work since the Edgar-nominated REMEMBERING SARAH, an overwhelming story of betrayal and treachery at the very highest levels. McCormick, an expert crime scene technician, is called to the scene of a brutal murder: a young mother taped to a chair and nearly beheaded after being tortured. Her son is alive but terrified; Darby's interview with him touches off a chain of events that ends in unimaginable violence and the revelation of a generation's worth of crimes. Shocking, powerful, not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Katy Munger, LEGWORK. Katy Munger is another prolific author whose works I somehow missed; she's just launched a new series under the pen name Chaz McGee. This book, first published in 1997, is the first in her Casey Jones series. Casey is an unlicensed PI (and ex-con) who works for a morbidly obese PI/bail bondsman in Raleigh, NC, and is working as a bodyguard for gubernatorial candidate Mary Lee Masters. When a dead body shows up in Mary Lee's car, the candidate asks Casey to conduct her own investigation. Casey is a heroine to root for, and the setting made me homesick.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Five Random Songs

I am in the process of switching over from one laptop to another as my primary computer, but haven't yet figured out how to copy over my music library. I tried downloading it to a flash drive and transferring it, and managed to get the titles to show up in my iTunes library, but not the music itself. Right now I'm playing the music by wireless connection from the old laptop, which is unwieldy. If you can give me a quick lesson on how to complete the transfer, send me an email? Thanks!

1. "The Infinite Pet," Spoon. Spoon combines the best of the 1980s with the best of the new century; I love their sound, which includes a bell-like instrument I can't identify (marimba?).

2. "Factory," Bruce Springsteen. Incredibly cool: Bruce Springsteen being recognized at the Kennedy Center honors later this year. Absolutely terrifying: Bruce Springsteen on the cover of AARP magazine, in honor of his 60th birthday.

3. "The Last One Standing," Ladytron. Echoey, intense electronica; this CD (Witching Hour) was a gift, and is one of my favorite new acquisitions of the past year or two.

4. "More," Bobby Darin. We sang this song in my second-grade music class, which in retrospect strikes me as surreal. Our version didn't swing.

5. "Little Bird," Annie Lennox. This entire album (Diva) is an exercise in taking oneself too seriously, but why shouldn't Annie Lennox demand to be taken seriously? For that matter, why shouldn't any of us?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Five Random Questions with VICTOR GISCHLER

Victor Gischler is the author of six excellent thrillers that challenge genre boundaries and walk that fine line between hilarious and sick. His first novel, GUN MONKEYS, was nominated for an Edgar; his novel SHOTGUN OPERA was nominated for an Anthony Award. His latest, VAMPIRE A GO-GO, is my employee pick this month at The Mystery Bookstore and is one of the most entertaining things I've read all year. He is a scholar and a gentleman and a writer who deserves to be read.

1. What's the first horror movie you remember seeing?

Creature from the Black Lagoon. I'm sure I actually saw others first, but Creature is the one that stuck with me. When you're seven years old, it's a scary film. Now it's good for laughs, but I've seen scarier episodes of "House".

2. Have you ever been rollerblading? If not, what would it take to get you to try it?

I've never been rollerblading. If it were the only way to escape the creature from the black lagoon, I suppose I would try it, but really it just seems like an opportunity to fall down and hurt myself.

3. What is the strangest thing a student ever brought into your classroom?

Instead I'll tell you the most common thing. Various texting devices. At any given time these kids are texting to God knows who about God knows what. Often, I imagine they're simply texting each other about how boring I am and what much more fun thing they plan to do after class.

4. Do you have a favorite hangover remedy?

Well, I like Alka-Seltzer. That's if I have to get into shape for legit business. But if I'm at a Bouchercon and I need to crank up again for socializing, I think I'm starting to warm up to the brunch-time Bloody Mary.

5. If time and space were no object, what exotic animal would you like to keep as a pet?

I cannot think of anything that doesn't poop, so this is a hard question. I can see the possibilities of a cyborg Triceratops. Bigfoot, if I could train him to do simple tasks. Also Ava Gardner.

Thanks, Victor! If you're going to Bouchercon, you can see Victor on a panel called "More Noir than You Are" at 9:00 a.m. on Friday, October 16. Frankie Y. Bailey moderates a panel that includes Christa Faust, Victor Gischler, Charlie Newton and Jeri Westerson. Bring your own Bloody Mary.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Five Great Beatles Songs

Out of step with popular culture (as usual), I totally missed the build-up to yesterday's Beatles Day. But since today is one after 9-09, it can't be too late to offer my own list of five great Beatles songs. Feel free to mention your own in the comments. And check out this article for a hilarious re-evaluation of the Beatles, Generation Y-style.

1. "From Me to You," 1963. Depending on which source you trust, this was the Beatles' first or second #1 song in the UK. It's a true collaboration between John and Paul, and was originally credited as a "McCartney/Lennon" composition. It's a perfect distillation of that first rush of new infatuation, packed into 1:56 of jangling guitars and soaring falsettos. For an immediate mood lifter, it's better than any anti-depressant on the market.

2. "Julia," 1968. "Half of what I say is meaningless/But I say it just to reach you/Julia." A John Lennon composition from the White Album, supposedly written for Lennon's late mother. John sings this song alone, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. The melody floats somewhere in the air, not quite sad but longing.

3. "I've Just Seen a Face," 1965. This was the first track on the U.S. vinyl edition of Rubber Soul, which was the one I owned (and may still have, somewhere). It's a late track on the U.K. version of Help!, but I think it's the perfect song to start an album. The perfect song to start almost anything with, in fact, another song about the joy of a new crush, before you have any idea of how things are going to turn out. I love the internal rhymes: "I have never known the likes of this/I've been alone and I have missed/Things and kept out of sight . . ."

4. "For No One," 1966. From Revolver, the end of the story that begins with "I've Just Seen a Face" -- possibly the best song ever written about a relationship that's ending for no reason and every reason. Written as a present-tense narrative in the second person, which shouldn't work but does. The French horn counterpoint just kills me.

5. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," 1965. I turned on the TV yesterday afternoon and found the movie "Help!" showing on VH1 Classic; it's a silly film with a lot of great songs, and this is one of them. The flute soloist was session musician and composer John Scott, who is now Artistic Director of the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra.

And because it's my blog and a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I'll add

6. "A Day in the Life," 1967. A symphony in 5:06, and another true collaboration; John Lennon wrote the verses at the beginning and end, and Paul McCartney wrote the skiffle-beat middle section. The song features a 40-piece orchestra, but what I love most about it is the drum accompaniment. Ringo's not one of rock's greatest drummers, but he outdoes himself on this track. The final chord, played and held on three pianos, is an E-major.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Five Questions from Last Night's Pub Quiz

Tuesday is pub quiz night at The Liberal Cup in Hallowell, and last night I was the guest host. The post-Labor Day crowd was small, but we still had 12 teams playing, and I congratulate the two-man team of Bar None, who won.

The pub quiz is 30 questions; last night's winning team got 22 of them right. If you couldn't be there, try your luck with these five. In the pub, cell phones and Internet searches are not allowed . . . answers are in the comments section.

1. Charles Simic lives in New Hampshire and holds a national public office that pays $35,000 a year. What is his title?

2. The Barnevelder, Jersey Giant, Leghorn and Orpington are all breeds of what?

3. If I make you a cocktail with Scotch, Drambuie and lemon peel, what am I giving you?

4. How many schools comprise the Big Ten college sports conference?

5. The cassia tree is the source of what common spice?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Five Bad Ends

I was very small when I first heard the phrase "come to a bad end" -- used by my mother or grandmother about the boy next door, who was a little wild -- and I didn't understand it. I had just started to be able to read street signs, and had seen one that said DEAD END; my mind gave me the image of a kid riding his bike to a dead end that was full of brambles, like the blackberry bushes in the back yard.

Thinking about these five bad endings, the bike into the blackberry hedge might have been a better way to go.

1. Isadora Duncan, September 14, 1927. She was 50 years old, on her way to what she hoped would be a romantic assignation with a handsome mechanic who was driving the car she was riding in. She told her friends, "Je vais a l'amour," and tossed her fabulous silk scarf around her neck -- where it caught a spoke of a back wheel, and wrapped itself around the car's rear axle. The car was an open one; according to contemporary news accounts, she was hurled from the vehicle to the pavement. Her neck was broken, and rumors said she was almost decapitated. Gertrude Stein's comment was mean but funny: "Affectations can be dangerous."

2. R. Budd Dwyer, January 22, 1987. He was the treasurer of Pennsylvania, charged with taking bribes to award a lucrative state accounting contract. He refused a plea bargain that would have sent him to prison for five years, and went to trial, where he was convicted -- but because of a loophole in Pennsylvania law, he was able to keep serving as state treasurer until his sentencing. Facing a sentence of up to 55 years, he called a press conference at which he declared his innocence again, and said that he would not resign. He handed three envelopes to his aides, pulled out a .357 Magnum, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The envelopes were a letter to his wife, another to newly-inaugurated Governor Robert Casey, and an organ donor card. By dying in office, Dwyer ensured that his widow received the government's full survivor benefits. The video is easy to find online; I've never watched it, and won't.

3. Jon-Erik Hexum, October 18, 1984. On the set of the TV show "Cover Up," Hexum was clowning around with a prop gun, a .44 Magnum loaded with blanks. What he didn't know was that even blanks are packed with gunpowder, and explode; when he put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger, the gunpowder blasted the blank's paper wadding into his skull. He died six days later, after being declared brain dead. He was 26 years old.

4. Marie Prevost, January 21, 1937 (best guess). She was one of Hollywood's biggest stars in the 1920s, making 121 pictures over a career that spanned 20 years. By the early 1930s, however, she was overweight, broke, and alcoholic, and given to binge dieting whenever a small part became available. She died of a heart attack sometime around January 21, 1937, at the age of 38; her body wasn't found until January 23, when the neighbors complained about a dog that wouldn't stop barking. When police entered Miss Prevost's apartment, they found a hysterical dachshund and the dead body of Marie Prevost, marked with bites on her legs. It's kinder to believe that the dog was only trying to wake her up, and not trying to eat her. Dizzy has promised that that is what he would do, if he ever faces a similar situation.

5. Lupe Velez, December 13, 1944. The "Mexican Spitfire," a dancer and actress who was successful on Broadway and in Hollywood, was married twice and had multiple affairs before falling in love with Harald Maresch, an Austrian actor eight years her junior who already had a wife of his own. Pregnant and despairing, she wrote a dramatic suicide note and then took an overdose of sleeping pills. What happened next depends on whom you believe. Although her assistant swore she'd found Miss Velez lying peacefully on her bed, Hollywood legend has it that she was found collapsed by the toilet (or possibly even with her head in the toilet), trying to vomit up the pills she had taken. In any case, not how she wanted to be remembered.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Five Inconvenient Bible Verses

Friends and I were talking over the weekend about someone we know who insists that the Bible is literal truth. A 2006 Rasmussen survey found that 54% of American voters believe this; this percentage is highest among evangelical Christians, lower among Catholics, and lowest -- of course -- among us Godless liberals in the Northeast.

A literal interpretation of the Bible is not only lazy but presumptuous. If God is a being all-present, all-knowing and all-powerful -- as the Catholic catechism says and as I, in fact, believe -- how could God's vast revelation possibly be distilled into a single set of documents, filtered and edited and translated again and again over centuries?

What this survey says to me is that most Americans haven't read the Bible. If they had, they might find themselves wondering about the literal truth of these verses, among others. (All quotations taken from The Jerusalem Bible, (c) 1966, 1967 & 1968 by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd. and Doubleday & Company, Inc.)

1. Exodus 21:7. "If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not regain her liberty like male slaves. If she does not please her master who intended her for himself, he must let her be bought back: he has not the right to sell her to foreigners, thus treating her unfairly." So for future reference, fathers, you can rest easy knowing that only you have the right to sell your daughter. Go ahead and try it. The Bible says it's okay.

2. Leviticus 11:10-11. "But anything in sea or river that has not fins or scales, or all the small water-creatures and all the living things found there, must be held detestable. You must hold them detestable; you are not to eat their flesh and you must avoid their carcasses." Leviticus 11 is the basis for kosher food laws, and made a great deal of sense for a nomadic people living in a hot climate. Camels, hyraxes and pigs are unclean; locusts are quite all right. I often wonder why the fundamentalist Christians who insist on the literal truth of the Bible don't keep kosher, or follow the restrictions on cutting one's hair.

3. Deuteronomy 21:10-11. "When you go to war against your enemies and Yahweh your God delivers them into your power and you take prisoners, if you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and find her desirable, you may make her your wife." What's a small thing like the Geneva Convention against the literal word of God?

4. 1 Corinthians 8:12. "That is why, since food can be the occasion of my brother's downfall, I shall never eat meat again in case I am the cause of a brother's downfall." Paul is discussing the danger of eating meat that may have been sacrificed to an idol. I wonder what he'd have made of the Golden Arches. To be fair, some Christian sects (such as the Seventh Day Adventists) do espouse vegetarianism, but I don't think it's caught on among the Southern Baptists.

5. Luke 18:22. "And when Jesus heard this he said, 'There is still one thing you lack. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." This, as far as I'm concerned, is the tactical nuclear weapon against the self-righteous fundamentalist. Jesus says to his believers -- literally -- "Put your money where your mouth is." A few verses later he relents a little, because his followers point out that this is simply not possible for most people: "'In that case,' said the listeners, 'who can be saved?' 'Things that are impossible for men,' he replied, 'are possible for God.'"

And I guess that's my point here. The Bible is a book of marvels and great wisdom; in addition to some scary stuff about slaves and uncleanness and the role of women in a household, it is also full of powerful truths about the way we ought to treat each other in war and peace, responsible land use, childrearing, and a host of other issues. If you read the entire Bible, instead of cherry-picking the bits and pieces that support your own religion's point of view, you see a God we cannot hope to understand except, in Paul's words, "through a glass darkly." At best, the Bible is that glass, but the image is still pretty muddy.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Five Random Songs

This used to be a Wednesday feature, but two lists in one day feels excessive, and I don't want to spend a weekday post on this. I'd pretty well stopped posting on Saturdays, so this feels like a good compromise.

1. "Flashback Blues," John Prine. The first John Prine album (titled, appropriately enough, John Prine) was one of the first albums I ever bought for myself, and -- I'll admit this now -- I bought it because the boy I had a massive, obsessive crush on recommended it. Quite a lot of my music collection are relics of misguided romantic interests -- but as long as I still like the music, they were all good for something. In that context, this song feels especially appropriate.

2. "Poor Little Critter on the Road," The Knitters. An equal proportion of my music collection is gifts from friends, which this one is (a gift from my friend Tom, I'm pretty sure). The Knitters are a reincarnation of the punk band X as a country-folk band, and they're great.

3. "This Charming Man," The Smiths. I bought this one for myself, and am not ashamed. Morrissey spoke directly to my late-adolescent self, and still speaks to the ghost of her in my soul. "He knows so much about these things . . ."

4. "End of the Road," Eddie Vedder. Another gift, this one from my friend Gary. it's part of the soundtrack to Into the Wild, a movie I still haven't seen (although I loved the book). I was not a big Pearl Jam fan, but Eddie Vedder's voice is beautiful, and this album is terrific.

5. "Looking for a Way Out," Uncle Tupelo. My brother Ed likes this second album (Still Feel Gone) better than the first one (No Depression); I disagree, but it's still great stuff. Ed and I drove across the country together one summer -- was it '91? '92? -- and a cassette of this album was part of our personal soundtrack.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Five Books I Read in August

I read more than five books (not to mention several scripts) in August, but these were the best:

1. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, THE STRAIN. First in a projected trilogy, this book sets the stage with a nice mix of vampire tradition (the box of earth, the human minion) and modern ultra-realism. Nothing romantic or glamorous about these vampires: they're carriers of an ancient virus that, once unleashed, threatens the entire human race. I found myself setting this book down at times because it made me too edgy, not in a "whee, thrill ride" way but in a grim, tense way that had me wondering where I keep my knives.

2. Spencer Quinn, THEREBY HANGS A TAIL. This book won't be out until early next year; it's the sequel to the enchanting DOG ON IT, which introduced canine detective Chet and his partner, human PI Bernie Little. This time out, Chet and Bernie search for a champion show dog and her mistress, who have been kidnapped. The story takes a dark turn and has moments of real suspense, but once again Chet is the smartest and most lovable dog in crime fiction.

3. Shane Dunphy, WEDNESDAY'S CHILD. I ordered this book on the recommendation of a friend the author and I have in common -- it has not yet been published in the US. I picked it up from the post office, opened the book to the first page, started reading, and could not stop until the book was finished. It's been a long time since I was so completely swept into the world of a book, and this one is nonfiction, a narrative of three cases in Dunphy's early career as a child protection officer in Ireland. Horrifying, heartbreaking, inspiring in equal measure.

4. Rex Stout, SOME BURIED CAESAR. This is the "one book" being read for this year's Bouchercon, and happened to be one I hadn't read before. Nero Wolfe leaves the comfort of his New York apartment to show his orchids at an agricultural exhibition, and is drawn into a feud over a prize bull that ends in murder. This is also the book that introduces Lily Rowan, Archie Goodwin's love interest. Smart, funny, and a good choice -- a rare book with something to offer fans of every crime subgenre.

5. Theresa Schwegel, LAST KNOWN ADDRESS. Chicago sex crimes detective Sloane Pearson hunts a sexual predator in another fine cop story from Theresa Schwegel (who is a friend and has been a client). I admire the way Theresa keeps pushing herself as an author, even when it's not entirely successful. This book uses shifting points of view and present-tense narration to keep the reader off-balance and on edge -- which it does, but also kept me from engaging as completely with Sloane as I wanted to. The self-destructive protagonist is a convention of the genre, but Sloane's self-destructive tendencies are very different from the average; she's a fascinating character, and one I'd like to see in another book.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Five Non-Kennedys Who Died in August

Death may be the great equalizer, but not in the world of mass media. It always puzzles me (and often dismays me) to see which deaths get noticed and which don't, and end-of-the-year obituary roundups invariably include a few that that make me say, "I didn't know so-and-so had died!"

So here are five notable people who left us in August, whose passings deserve more attention:

1. Kenneth Bacon, August 15, of melanoma. Journalist, spokesman, philanthropist. Ken spent almost 30 years as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, which is how I met him; he covered banking during the shift to nationwide branching. One of the kindest men I ever met in Washington, he took pity on a baby flak (me) and invited me to lunch one day early in my career. It was typical behavior, I learned; I was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of young people in Washington with reason to thank Ken Bacon for helping us feel as if we belonged. He went on to become the spokesman for the Defense Department and later to run Refugees International, which will hold a memorial service for him on September 9. I knew him only in a professional capacity, but admired him more than I can say, and feel a personal loss at his passing.

2. Dominick Dunne, August 26, of bladder cancer. My guess is that Dominick Dunne would have been amused that Ted Kennedy's death left his own virtually unreported; for the second half of his life, at least, Dunne was always the man with the notebook rather than the man being reported on. Anyone who doubts the possibility of second acts need only look at Dominick Dunne's hard-won redemption, at the way he reinvented his life at the age of 54.

3. Rose Friedman, August 18, of heart failure. The widow of Milton Friedman, she was a brilliant economist in her own right, and co-wrote the two essential texts Free to Choose and The Tyranny of the Status Quo. Free to Choose was the bible of Reaganomics, for better or worse. I read it in a high school economics class, and seeing the name "Rose Friedman" made me wonder whether economics might be a suitable career for me, too. (I later came to my senses, or at least discovered that you can't be an economist without basic mathematical abilities.) She and Milton Friedman were married for 68 years, and liked each other so well at the end of their lives that they co-wrote a memoir called Two Lucky People. A life to envy.

4. Elmer Kelton, August 22, of natural causes. I am tired of hearing crime fiction and romance authors talk about how their genres get ghettoized; if you're talking about an under-respected genre, Exhibit A is the Western. In 1995, the Western Writers of America voted Elmer Kelton the greatest Western writer of all time, for a body of work that included more than 60 books (most written after working hours, because he worked full-time as a reporter). I'm embarrassed to admit that I've only read one -- The Day the Cowboys Quit -- and now need to go back to read more. It shouldn't have taken his death to bring him to my attention.

5. Sheila Lukins, August 30, of brain cancer. If Julia Child taught my mother's generation to cook, Sheila Lukins taught me. The Silver Palate Cookbook is one I still use all the time; if you've ever been to one of my dinner parties (and sadly, it's been years since I gave one), you've eaten a recipe Sheila Lukins created. Lukins was the culinary force behind the Silver Palate phenomenon, and made good, simple, homemade food accessible to a generation of career-obsessed young women. I might even make her bruschetta recipe this weekend.

Feel free to add more names to this list in the comments section.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Five Movie Trailers I Saw Yesterday

We interrupt this blog for a brief news announcement: my section of Water Street is blocked by fire engines, police and news trucks, because someone set the old Gardiner Paperboard mill on fire last night. It's a pretty major fire; flakes of ash as large as my hand have fallen on my front deck, everything smells like smoke, and I have no water pressure to speak of. I'm perfectly safe -- the mill is across the street and down the hill from me, with woods and a car dealership between us -- but it's just as well that both Dizzy and I are going away tomorrow for a couple of days. (The blog, however, will continue as usual.)

Monday was a long, busy day, but one that ended with the feeling (unusual for me) that I had done a good day's work, and I was happy with what I'd produced. So yesterday, after my usual Tuesday morning tutoring appointment, I gave myself a couple of hours off to use a free movie ticket that had been burning a hole in my pocket. I saw Julie & Julia, a charming movie that would have been twice as charming if it had been just Julia, and reinforced my belief that we are all powerless against Meryl Streep, no matter how much we'd like to resist.

Anyway, previews -- as I think I've mentioned before -- are always a highlight of my moviegoing experience, and yesterday Regal Cinemas obliged me with five, just so I could blog about them. Coming soon to a theater near me:

1. The Twilight Saga: New Moon, opening November 20. The second in the Twilight series, based on the book of the same name. A beautiful and fragile young woman has an intense romantic relationship with a tall, moody vampire, who sacrifices their love in order to protect her from vampire predators -- but in doing so leaves her vulnerable to the very monsters he wants to protect her from. Ho-hum . . . haven't read the books, didn't see the first movie, won't see this one. I am aware that this series has a cult following among women in my age group; I don't know what to say about that, except to refer them to my friend Sarah's blog.

2. It's Complicated, opening Christmas Day. The new film by Nancy Meyers, in which Meryl Streep plays a divorced woman who is having an affair with her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) while being courted by a charming architect (Steve Martin). I have mixed feelings about being pandered to so blatantly, but I will not be able to stay away. Alec Baldwin! Steve Martin! How does Nancy Meyers know my secret daydreams? (Although apparently my thing for James Gandolfini remains my secret . . . oh, whoops.)

3. Amelia, opening October 23. Hilary Swank plays Amelia Earhart in a bio-pic directed by Mira Nair, with Richard Gere as Earhart's husband, publisher/promoter George P. Putnam. The cinematography looks gorgeous and Swank seems a good choice to play Amelia, but . . . meh. I'll probably wait for the video.

4. The Lovely Bones, opening December 11. Based on Alice Sebold's novel, directed by Peter Jackson. I read an advance copy of The Lovely Bones before it became a national phenomenon -- read it in a single sitting, in fact, one slow afternoon at The Mystery Bookstore, sobbing so hard it was lucky a customer didn't walk in. It was impossible for me to imagine how they could turn the book into a movie, given that the book is narrated by a ghost, but the preview shows a fascinating mix of live action and the kind of animation Jackson (and his wife/collaborator/screenwriter, Fran Walsh) used in Heavenly Creatures. Before seeing the trailer, I'd have said there was no way I'd see this movie, and now I feel I must. Good job, trailer makers!

5. 2012, opening November 13. Now, THIS is a movie: the end of the world, brought to you by Roland Emmerich and featuring John Cusack and some cute kids. Oliver Platt is in this movie as well, and I will watch Oliver Platt in anything . . . as if I weren't already going to see this. Admit it, you will too.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Five Things I Did Last Month (instead of blogging)

Welcome back, everybody! I'm still tinkering with the template, so changes may continue for the next week or two. (I really need to take an HTML class...) If you'd like me to link to your blog or website while I'm still making these changes, send me an email.

Here it is the beginning of September, and many of the projects I planned for August remain undone. The month wasn't completely unproductive, though, so I'll ease into the new blog year with a list that's all about me. Going forward, I'm going to try very hard to make these lists NOT all about me; if that would be boring for me -- and it would -- it would be even more boring for you.

1. Got my car fixed. Several times. First the back brakes, then the front brakes. Also new brake fluid. And new windshield wipers, while I was at it. As longtime readers of this blog know, I drive a 2000 VW Beetle that is starting to show signs of age, not to mention hard and thankless use. Barring a lottery win, this is my car for the foreseeable future. The hundreds of dollars I spent last month were still less than a car payment.

2. Saw a lot of local theater. August is the height of Maine's summer repertory season, and I saw four plays in one week at the Theater at Monmouth (thanks to the kindness of my friend Frank and TAM's great rush-ticket deal). TAM's production of Twelfth Night was the most entertaining version I've ever seen, and their take on Hamlet was fascinating. I also saw Treasure Island at Lakewood Theater (the nation's oldest summer theater), and the magic of pirates is as strong as ever -- this show runs through the end of the week, and if you live in the area and have kids, you should take them. My own theater group, Gaslight, staged a hilarious and successful run of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress by Alan Ball, for which I ran the box office and did a lot of baking.

3. Got a really good part in a play. In town one weekend when I didn't expect to be, I drove up to Waterville to try out for Aqua City Actors Theatre's production of Doubt by John Patrick Shanley -- and got the part of Sister Aloysius, the older nun. No, I haven't seen the movie, and now I can't, until after our show closes. I am usually lower-key about this stuff, but I'll put it out there right now: this show means a lot to me. A lot. I think and hope it's going to be terrific. It runs at the Waterville Opera House Studio Theater on November 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, and 22. I would like you all to come. Consider this a personal invitation, and plan to help me celebrate my birthday on the 20th.

4. Went to Boston for the hometown launch of VANISHED by Joseph Finder. If you've had the TV on at all in the past month, you've probably seen Joe talking about the U.S. government's use and planned use of private contractors to carry out potentially illegal missions against foreign terrorists. It's something Joe might have made up, but it's real; he writes about it here and here. I don't necessarily agree with Joe's opinions on some of this stuff, but applaud him for bringing these issues into the light of day, and certainly the timing couldn't have been better for VANISHED. The launch was a great time, and let me hang out with several friends I don't see enough of. (Oh, and the book is good, too.)

5. Caught up -- some -- on my "to be read" pile. That'll be Friday's post, but I did manage to get through several books that had been languishing on the pile, as well as about half a dozen scripts under consideration for Gaslight's 2010 season. (That season will be announced in November, in the program for our fall show, Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire.)

What did you do with your August?