Thursday, December 31, 2009

Five Best Mysteries I Read This Year

Between my work for The Mystery Bookstore and a couple of other clients, mysteries make up the bulk of my reading for work as well as pleasure. These are the five best I read this year, alphabetical by author. Leave your own recommendations in the comments section!

1. Megan Abbott, BURY ME DEEP. A moody, almost hallucinatory novel about Marion Seeley, a young woman left on her own in 1920s Arizona, where she works for a residential clinic and falls into some dangerous company. Inevitably, she falls in love with the wrong man, and her world spirals into doom; as in all great noir novels, breaking the rules leads to chaos, and everyone suffers the consequences.

2. Alan Bradley, THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE. A note-perfect first novel that introduces 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who encounters a dead body and is prepared to do almost anything to prove that her father wasn't responsible. Set in the early 1950s, the book is rooted in an even earlier time, reminiscent of the drawing-room mysteries of the 1920s and '30s. Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.

3. Stuart Neville, THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST. Not only the best debut novel I read this year, but the best crime novel I read this year. Published in the UK as TWELVE, this is the story of former IRA assassin Gerry Fegan, whose desperate quest for redemption means that more people have to die.

4. Carol O'Connell, BONE BY BONE. I love a good gothic novel, and this one is terrific. This standalone by the author of the Kathy Mallory series is the story of Oren Hobbs, a veteran Army investigator who returns to his small northern California hometown to confront an unsolved mystery: the disappearance of his 15-year-old brother, 20 years earlier.

5. Spencer Quinn, DOG ON IT. Yes, it's a private detective novel narrated by a dog. Chet is a large, mixed-breed dog who flunked out of police dog training for reasons he can't quite remember. Now he works with Bernie Little, a down-on-his-luck private investigator in a southwestern city that's probably Phoenix (dog geography is vague and scent-oriented). Chet and Bernie investigate the disappearance of a teenaged girl who may be a pawn in a custody battle, or something even more sinister. I learned things about Dizzy from this book.

Five Best Non-Mysteries I Read This Year

Happy New Year's Eve. Dizzy and I are back in Gardiner, and snowed in by a storm that's supposed to last until Sunday night. It's not ideal, but we have plenty of food, cable, lots of books, Internet access, three pounds of espresso beans and half a bottle of bourbon, so we're fine. More comfortable than anybody in Times Square, that's for sure.

And since I didn't post yesterday, here's the first of two entries I'll post this evening about the best books I read this year — mysteries and non-mysteries. Non-mysteries first, alphabetically by author:

1. John Connolly, THE GATES. The best book I read this year, a joyful romp the author describes as "an adult book for children." Samuel Johnson and his faithful dachshund, Boswell, must save the world from the powers of darkness after some nasty neighbors inadvertently open the gates to Hell.

2. Mindy Friddle, SECRET KEEPERS. An enchanting book, in the tradition of Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler, about a South Carolina family that unearths its secrets to find themselves at last. Emma Hanley, widowed at 72, hires Jake Cary to clean up her lawn, and surprises bloom all over Palmetto, SC, as Emma, her unhappy daughter Dora, and Dora's teenaged son Kyle discover what they really need.

3. Tod Goldberg, OTHER RESORT CITIES. A collection of short stories about people who, in one way or another, are looking for a place to call home in cities that cater to transients. Some are funny ("Mitzvah," about a rabbi with a past, and "Rainmaker," about a professor with a dangerous second career) and some are sad ("Walls," which made me sob, and "Palm Springs" and "The Models," in which parents fail their children in very different ways), but all are sharply observed and deeply compassionate.

4. Lev Grossman, THE MAGICIANS. The friend who recommended this to me described it as "Harry Potter meets The Secret History," which sums it up pretty well, although the book owes just as much to the Narnia stories. Quentin Coldwater and his friends have magic powers, but must still deal with the basic pain of growing up. Late in the book, one character says to another: "Stop looking for the next secret door that is going to lead you to your real life. Stop waiting. This is it: there’s nothing else. It’s here, and you’d better decide to enjoy it or you’re going to be miserable wherever you go, for the rest of your life, forever."

5. Luis Alberto Urrea, INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH. Nayeli, a teenaged girl in a small Sinaloan village, enlists her friends for a quest to the United States, to bring back seven strong men to defend the village from drug lords. One of these seven men, she hopes, will be her own father, who left the village years ago to find work in the north. A strong, simple story with a terrific protagonist, and I only wish the book had been about 30 pages longer.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Five Best Live Performances I Saw this Year

It probably means something that I didn't see many movies in the theater this year, but I did see (and participate in) quite a few live performances. One of the things I love most about Maine is what a terrific environment it is for the arts in all forms; almost everyone I know in Maine is active in some form of the arts, whether it's painting or music or theater or all of the above. Hardly anyone I know makes any money at it, it's just something we all need to do to feel like whole people. People in big cities forget about this sometimes.

Anyway, I directed one show this year (Bell, Book and Candle at Gaslight Theater), produced another (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at Gaslight), and performed in a third (Doubt, at Aqua City Actors Theatre), so all of those shows are automatically disqualified from this list. But in chronological order, these were the best shows I saw this year. Leave your own favorites in the comments section.

1. "Hamlet" at The Theater at Monmouth, Monmouth, ME, August. Play by William Shakespeare, directed by Jeri Pitcher. Part of the genius of "Hamlet" is that every production is completely different, depending on the actor who plays Hamlet. Directors can do what they want to with the setting — I've seen "Hamlets" set in the present day, in medieval times, in Elizabethan times, etc. — but the central question of the play is "What is Hamlet so worked up about?" and every lead actor brings his own answer. In Monmouth's production, babyfaced Josh Scharback played a Hamlet who had been over-indulged as a child, and was now a petulant adult dealing with real problems for the first time in his life. It worked very well. The production's Ophelia (Emily Rast) was also especially good, desperate and earnest. Poor Ophelia.

2. "How I Learned to Drive," Aqua City Actors Theatre, Waterville, ME, September. Play by Paula Vogel, directed by Evan Sposato. ACAT chooses plays that offer actors the chance to play fantastic roles, and this play delivered. It's a spare memory play that is both brutal and tender, about the inappropriate relationship between the main character, "Li'l Bit," and her uncle Peck. Ashley St. Pierre and Andrew Smith were fearless in the roles, and everyone who saw this show walked out shaken.

3. "Longfellow's Shorts: John Connolly," an Affiliate Artists Event at the Portland Stage, Portland, ME, October. A readers' theater production of the first half of The Gates by John Connolly, followed by actors' readings of several pieces that have influenced the author's career: the opening of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, a poem by ee cummings, a short story by M.R. James. Readers' theater is magical when it's done well, and this was as good an example as I've ever seen. Great fun, and made me think the book should be adapted for the purpose.

4. "Rabbit Hole" at Gaslight Theater, Hallowell, ME, November. Play by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Lee Kerr. Without question, this show was a hard sell. People would ask me what it was about; I'd say, "It's about a couple trying to cope with the death of their five-year-old boy," and watch them step back. But it's not a play that leaves you in despair; in fact, it's a play about how grief is normal, and how life requires us to accept sorrow as well as joy. I cannot remember seeing better performances on the Gaslight stage, especially from Laura Graham as Becca, Bart Shattuck as Howie, and Margaret Matheson as Nat.

5. The Pixies at DAR Constitution Hall, Washington, DC, November. I've already written about this, but seriously: it goes on my lifetime list of top five rock concerts. It reminded me that sometimes getting older does mean getting better, and that the greatest wealth we have as we age are the friends and colleagues we've been able to hang on to for decades. The visuals were cool without being distracting, the sound was perfect, and the band was tighter than a fat lady in coach. Plus, Doolittle is still a great album, 20 years on.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Five Movies I Saw in the Theater This Year and Loved

As 2009 limps to a close, this whole week will be "best of" lists, and I hope you'll leave your own favorites in the comments section.

I didn't see nearly as many movies in the theater this year as I usually do, and missed several big ones. Among others, I still haven't seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, Star Trek, or Where the Wild Things Are. I plan to do some serious catching up on year-end movies this weekend.

But of the films I did see in the theater, these were the best. In alphabetical order:

1. The Brothers Bloom. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo are career con artists, aided and abetted by the mysterious and deadly Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). Brody, tired of the lifestyle, gets Ruffalo to agree to let him quit after one last job — an elaborate swindle of a lonely, eccentric heiress (Rachel Weisz). Of course Brody's character falls in love with the heiress, but that is only the first twist in this adorable, surprising, ultimately moving adventure. An instant classic, and a movie I'd like to own.

2. Drag Me to Hell. Written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi, directed by Sam Raimi. The kind of straightforward horror film no one's making any more, but so entertaining that I hope it starts a trend. Junior bank officer Alison Lohman denies an old gypsy woman's desperate plea for more time to pay her mortgage, and becomes the target of a deadly curse. Lohman's character seeks help from a slick "spiritual advisor" (Dileep Rao, a regular at the pub trivia night I used to frequent in Santa Monica) who arranges a seance designed to trap and banish the demon haunting her. As always in these movies, things don't go as planned.

3. Every Little Step. Directed by Adam del Deo and James D. Stern. A short (96 minutes), powerful documentary history of "A Chorus Line," from the show's genesis in dozens of hours of tapes of Broadway performers' life stories to its triumphant 2006 Broadway revival. Must-viewing for anyone interested in musical theater, even if you're not especially fond of this show.

4. Up. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy; screenplay by Peterson and Docter; directed by Pete Docter, co-directed by Bob Peterson. I saw it in 3-D, which was both subtle and spectacular. I sobbed at the opening sequence, a perfect 20-minute love story that is also a cautionary tale about not waiting too long to follow your dreams. And I laughed out loud at Dug, the talking dog, and the adventures of 78-year-old Carl and eight-year-old Russell in the jungles of South America. This is another movie I may need to buy.

5. Up in the Air. Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner from the novel by Walter Kirn; directed by Jason Reitman. In the future, if anyone wants to know what life in the United States was like in 2009, the lesson can start with this movie. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who works for a consulting firm that handles employee layoffs for large corporations. He spends more than 320 days a year in the air, and he likes it that way: his first loyalty is not to family or friends but to the American Airlines frequent flyer program. When his company decides to try laying people off by teleconference, though, his entire lifestyle is threatened; to prove the value of what he does, he takes the young woman who developed the teleconferencing plan (Anna Kendrick) on the road with him. Along the way he meets the beautiful Alex (Vera Farmiga), who lives a similar life and might be the match he didn't realize he was looking for. Nothing about this movie is obvious or predictable. It twists and turns and is ultimately true to itself and its characters, and I'd even like to see it again in the theater.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Season's Greetings

Very glad to be with family, far from the situation described in this song. Nevertheless, this is one of my favorites. The tune is based on a traditional one, best known as "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms," and the last verse just kills me:
It's Christmas in prison,
There'll be music tonight;
I'll probably get homesick.
I love you. Good night.

To friends who are far from home today, love and best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a happier new year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Special Guest Blog: Five More Classic Christmas Rock Songs, by John T. Schramm

Dizzy and I are hitting the road for points south this morning, so fellow blogger John T. Schramm has volunteered to step in with a seasonal guest post. Thanks, John!

It's too difficult to narrow it down to five, or even to narrow it down to ten, but here are five more Christmas Classics. I don't particularly like Christmas music, but in order not to be a scrooge, I made a CD containing 21 Christmas songs that I like. I gave it out as a stocking stuffer gift, and it was popular, so I am working on Volume 2. Three of Clair's five made it on to that CD. One of Aaron Neville's renditions ought to make Volume 2.

1. "Silent Night," Stevie Nicks. I'm not a Stevie Nicks fan. Some of her songs, with and without Fleetwood Mac, are okay. Others, not so good. But her version of "Silent Night" makes my spine tingle and writhe.

2. "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24), Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Enough said.

3. "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," Thurl Ravenscroft. Maybe rock. Maybe not. But it has to be there. A true classic.

4. "The Little Drummer Boy," Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band. I used to wonder if anyone would create a decent rock version of this song, and a few artists did it. This version is the best of the bunch.

5. "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," John Lennon & Yoko Ono. On a personal level, hearing this song always takes me back to 1980, but all these years later, it still resonates with the true spirit of Christmas — forgiveness, love, and hope.

6. "Christmas Canon," Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I couldn't decide which TSO song I should choose. "Sarajevo" is more rockish, but "Canon" makes my soul vibrate and nearly brings me to tears every time I hear it.

Leave your own holiday favorites in the comments section. Merry Christmas, and everybody travel safely!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Five Ingredients in My Artificial Sweetener

I'm a white woman who grew up in the South. The pink packet of artificial sweetener, best-known under the brand name Sweet'n Low but also available in generic forms, has been an essential part of my food landscape for more than 30 years. I have never paid much attention to its contents, other than offhand cracks about the carcinogenic properties of saccharin.

But I had nothing handy to read while I waited for the coffee machine this morning, so I looked at the small print on my box of Hannaford brand Granulated Sugar Substitute, and decided to find out exactly what I've been consuming all this time.

1. Dextrose (with Maltodextrin). Dextrose first: it's a simple sugar, more commonly known as glucose. It is the main sugar manufactured by the body, and the major source of energy for living cells. So let's be clear: the first ingredient in this packet of sugar substitute is, in fact, sugar.

2. Maltodextrin (that's with the Dextrose, not by itself). A sweet polysaccharide derived from starch, which is added to sugars to provide bulk without calories; one gram of maltodextrin has about four calories. A white powder that can be sweet or not sweet, it is used most commonly as a bulking agent.

3. Calcium Saccharin. The oldest commercial artificial sweetener, discovered by benefactors to humanity at Johns Hopkins University in 1879. According to the story, it was an accident; a researcher spilled some of the chemical he was working with, and licked it off his hand that evening. (A bad idea if you're working with arsenic or radium, but never mind.) Saccharin is 300 times sweeter than sugar, and the calcium makes it highly soluble. The 36 mg of calcium saccharin in each pink packet equal the sweetness of two teaspoons of sugar. If you're worried about the cancer-causing properties of saccharin, read this (and then come back and explain it to me). The main piece of information I took from that study: "the only organ affected by sodium saccharin is the urinary bladder and only in rats exposed for periods including pre- and/or postnatal periods and/or when exposure was begun by 30 days of age." So don't consume saccharin when you're pregnant, immediately post-partum, or nursing, and don't give it to babies.

4. Cream of Tartar. The common name for potassium hydrogen tartrate, an acid salt with many uses in cooking. On its own it feels slippery, almost greasy, and I assume they use it in artificial sweetener to make it flow smoothly. The base of cream of tartar is tartaric acid, which is partially neutralized by potassium hydroxide. The only source of tartaric acid is grapes; cream of tartar is a natural byproduct of wine-making. (A future blog post: five benefits of wine-making to humanity. And then five benefits of beer-brewing to humanity. But I digress.)

5. Calcium silicate. The box says "an anti-caking agent;" it is basically limestone, or diatomaceous earth. It is highly absorbent and is used, among other ways, as an antacid, a fire retardant, and a sealant. It's not poisonous, but it has no nutritional value, either.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Five Things I'd Ask Santa for if I Had the Nerve

The truth is that I haven't been especially good this year. I don't think I've been especially bad — nowhere near as bad as a few years in the '80s, about which the less said the better — but not deserving of anything much from Santa.

I do often ask Santa for one thing I really want, and a startling amount of the time, Santa comes through in unexpected ways. This year, though, there's nothing I long for with my whole heart — just a few things I'd like to have, if I won the lottery or Santa had extra room on the sled.

1. A more practical car. My faithful Blueberrymobile has been with me for 10 years now, through crashes and breakdowns and well over 100,000 miles. I'd miss it forever, but it has never been a practical car for Maine, and I worry that it is coming to the end of its useful life. At the moment my mechanic and I suspect it has a slow leak in the radiator, which may be the last straw — except that I can't possibly afford to buy a new car. Something, says Mr. Micawber, is bound to turn up.

2. Decent health insurance I can afford. Every self-employed person I know would like this for Christmas. And hey, if Santa's feeling extra generous, what about dental?

3. A real sofa. I have an old loveseat, big enough only for Dizzy and me. It doesn't convert to a bed. It was never that attractive to begin with, and it's starting to get very shabby. I need to buy a slipcover, or just replace it altogether. The problem is, I'm not sure what will fit into my apartment.

4. A DVR. I know I'm the last person in America without one. I could and should upgrade my cable after the first of the year. In the meantime, though, I'm missing tonight's "Dr. Who" special on BBC America. Could someone I'm going to see over the holidays please record it for me?

5. The cost of next year's Bouchercon. It's in San Francisco in October: the most expensive city in the United States, at the most expensive time of year to visit. I've said I'll go, I've even volunteered to put something together for the program, but I am going to have to sell someone else's small child to do it. Or maybe an elf. Santa?

What are you asking Santa for this year? Leave your wishes in the comments section.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Five Random Questions with CHRIS MOONEY

Chris Mooney is the author of six crime novels, including the Edgar-nominated REMEMBERING SARAH. His most recent book, THE DEAD ROOM, is the third to feature crime scene investigator Darby McCormick, and is available from UK booksellers.

1. Does Santa come to your house? If so, what are you asking for this year?
Santa does, in fact, come to our house. Surprisingly, I'm not asking for anything this year. There really isn't anything I want at the moment - which is a good thing, so I'll be surprised at whatever I find underneath the tree.

2. What sports did you play in high school? Do you still play any of them?
I'm six foot five, so you can guess what sport I played. That's right, I was a horse jockey. When that failed, I went to play basketball. I played it right until my last year of high school and I haven't picked up a basketball since. I have an urge to join a league every now and then, but I'd probably drop dead of a heart attack.

3. What TV game show would you be most likely to win money on?
Probably "The Newlywed Game." Being on a game show scares the shit out of me. I'd freeze up on "Jeopardy" or any of those games that require intellect.

4. Your latest books have been published only in the UK. Does writing for the UK market change what you write? Do you feel obligated to explain more, or write "petrol" instead of "gas"?
The UK doesn't change anything for me. I write the book and the copy editor will go through it and point out some things that don't translate. For example, I had Darby McCormick describe a doctor as "Doogie Howser." It was a funny line, but the copy editor pointed out nobody in the UK knows who Doogie Howser is, so we cut the line. That happens every now and then.

5. Somebody wants to adapt your books for TV. Who do you want to play Darby McCormick?
Any actress other than Lindsey Lohan, J-Lo, Jessica Simpson, or any actors found on "90210." In other words, someone with talent. An actress I really like is Amy Ryan. She played the mother of the missing girl in Gone, Baby, Gone. She's been in a ton of movies, played in "The Office," and I think she's one of the best actresses on the planet. I don't necessarily think of her when I think of Darby McCormick, but Amy Ryan is absolutely mesmerizing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Five Principal Layers of the Atmosphere

My team came in second in last night's pub quiz at the Liberal Cup. We often come in second, and in fact, coming in second is a recurring theme of my life. But we did that well only because one of my teammates remembered the name of the atmospheric layer closest to the earth.

This is something I learned in Mrs. White's fifth grade science class, and have never needed to know since. After last night's quiz, though, I looked it all up again — and since the atmosphere turns out to have five principal layers, I'm sharing this regained knowledge with you.

1. Troposphere. This was the answer Joe knew, which I did not remember; it is the layer of the atmosphere that starts at the surface of the earth, and extends to about four-and-a-half miles up, at the poles, or ten miles up at the Equator. The troposphere is the densest part of the Earth's atmosphere; since it holds warmth from the planet's surface, it gets colder as altitude increases.

2. Stratosphere. Bruce Springsteen knows: "I spent month-long vacations in the stratosphere/where you know it's really hard to hold your breath." Where the troposphere ends — about 4.3 miles from sea level — humans don't have enough oxygen to live, which is why mountaineers call this the death zone. (The summit of Mt. Everest, at 29,029 feet above sea level, is approximately 5.5 miles high.) The end of the troposphere is called the tropopause, and the stratosphere extends from the tropopause to approximately 32 miles above the Earth's surface. In the stratosphere, temperature increases with altitude, and pressure is only 1/1000th of that at sea level.

3. Mesosphere. The mesosphere starts at the stratopause and goes up to between 50 and 53 miles above the Earth's surface. In the mesosphere, the atmosphere starts cooling down again, and the outer edge of the mesosphere is the coldest place in the atmosphere, with an average temperature of -148F. This level is where most meteors burn up.

4. Thermosphere. As its name suggests, things get hot again in the thermosphere, reaching temperatures of up to 2,730F. This is where the International Space Station orbits. The thermosphere extends from the mesopause (the upper limit of the mesosphere) to as far as 500 miles above the Earth's surface, depending on solar activity. The International Space Station stays between 200 and 240 miles above the Earth.

5. Exosphere. The outer limits of the Earth's atmosphere start at the edge of the thermosphere, which is called not the thermopause (psych!) but the exobase. At lower levels, the atmosphere behaves like a liquid, but in the exosphere, particles — mainly hydrogen and helium — are so far apart that they seldom collide, and shoot out on ballistic trajectories. The exosphere is the dividing line between our atmosphere and the vacuum of space.

Within these five principal layers are other layers, including the ozone layer, which is part of the stratosphere, and the ionosphere, which straddles the thermosphere and the exosphere and affects radio waves. But this is more science than I've done in a very long time, so we'll end today's lesson here, with me wondering how anything survives in conditions of 2,730F — or how anyone even measures that.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Five Book Recommendations For My Cousin Moira

My cousin Moira just asked, on Facebook, for recommendations for "a good book. Maybe something historical, fiction, or non-fiction that reads like a great novel. Long." Since I hadn't posted yet today, I'm sharing those recommendations here.

These five novels are all at least 400 pages long, and all took me completely out of my real life and into their fictional worlds. It is an arbitrary list, and a short one, and on any given day, I could come up with five completely different books. Feel free to leave your own in the comments section.

Tana French, THE LIKENESS. 480 pages. Dublin detective Cassie Maddox investigates the murder of a college student who, mysteriously, looked just like her. Despite her misgivings, she agrees to pose as the murder victim, even moving into the house the victim shared with four other students. As Cassie's investigation continues, she discovers that the victim herself was not who she pretended to be, and that Cassie's understanding of her own identity may be shaky. Haunted, haunting, mesmerizing.

Laura Lippman, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. 400 pages. I've recommended this book on this blog at least three times already, but it's been a year and a half since I mentioned it, and I don't think Moira's read it. After a car accident on the Baltimore Beltway, the woman responsible identifies herself as "one of the Bethany girls," who had disappeared from a shopping center 30 years earlier. The secrets of that disappearance, and its long-reaching repercussions, unfold over the course of the book.

George Pelecanos, HARD REVOLUTION. 400 pages. An epic story of the 1968 riots in Washington, DC, from the perspective of young African-American police officer Derek Strange. It's a book about loyalties — how you decide what's yours, and how you decide to defend it.

Richard Russo, EMPIRE FALLS. 496 pages. HBO's miniseries was pretty faithful to the book, but could not capture its breadth or depth. EMPIRE FALLS is the story of two families in my part of Maine — one working-class, one rich — and how their destinies are irrevocably intertwined. Miles Roby, oldest son of the working-class family, runs the Empire Grill for the Whitings, the wealthy family, but their connections run much deeper than business arrangements. I don't own a copy of this book, and I need to, because I find myself wanting to reread passages all the time.

Donna Tartt, THE LITTLE FRIEND. 640 pages. This long-awaited second novel from the author of THE SECRET HISTORY drew a lot of criticism, partly because it was so different from Tartt's first book, but mostly because it comes to no real resolution; it's a long, complicated slice of life that ultimately raises more questions than it answers. The lack of an ending frustrated me when I read it, but the book has lingered in my memory ever since. It is a compelling portrait of the South in the 1970s, full of details I never noticed as a child but remembered sharply once Tartt reminded me. Nine-year-old Robin Cleve Dusfresnes is found dead, hanging from a tree; years later, his 12-year-old sister, Harriet, vows to uncover his murderer. Tartt's point, I think, is that absolutes are never as important as the stories we tell ourselves. I'd like to read this book again.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Five Possible Video Games Based on Books

Entertainment Weekly's Shelf Life Blog reported last week that mega-bestselling author Nora Roberts had made a deal for a video-game adaptation of her recent book, Vision in White.

I haven't read Vision in White, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I read Nora Roberts novels every so often, especially when I feel rotten. They're literary Pringles potato chips: always the same, probably not good for you, and good every time. Vision in White is the first in a planned quartet about a group of wedding planners, so I'd guess that the video game is about getting a bride to the church on time, with everything she needs.

The commingling of books and video worries me, because I know from my own experience that I spend a lot of time online that I used to spend reading. On the one hand, it's not productive for authors to conspire in cannibalizing their own readers' time; on the other, if people are going to spend that time on video games anyway, why shouldn't authors benefit?

So here are five book-based video games I'd consider playing:

1. Stephanie Plum's Demolition Derby. Fans of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books know that she loses at least one car in every book. A Stephanie Plum game would be a natural; she could drive through the streets of Trenton, picking up Tastykakes and Grandma Mazur on the way, dodging potholes, looking for Joe or Ranger, getting sidetracked by Lula . . . and trying not to blow up her car.

2. Freakonomics SimCity. Create your own community, following the principles of Freakonomics: determine your players' outcomes according to the names you give them! Manipulate crime rates with the power of eugenics! Turn your drug-dealing operation into a successful McDonald's franchise! Actually, it wouldn't surprise me at all to discover that some version of this game already exists.

3. Anthony Bourdain's Cook's Tour. This game would probably need to combine aspects of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain's excellent crime novels (Gone Bamboo and Bone in the Throat) and the "No Reservations" TV series. Travel to exotic countries, score drugs, pick up ingredients in the local food markets, and get it all on the table in time for dinner service. Extra points for cigarettes smoked; in penalty rounds, you work through a hangover.

4. Diana Gabaldon's Time Travel Adventures. Based on the phenomenally successful Outlander series, this game would drop you into a random historical time period, where you would have to acquire appropriate clothing, figure out basic transportation, and find a hot guy to hook up with. Also fight off would-be rapists, carry out spy missions, and apply modern technology to solve historical problems.

5. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Okay, this one's cheating, because this was a computer game — a very early game, originally released in 1984 for the Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64 (!), Atari and PC, among other formats. The objective, of course, is to find the lost planet of Magrathea, but to do that, you have to figure out the Infinite Improbability Drive and deal with all the other residents of the galaxy. The good news is that DN Games is remaking the game for the new generation, in a point-and-click format; check progress and see what they're doing here.

What books would you want to see as video games? If you're an author, how would you turn your book into a video game?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Five Grave Robberies

Weirdest mainstream news headline this morning: "Grave Robbers Steal Former Cyprus President's Corpse." Someone – probably political activists, but no one's taken credit yet — robbed the grave of Tassos Papadopoulous, a day before the first anniversary of his death. President Papadopoulous had opposed the UN-directed peace plan that would have reunited the Turkish and Greek sections of the island, which the Turkish population supported.

It's not the first time a dead body's been stolen to make a point (or some money), and it won't be the last. Here are five other people who haven't been left to rest peacefully.

1. Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin died in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1977, and was buried in Corsier-sur-Vevey Cemetery. In March 1978, two immigrant mechanics (one Polish, one Bulgarian) kidnapped the body and demanded $600,000 in ransom, which dropped to $250,000 when Chaplin's widow, Oona, refused to pay. Swiss authorities eventually found the robbers by monitoring every pay phone in Lausanne, and the body was returned unharmed in May. It is now buried under six feet of cement, to prevent further tampering.

2. Oliver Cromwell. The gold standard of political body-stealing, really, but it's all a matter of perspective. He died in 1658, and was buried with full honors at Westminster Abbey. Cromwell's son, Richard, briefly succeeded him as Lord Protector, but within two years, the Parliament invited Charles II back from exile. In 1661, Cromwell's body was exhumed and ritually executed: hanged in chains at Tyburn, then decapitated, with Cromwell's head displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall for more than 20 years. The head passed from one private owner to another, before finally being buried at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1960.

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What's the difference between "grave moving" and "grave robbing"? Well, whether all the bones make it from point A to point B, for one. Mozart was originally buried in a wooden coffin in St. Mark's Cemetery in Vienna. The grave was marked only with a wooden marker, and was moved and "reorganized" to make room for additional burials a few years later. In 1902, the Salzburg Mozarteum received a skull alleged to be Mozart's; a gravedigger had supposedly retrieved it when the bones were moved. A DNA test in 2002 failed to prove any connection between this skull and other bones in the official Mozart family crypt.

4. Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine died in New York City in 1809, and was buried without fanfare in New Rochelle. Ten years later, an admirer named William Cobbett decided that Paine deserved a hero's tomb in his homeland, England; he exhumed Paine's body, without permission, and spirited the corpse across the ocean. But Cobbett's plans were thwarted, and the remains stayed in a trunk in his attic. What happened to the bones after Cobbett died in 1835 is a matter of speculation; a skull that may be Paine's turned up in Sydney, Australia, in 1987, and as recently as 2001, a group of New Yorkers was trying to bring Paine's remains — wherever they are — back to New York. Read the whole story here.

5. Eva Duarte Peron. Eva Peron was embalmed after death, and her body was displayed in a glass coffin in her former office. The plan was to build her a giant tomb, larger than the Statue of Liberty, in the shape of a shirtless man (a descamisado); Eva's body would lie in the base, on display, like Lenin's. But the tomb wasn't finished when Juan Peron was overthrown in 1955, and he fled the country without moving the body to a safe place. The new military dictatorship took Eva's body off display, and its location was a mystery for 16 years. Finally the leaders of Argentina admitted they had sent the body to Italy, where it lay in a crypt under a false name. Juan Peron, then living in Spain, had the body flown there. Two years later, he returned to Argentina and regained power, but once again left Eva's body behind; his third wife, Isabel, finally had Eva's corpse returned to Argentina after Juan died in 1974. Eva now lies in the Duarte family tomb in Buenos Aires, so securely protected that some have said the tomb could survive a nuclear attack.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Five American Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize

This morning President Barack Obama will accept the Nobel Peace Prize, which seems to have been awarded not for anything he's done, but for what he represents to the world, and what the Nobel Committee hopes he will do. I've heard cynics say that the Nobel Committee gave it to President Obama for "not being George W. Bush," and that rings uncomfortably true; if nothing else, this prize feels like a big "welcome back" from the world community, after years of friction.

It's also worth looking at this year's award in the context of other Peace Prizes given to Americans, because the Nobel Committee has often awarded this prize in the apparent hope of influencing American popular opinion. Since the first award in 1901, the Peace Prize has gone to 18 American citizens and one U.S.-based group (The American Friends Service Committee, in 1947). The complete list of recipients is here.

1. Theodore Roosevelt, 1906. The first American to receive the award, and the first incumbent head of state. Famous for the slogan, "Speak softly and carry a big stick," he won the Nobel specifically for the United States' role in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

2. Woodrow Wilson, 1919. When the United States entered the Great War, Woodrow Wilson promised it would be "the war to end all wars." He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating what became the Treaty of Versailles, which in hindsight looks like a disaster, and founding the League of Nations, which the U.S. never joined. By the time the award was presented, the U.S. was already dealing with a post-war economic collapse, and strikes and rioting in the major cities. Wilson could not have traveled to accept the award in any case, because he suffered a major stroke in October 1919 (although the extent of his debility was kept secret from the public).

3. Frank B. Kellogg, 1929. Frank B. Kellogg was the U.S. Secretary of State (under President Calvin Coolidge) who negotiated the 1928 Kellogg–Briand Pact, which prohibits the use of war as "an instrument of national policy." Sixty-five nations ultimately signed the treaty, which is still technically in effect. It includes two giant exceptions: the right of a nation to take military action in self-defense, and the right of a nation to take military action for the collective defense of allies. The Kellogg-Briand Pact did, however, serve as one of the bases for the Nuremburg trials, as high German officials were charged with conspiring to commit crimes against peace.

4. Ralph Bunche, 1950. Ralph Bunche (1904-1971) was an African-American diplomat who spent more than 20 years working with the United Nations to promote the rights of people who had not yet achieved self-government. "Democracy is color-blind," he famously said, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as acting UN mediator on Palestine in 1948–1949. The armistice didn't last, but do they ever?

5. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964. I suspect that future historians will see the awards to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama as bookends. Work for social justice never ends, and much remains to be done, but let's all take a minute to think about how far the United States has come, in 45 years. This year's Peace Prize is a recognition of the power of the American ideals — opportunity, self-determination, equality under the law — to overcome centuries of prejudice and structural restrictions. That is something we can all be proud of, regardless of our political views.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Five More Pub Quiz Questions

Last night I was once again the guest host of the Tuesday night quiz at the Liberal Cup. Here are five questions I asked last night, with answers in the comments section.

1. Here in Maine, we know that the Plymouth Company tried to found a settlement here in 1607, thirteen years before they set one up in Massachusetts. What was the name of that colony?

2. Which TV series ran longer, “Cheers” or “Frasier”?

3. Where in your body is your scapula?

4. What are the traditional colors of candles in an advent wreath?

5. What unlikely international capital just became the site of the world’s largest ice rink?

We're battening down for some seriously bad weather, but the snow hasn't started yet. I've got all the essentials — coffee, dog food, books — and as long as the power doesn't go out, we'll be fine.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Six Banks that Failed Last Week

Washington, DC is always a strange little bubble, but I was especially aware of it on this last visit. Compared to my part of Maine, in particular — which is quaint and lovely but undeniably ramshackle — it felt almost grotesquely shiny and prosperous.

The rest of the economy may be collapsing, but federal government employees – elected or appointed — aren't feeling that pain. They haven't lost their jobs. That's not to say that the DC area hasn't lost jobs: associations are suffering, municipal budgets are hurting, and the region's media organizations have been laying people off for a while. Even some law firms have made cuts. But DC has no feeling of grimness (which we have here), or even of scrambling and making do (which I felt on my last New York trip). Our elected officials may get the message when they come home at the holiday break, but Washington runs on the work of salaried employees who generally live inside the Beltway, and stay there.

I talked to a couple of people in DC who genuinely seemed to think the economy had started to recover. I hope it's true, but here in central Maine, it doesn't feel that way.

Among other business failures, 130 banks or savings and loans have failed so far this year. Six failed last Friday. In each case, no insured depositor lost money; the institutions were merged into other, healthier banks with only minor inconvenience to their customers, thanks to the good work of the FDIC and the marvel of deposit insurance.

You can argue that bank failures are a trailing indicator of economic distress, as it takes a while for people to default on loans, and for banks to feel the full impact of business failures and unemployment and income reductions. But they're also leading indicators, because every failed bank means one less source of new funds for small businesses and homebuyers, and one more sign of lost faith in an area's economic health.

1. Greater Atlantic Bank, Reston, Virginia. $203 million in assets, five branches, merged into Sonabank of McLean, VA. This savings and loan was the successor institution to one that had originally been chartered in 1887, and had been federally-insured since 1988. It had been looking for a merger partner since early this year, when its primary regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, placed it under a prompt corrective action (PCA) order following big losses.

2. Benchmark Bank, Aurora, IL. $170 million in assets, five branches, merged into MB Financial Bank, NA, of Chicago. Another old, old bank, originally chartered by the state of Illinois in 1898, and FDIC-insured since 1934. MB Financial has already said it will close three of Benchmark's five branches.

3. AmTrust Bank, Cleveland, OH. $12 billion in assets, 66 branches, merged into New York Community Bank, Westbury, NY. The closure was inevitable once AmTrust's parent, AmTrust Financial Corporation, filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 on November 30. AmTrust was a giant savings and loan, originally chartered in 1921, insured since 1938.

4. The Tattnall Bank, Reidsville, GA. $49.6 million, two branches, merged into HeritageBank of the South, Albany, GA. A small-town community bank, chartered in 1900, insured since 1934.

5. First Security National Bank, Norcross, GA. $128 million, four branches, merged into State Bank and Trust Company, Macon, GA. A newer bank, but still well-established, chartered and insured in 1985.

6. The Buckhead Community Bank, Atlanta, GA. $874 million, six branches, merged into State Bank and Trust Company, Macon, GA. The only bank on this list that could be considered a "boutique" institution, founded in 1998 to serve the residents of Buckhead, Atlanta's wealthiest neighborhood. Times are tough all over; earlier this year, it was reported that a fifth of Buckhead Community Bank's loans (mostly real estate) were in some form of delinquency or default.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Five Marian Apparitions

The Virgin Mary was supposed to appear to the faithful at Knock Basilica in Ireland this past Saturday afternoon. Self-described "spiritualist and medium" Joe Coleman and his protege, Keith Henderson, predicted that the Blessed Mother would appear at 3:00 p.m. to deliver a message of great importance to the Church. About 600 people gathered, down considerably from the thousands who came out in hopes of a similar apparition at Knock on October 11, and again on October 31. While some at those gatherings claimed to have seen the sky change and the sun dance in the sky, others suffered permanent retinal damage from looking directly at the sun.

The Catholic Church has been more than cautious in discussing this latest round of apparitions, and the October 31 gathering left the Knock Basilica in such chaos and disrepair that it had to be closed for three days for cleaning. In these days when everyone's a celebrity, or aspires to be, no one remembers how we're supposed to behave around the sacred, or even what the sacred might be.

The Church has, however, approved several apparitions by the Virgin Mary. One distinguishing characteristic of all of them is that in each case, she appeared to people who were truly pure of heart, who sought no fame or reward for themselves. Here are five that met the Church's standards of truth.

1. Guadalupe, Mexico, 1531. On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a Christian convert in his late fifties, saw a beautiful woman at the top of Tepeyac Hill. She identified herself as the Virgin Mary and asked Juan Diego to tell the bishop that she wanted a church built at the base of the hill. The Bishop did not believe Juan Diego, and asked for proof. Returning to the hill, Juan Diego found not only the lady but a rosebush in bloom out of season. The lady told him to gather the roses as proof of her visit, and Juan Diego collected them in his cloak. When he spilled the roses out before the Bishop, the men saw a miraculous image of Our Lady herself, imprinted on the inside of the cloak. The image of the Virgin is on permanent display at the Basilica de Guadalupe, on the site of the original apparition.

2. Lourdes, France, 1858. The Virgin Mary appeared on eighteen separate occasions to Bernadette Soubirous, a 14-year-old girl who had not yet made her first communion. Over the course of the apparitions, "the beautiful lady," as Bernadette called her, identified herself — "I am the Immaculate Conception," a phrase Bernadette had never heard and did not understand — and showed Bernadette the source of a previously-unknown spring, whose waters have miraculous healing properties. She told Bernadette that she wanted a chapel built on the spot; today that chapel is the Basilica of the Rosary, where millions have come to ask Mary for help. The Church has confirmed dozens of miraculous cures at Lourdes; a rather out-of-date list is online here.

3. Knock, Ireland, 1879. Late in the day on August 21, Mary McLoughlin and Mary Beirne were walking home past the town church. On the back wall of the church they saw a vision: not only the Virgin Mary but St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, an altar and a lamb, with several angels. The women called out to people nearby and in the church, who came out and saw the apparition as well. None of the figures spoke, but 15 people in all saw the apparition, which lasted for two hours. Others in the village reported seeing a bright light from the back of the church, and miraculous healings have been reported in connection with visits to Knock's church ever since.

4. Fatima, Portugal, 1917. Three children — Lucia dos Santos, 10; Francesco Marto, 8; and Jacinta Marto, 7 — were playing in a field when they saw a bolt of lightning. They started to gather up the sheep when they saw a bright light above a tree, and a beautiful lady dressed in white. She spoke with them and asked them to return every month for six months, on the 13th of each month; in the seventh month, she would tell them what she wanted. Over the months that followed, the Virgin Mary asked for the consecration of Russia, and warned of a more terrible war to follow the one happening at the time. She gave the children three secrets, the last of which was shared only with the Bishop and the Pope. Francesco and Jacinta died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919-1920; Lucia lived as a nun until 2005, when she died at the age of 97. Pope John Paul II revealed the third secret in 2000, while Lucia was still alive; it was a disturbing vision of the leaders of the Church being killed by soldiers beneath a cross.

5. Banneux, Belgium, 1933. Eleven-year-old Mariette Beco, oldest child of a family of non-practicing Catholics, saw a shining, beautiful woman in white outside the window of her house. Her mother saw a light and a shape, but was frightened, and told Mariette to turn away. Mariette decided to go back to church and catechism classes. Three days after the first apparition, Mariette saw the lady again; the apparition led her to a stream and told her, "This stream is especially for me." Over six more apparitions, the lady identified herself as The Virgin of the Poor, and told Mariette to "pray much." Mariette Beco is still alive; she retreated into private life, married, and does not talk to the press. The stream is now the site of a shrine, and has been the source of at least 50 miraculous cures.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Five Tolls I Will Pay To Get to Maine Today

Hi. I have a cold. Yesterday I decided to stay off the road and sleep, with the help of my friends at Nyquil. Today my head is still full of goo, and I'm croaking like a frog, but I feel better, and will get back on the road to Maine in about an hour.

Driving from Maine to Washington, DC and back is not always the cheapest option, depending on what kind of deals you can get on planes or buses. I do it so that Dizzy can travel with me, and also because I usually need a car wherever I'm going. But using the Northeast Corridor means paying for the privilege; these are the tolls I'll pay today.

1. The New Jersey Turnpike to the Garden State Parkway, $1.60. There are at least three different ways to go through or around New York City, but today I'll be taking the Garden State Parkway to the Tappan Zee. It's prettier.

2. The Garden State Parkway to the Tappan Zee, approximately $2.50. The Garden State Parkway has toll booths at regular intervals, and collection points seem to change every time I make this trip. (I'm sure that's not true, but I can never remember where the toll booths are.)

3. The Tappan Zee Bridge, $5.00. You only pay the toll on the Tappan Zee in one direction, but it happens to be the direction I'm driving today.

4. The Massachusetts Turnpike, $1.50. I'm not on the Mass Pike for very long.

5. Blue Star Turnpike, New Hampshire, $2.00. You pay to get into New Hampshire, and then you pay to get into Maine.

Maine has tolls, too; I'll pay another $3.00 between York and Portland, but as you know, these lists only go to 5. I have to pick up some things for a client in Portsmouth, and drop something off in Portland, but with luck, I'll be home tonight in time for dinner.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Five Thoughts on Last Night's Pixies Concert

Greetings from Washington, DC. One of the theoretical advantages of my freelance life is the ability to work anywhere. The reality is that working from the road sucks; if I'm visiting family and friends, I want to give my time and attention to them, not to work. Trying to work while I travel annoys both my hosts and my clients, frustrates me, and means that I get up very early or stay up very late trying to get it all done. I should know better.

That said, I took last night off to see The Pixies at DAR Constitution Hall. They're playing a two-night stand, closing their U.S. tour. The concert is their legendary 1989 album Doolittle, plus B-sides and whatever they feel like playing as an encore. Last night's concert ranked with the best shows I've ever seen; if you're in DC and have a spare $75, you owe it to yourself to try to catch tonight's closing show.

Last night's show was so great, in fact, that I'm still trying to process it all. Instead of a more organized post, here are five disconnected thoughts about last night's show.

1. 1989 was a great year. The Berlin Wall fell; the Cold War ended; President George Bush solved the savings-and-loan crisis (he really did, until the banks collapsed two years later); I had a great job and a great roommate and the world at my feet. Batman and Ghostbusters II came out, and the Pixies released Doolittle.

2. Nothing in life is as valuable as an old friend. Part of the joy of last night's concert was seeing how much fun the band was having onstage. They were as tight as a precision machine, listening to each other and clicking in perfect sync. You don't get to that point without years of practice, of fighting and reconciling and rediscovering what it was you liked about each other in the first place. Last night's concert was the power of a 25-year friendship, and it was a delight and a privilege to see.

3. Kim Deal rules. The woman is 48 years old, and she looked like a kid last night. She's struggled with addiction in public and private; her weight's been up and down, along with her hair length. Now she's skinny, her hair is short, and she's never looked or sounded better. She did the commentary between songs — not much, but what she said was goofy and clever. I caught myself singing along with her parts on the songs, because that's what I did when I first listened to the albums.

4. Scientists need to study Black Francis' vocal cords. Last night's show came at the end of months of touring, but he was still bellowing and screaming at top volume, with no signs of strain — and then hit the high notes on "Caribou" during the second encore. Unbelievable. He too looked and sounded great.

5. There is no reason we can't all still be doing the things we loved to do when we were 24. Black Francis and Joey Santiago are the same age as I am; Kim Deal and David Lovering are older. They're better now than they were the last time I saw them, sometime in the early 1990s. They have all the old energy, but it's better organized; they're smarter, they're happier, they're better at what they do. They are truly in their prime, and long may it last. It's an inspiration.