Friday, December 31, 2010

"This is the book I never read/These are the words I never said/This is the path I'll never tread/These are the dreams I'll dream instead"

The Song: "Why," Annie Lennox. Words & music by Annie Lennox. Track 14 of The Unplugged Collection, Volume One, 1994. (Also Track 1 of Diva, 1992, but I like this live version better.)
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1994.
Listen/watch here.

Annie Lennox takes herself very seriously, which is every artist's right but sometimes makes me a little impatient. Nevertheless, I forgive her everything for this song, which got me through a big chunk of the 1990s. It's a song about ending things and letting go, forgiving yourself and the person you thought you wanted.

The end of a year is a natural time to think about missed opportunities, wasted time, the choices we make that limit future choices, etc., etc. Putting together a "Best Reads of 2010" list was especially difficult. I probably did more reading for work in 2010 than in any previous year, and not all of that reading was good. Thus, when I read for pleasure, I finished only the books I really liked (with one notable exception, which I'll get to.) So this list could easily have been 20 books long, maybe even 30 books long. And I didn't read quite a few books I meant to get to, in some cases even books written by friends.

These were the best of the books I read instead, alphabetical by author. Not all of them were published this year, and most of them aren't crime novels. My list of favorite crime novels of 2010 is here.

Ten Best Books I Read or Listened to This Year

1. Paul Auster, SUNSET PARK. This book was billed as a genre novel, which I don't really understand; it is neither a mystery nor a thriller, but an exploration of the mysteries of the human heart. Miles Heller has been on the run for seven years, fleeing his guilt over a crime he was never accused of. He lands in Brooklyn, where his friend Bing has put together a household in an abandoned building. As the economic collapse of 2008 unfolds, Miles, Bing, and their housemates Alice and Ellen all find themselves living on the edge in more ways than one — as are Miles’ parents, as is everyone. This gorgeous, insightful book will stand as a snapshot of our time.

2. Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES. Thanks to Karen Olson for recommending this book, which had been on my to-be-read stack for years. In a dystopian future, adolescent children represent their territories in a battle to the death. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen must fight for her life while figuring out a way to save what she loves most.

3. Paul Doiron, THE POACHER'S SON. My favorite debut of the year, a book I've recommended far and wide. Rookie Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch knows his father is a bad man — he knows this — but goes to his defense anyway, risking his own career in the process.

4. Louise Erdrich, SHADOW TAG. A devastating portrait of the collapse of a marriage and destruction of a family, at times almost too intimate. SHADOW TAG confirmed all my deepest suspicions and fears about the dangerous idea of soul mates. I also loved her last book, THE PLAGUE OF DOVES, which I listened to at the beginning of the year.

5. Tana French, FAITHFUL PLACE. Over the course of three novels, Tana French has created a completely believable fictional version of Dublin, inhabited by people I feel I know. This book is the story of veteran police detective Frank Mackey, who has spent more than 20 years believing the love of his life ran off and left him. When someone finds her suitcase in an abandoned building, he has to reconsider everything he thought he knew about Rosie, his family, and himself.

6. Robert Goolrick, A RELIABLE WIFE. I notice a theme emerging: quite a few of these books have to do with the terrible things people do to and for each other in the name of love. In turn-of-the-century Wisconsin, a young woman with a past arrives to become the mail-order bride of the town's wealthiest man, who is fleeing demons of his own. The story twists and turns, with that rarest of rarities, an ending that is both shocking and completely satisfying.

7. Jesse Kellerman, THE EXECUTOR. I've been surprised not to see this book on more "Best of" lists, because it might have been the most compelling thriller I read this year. Perpetual graduate student Joseph Geist answers an ad for a "Conversationalist," and seems to have his entire life solved for him. His patron, an elderly woman named Alma Spielmann, offers him everything he needs and wants — and sets up a situation that plunges Joseph into a nightmare he could not have imagined.

8. Mary Roach, PACKING FOR MARS. The author of STIFF and SPOOK, two earlier favorites, takes on the practical requirements of space travel, from the mechanics of every body function to the adaptations of Islam to a 90-minute space "day." A treasure box of fascinating details, random information, and the sheer joy of asking how things work.

9. Rob Sheffield, TALKING TO GIRLS ABOUT DURAN DURAN. Nonfiction, but absolutely in the category of foolish things we do for love: a musical memoir of Rob Sheffield's teenage years, including every guilty pleasure and wild fantasy. Each chapter is an essay linked to an individual song, some of which were new to me. A joyful, rueful, magical book.

10. Jess Walter, THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS. It's hard to describe this book, a nearly-mystical study of the emotional effects of financial ruin, in a way that would make anyone want to read it — but I read it in almost a single sitting, and did not want to let it go. Matt left a job in journalism to start "," a website that combined investment advice with literary insights and poetry. Bad idea or not — and Matt admits it probably is — he makes the leap at precisely the wrong time, and suffers the consequences. Not light reading, but it taught me things about myself and my fellow humans, and with SUNSET PARK, will tell future generations all they need to know about this time in our history.

BONUS: The Worst Book I Read This Year

I've gotten very good at setting aside books I don't enjoy. Life's too short and my reading stack is too tall. Foolishly, however, I promised Jennifer Lechner that I would read the Twilight books as her birthday present this year. She and our friend Anna called my bluff by sending me the box set for my own birthday. It took me — no exaggeration — six weeks to finish TWILIGHT, which sapped me of all desire to read any other fiction for the duration. Finish it I did, however, and therefore my Worst Book of 2010 award goes to:

Stephenie Meyer, TWILIGHT. The book has sold millions, the movies have made billions. It doesn't matter at all what I think of TWILIGHT. In fact, my reaction to it made me seriously question everything I do as an editor, reader and publicist. Not only would I never have accepted this novel for publication, I'd probably have passed around excerpts for my friends to laugh at. I might not even have taken it on as a freelance editing project. Bella, the main character, is a sullen lump with nothing interesting about her. Why in the world would she attract anyone's attention, much less that of a 100-year-old vampire? Beyond that, though, what's romantic or attractive about her decision to form a relationship with a deadly predator that prevents her from being honest with anyone else in her life? I'm not kidding, and I'm not overstating it: the message of TWILIGHT is that true love requires secrets, isolation, and the abandonment of one's essential self (i.e., Bella's very humanity). I can't think of a more dangerous message to give a preteen girl.

Worst of all, the book is boring. God help us all.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Nothing feels better than blood on blood."

The Song: "Highway Patrolman," Bruce Springsteen. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 5 of Nebraska, 1982.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1982.
Listen to a live version here.

"Is your second toe longer than your big toe?" I asked Claire last night. This is something I should know, but don't.

"Yes," she said.

I nodded. "It runs in the family."

I believe in the widest possible definition of "family." Quite a few people in my life are family with no blood connection at all.

Over the past week, though, I've spent quality time with several branches of my vast blood-family tree, and it's hard to put the comfort of those connections into words. It's almost magical to notice my uncle's tiny hands, or my brother's unusually long torso, or my daughter's Morton's toe. These are things that run in our family — on both sides, as my parents themselves are distant relatives (we're not sure exactly how far back; far enough).

Growing up in the same house just intensifies that connection. My brothers and sisters and I laugh at the same jokes, argue about things that happened 30 years ago, quote the same movies and cook the same things for holiday meals. The other night I insisted my sister-in-law watch the movie Hollywood Shuffle because the Lamb siblings have been quoting from it since 1988, and Sara had never seen it. (Thank God she liked it, and now she too can laugh whenever one of us says, "I give this movie 'The Finger!'.")

This album was the first one I bought as a college freshman, at Olsson's Books & Music on Wisconsin Avenue the day it came out. I have owned it in one format or another for 28 years. Johnny Cash covered this song on his album Johnny 99. I would never say his version is better, but he makes the song his own. You can hear it here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"I'm sad to say I must be on my way/So buy me beer and whisky 'cause I'm going far away."

The Song: "Sally MacLennane," The Pogues. Words & music by Shane MacGowan. Track 6 of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, 1985.
How/when acquired: Purchased LP, 1987
Listen/watch here.

A good traveling song, brought to mind by John Connolly's special radio show on the Best Albums of the 1980s this morning. (It airs again on Saturday afternoon, 4:00 p.m. Eastern time. Listen here.) While I'm plugging John's work — which he pays me to do, though I'd do it for free — I should add that anyone who received an e-reader for Christmas should download his short story "On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier," here. John wrote the story for a collection to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International, and will donate 20 cents to Amnesty for every copy sold.

Anyway, The Pogues have been favorites of mine for — erk — going on 25 years, and this album in particular. It was one of the first I remember buying as a bona fide adult, someone out of college and living on her own. I remember hearing it for the first time in the apartment of my then-fiance's old housemate, 1st Lt. C.B. Stevens, and I remember dancing to this song at someone's wedding (Carmen's?) the following year.

Yesterday was too messy to drive, so I'm off to Northern Virginia as soon as the sun gets bright enough to melt what's left on the roads. Thanks to James and Sara for a wonderful holiday celebration, and for not minding that it lasted a few extra days.

For the longest time I was sure this song was about a wake:
I'm sad to say I must be on my way
So buy me beer and whisky 'cause I'm going far away
I'd like to think of me returning when I can
To the grandest little boozer and to Sally MacLennane.

Friends argued me out of it, and I later learned that "Sally MacLennane" is a brand of Scotch. Hmpf. I still prefer my original interpretation.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"I would walk 500 miles/And I would walk 500 more/Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles/To fall down at your door."

The Song: "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," The Proclaimers. Words & music by The Proclaimers (Charlie Reid & Craig Reid). Track 1 of Sunshine on Leith, 1988.
How/when acquired: Gift cassette, 1989
Listen/watch here.

Dizzy loves live music, but rarely pays attention to recorded songs. This song is an exception. Something about it bothers him so much that he leaves the room when I play it, and NOT because I usually sing along. (Dizzy thinks I have a lovely singing voice. No, really, he does. It's one of the reasons I have a dog.)

Anyway, the sun's out here in Virginia Beach, and I may not have to walk to Alexandria. I'm going to wait another hour or two, to let the sun and the VDoT road crews do their work, and then I'm going to try to drive north. I'd be willing to walk the 200 miles, but I hope I won't have to. I have a lot of stuff, and didn't bring a backpack.

This cassette was a gift from my ex-fiance, after we broke up. I played it until it wore out. Now I have The Best of the Proclaimers on MP3, but it's missing some songs off this album. I should buy it again.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"And the carcass of the beast left over from the feast,/May still be found haunting the kitchen."

The Song: "St. Stephen's Day Murders," The Chieftains with Elvis Costello. Words & music by Paddy Moloney & Elvis Costello. Track 3 of The Bells of Dublin, 1991.
How/when acquired: "Borrowed" CD, c. 1999
Listen to a sample here.

The Bells of Dublin is an essential holiday album, although I could do without the sanctimonious Jackson Browne track. This song is a gleeful fantasy of post-Christmas family violence.

I hasten to say that it has no relevance to me this year. No, really. My brother James and his wife Sara put on a fabulous spread, bringing together their vast blended family (18 people, if I counted correctly; math's never my best thing, and the wine was flowing).

Of course, today half a dozen of us are snowed in at James & Sara's as the Eastern seaboard gets a freak storm. The snow is falling wet and heavy here in Virginia Beach, which is not equipped for it in any way. Good thing we have plenty of leftovers. We'll be fine as long as the power doesn't go.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"You better not shout, I'm tellin' you why."

The Song: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Bruce Springsteen. Words & music by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. Single, year unknown.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2009 (finally)

Better be good, for goodness's sake. Merry Christmas to everybody, peace and love and joy to the world. Hope your Santa hat is as cool as Bruce's.

Friday, December 24, 2010

"I make toys, but I've got aspirations."

The Song: "Elf's Lament," Barenaked Ladies. Words & music by Ed Robertson. Track 6 of Barenaked for the Holidays, 2004.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2008
Listen/watch here.

The rest of the country may be in recession, but you wouldn't know it here in South Hampton Roads. Greenbrier Mall and its satellite shopping centers were jammed yesterday, and people appeared to be spending.

As usual, I wondered who thinks up some of the items for sale, and who buys them, and why. Who needs the life-sized cardboard cutout of Justin Bieber? What will happen to those cutouts three years from now? (Actually, by the year 2015, you'll see back rooms in bars papered with Justin Bieber cutouts, though no one will quite remember who he was or why he was famous.)

In this context, it feels sour and Scroogish to check the manufacturing information of the things I buy, and wonder what the Christmas season is like in the maquiladoras of Mexico, Honduras, Malaysia and China. Isn't it better that those workers have jobs? Yes, probably — sure — I don't know. But yesterday I passed three different enormous dollar stores (and yes, bought stuff in one). How can that be good? How can that be good for anyone? Who needs all this stuff?

I like giving presents. I like the thrill of finding a toy that's going to delight someone I love, or a book that will engage them, or a piece of music they'll listen to for years. I love having stuff that people gave me for Christmas years or even decades ago.

I'm reasonably certain that not one of those things came from a dollar store.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"2000 miles/Is very far through the snow"

The Song: The Pretenders, "2000 Miles." Words & music by Chrissie Hynde. Track 10 of The Singles, 1983.
How/when acquired: Cassette mix tape, c. 1984. Downloaded MP3, 2009.
Listen/watch here.

I'm not going 2,000 miles; more like 350 miles today, and another 425 or so tomorrow. But it probably will be snowing when I leave. At least, I hope it'll be snow; we're supposed to get ice up here in the afternoon, which means I need to get on the road by mid-morning.

Safe journeys, everybody. We'll be back by Christmastime.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"They're singing 'Deck the Halls,'/But it's not like Christmas at all."

The Song: "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," U2. Words & music by Eleanor Greenwich, Jeff Barry & Philip Spector. Track 9 of A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 1, 1987.
How/when acquired: Purchased MP3, 2009
Listen/watch here.

This song may be not only my favorite Christmas pop song, but my favorite U2 song as well. (Okay, second to "One." But it's close.) It's worth clicking through to that video just to remind yourself what Bono looks like without sunglasses.

As usual, my travel plans have slipped by a day. Dizzy and I leave tomorrow for points south. It'll probably snow along the way; we'll just have to deal with it. The VW is not a bad car in snow, as long as the snow doesn't get deeper than about four inches (clearance is low).

I hear people say, "I just don't feel Christmasy this year," and never really know what they mean. They're anxious, of course; everyone is anxious, and this year more than usual. But I'm not sure what they mean by "Christmasy," or why they let the anxiety interfere with that.

What is Christmas supposed to feel like? It made me anxious even as a child. In a family of six kids, we never had a Christmas that didn't include someone melting down by the end of the day. More than one Christmas included a trip to the emergency room. I remember a few Christmas dinners in the Officers' Mess of whatever ship my father was serving on; that was always exciting, but stressful in its own way, as it involved dressing up, best behavior, and food we didn't always recognize.

That said, I've never stopped believing in magic at Christmastime, and that magic has never — never, in 45 years — let me down. It's true, it's one more illustration of my charmed life, but it's also all in how you look at it. When magic is what you expect, magic is what you see. When home is where you want to be, home is where you make it.

This year, "home for Christmas" is my brother James' house. But even if I were snowed in alone with Dizzy, I'd still be home for Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

"I'm not a good shopper, I say it with shame."

The Song: "Get Drunk & Make Out this Christmas," The Dan Band. Words & music by Dan Finnerty, Jeremy Ruzumna and David Wilder. Track 4 of Ho, 2007.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2007.
Listen here.

I have some pretty random holiday music in my iTunes library. The Dan Band is hit-or-miss for me, but this is one of their better tunes, managing to be both funny and sincere. Years ago, I knew a member of The Dan Band in weird circumstances - John K, if you check in here, Merry Christmas.

Anyway, I'm not a good shopper, and as usual I've left my Christmas shopping to the last minute. This year, as in the past, I'm mostly giving books. Which reminds me that it's been a very long time since I posted a reading list here — so here are a few highlights of the past six weeks.

Good Books I've Read Lately

Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES. Yeah, I was late to this book. At dinner the last night of Bouchercon, the conversation turned to things that were both popular and good, and my friend Karen Olson made a pitch for this book, which she'd just read. It had been in my to-be-read stack for much too long, so I picked it up when I got home, and read it in two sittings. In some future version of the United States, adolescent children represent their territories in a battle to the death. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen must fight for her life while figuring out a way to save what she loves most. Brilliant. I haven't read the next two in the trilogy yet because I'm too afraid of being let down.

Dennis Lehane, MOONLIGHT MILE. Detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro return in this long-anticipated sequel to GONE, BABY, GONE. My friend Sarah Weinman said this book was like catching up with classmates at a high school reunion, and I can't improve on that insight. Good to see them, glad they're doing well, don't really need to see them again for another five years.

Beth Hoffman, SAVING CEECEE HONEYCUTT. What a nice thing it sometimes is just to read a good novel about good people. After the death of her bipolar mother, 12-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt moves to Savannah in the care of her Great-Aunt Tootie, and a new world opens to her. A lovely book, and all the more impressive when you realize it's a first novel.

Rob Sheffield, TALKING TO GIRLS ABOUT DURAN DURAN. Possibly my favorite book of 2010; I've already given it as a gift, and will give it to more people in the weeks and months ahead. Rob Sheffield is my age, and this book is a musical memoir of his teenage years, which were mine as well. The book is a series of essays tied to individual songs; if I'd read it before starting this year's blog, I'd probably have chosen a different theme because he does it so much better.

Armistead Maupin, MICHAEL TOLLIVER LIVES. Another welcome return to a beloved series. Michael "Mouse" Tolliver is married to his partner and living happily ever after in San Francisco, decades after the HIV diagnosis that was supposed to be a death sentence. The years have taken their toll on the residents of Barbary Lane, but Anna Madrigal's still taking care of everybody, and the book made me eager to read the next installment, MARY ANN IN AUTUMN.

Vicki Lane, THE DAY OF SMALL THINGS. Another recommendation from Karen Olson, and another of my favorites of 2010. This remarkable book stands in the territory between Sharyn McCrumb and Daniel Woodrell, an epic that spans 80 years and two parallel worlds. The baby girl Least is born to a deranged mother, and against all odds survives to become a wise old woman — but the cost of her survival requires that she repay old debts, in the form of breaking some promises to save a boy in peril. This complex, thoughtful novel deserves far more attention than it's gotten.

Lawrence Block, A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF. I'll tell anyone who asks that series should have lifespans, and that too many authors need to let their series characters go well before the time that both they and their readers are tired of them. Lawrence Block is the exception that proves the rule. This book, due out next year, stands with his finest work. Matt Scudder tells a story from earlier in his career, not long after he'd quit drinking. A childhood acquaintance trying to make amends for his own drinking days is killed with two shots to the face. His sponsor asks Matt for help, and Matt struggles with his sobriety as he learns that not all crimes are punished.

Mark Billingham, BLOODLINE. Another fine entry in a long-running series. London police detective Tom Thorne investigates a series of murders that, impossibly, seem linked to a serial killer who died in prison years earlier. Twist follows twist; a very dark ending spares almost no one, but leaves a ray of light for Tom and his partner Louise. It'll be good to have this series back in print in the U.S.; Mulholland will publish it here next July.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Out of the cold, dark winter's space/We come together . . ."

The Song: "Don't Be Afraid of the Light that Shines Within You," Luka Bloom. Words & music by Luka Bloom. Track 8 of the 2009 Bar/None Records Sampler.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2009.
Listen/watch here.

I did something bad to my main computer on Monday, so am working on an old machine that holds some music I didn't copy over at the beginning of the year. It's an unexpected benefit of something that's otherwise kind of disastrous; I'm rediscovering all these songs I didn't remember I had.

It's tempting to see iTunes as a kind of magic oracle, giving me the music I need when I need it, a secular version of Bible-dipping. This song, at least, was exactly what I needed this morning.

One of the reasons I love Maine at this time of year is that people come together against the cold and the darkness. Christmas lights defy the planetary shift; so what if we're tilting away from the sun, so what if the sun sets at 4:00 p.m., so what if it's 18F out and snowing? We'll light things up. We'll decorate the evergreens with things that sparkle, and we'll gather in snug buildings of wood and brick to drink beer and eat onion rings.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"The North Wind doth blow/And we shall have snow/And what will the robin do then, poor thing?"

The Song: "The North Wind," Elizabeth Mitchell. Words & music traditional. Track 14 of You Are My Little Bird, 2006.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2007
Listen here.

We're having very strange weather here, but not in the way that the rest of the country seems to be. In fact, for once Maine is Oppositeland (or maybe we usually are). Our current temperature is a freakishly warm 53F. It's pouring rain, and as windy as a tropical storm. It's washed all the snow away, and I had to bring the snow shovel in off the deck last night so it wouldn't become a flying projectile.

The idea that weather reflects human emotion is the definition of the pathetic fallacy, but it didn't (and doesn't) feel far wrong this weekend. On Saturday I was sure I was coming down with flu: headache, earache, sinuses clogged, so tired I could barely move. Yesterday was better, but still fragile. Today I am awake again and nearly frenzied at the thought of everything that didn't get done over the weekend.

It's a tricky time of year. The dark unquestionably gets to me. This might be the year I invest in a light-therapy box. It's money I can't really spare, but if the alternative is a winter-related malaise that interferes with my work and my life, it'll pay for itself. Does anyone out there have one, or have any experience with one? Suggestions, recommendations?

This song is a lovely short track off a CD that is theoretically for children but should be in any good collection of folk music. Elizabeth Mitchell, who also plays as part of the wonderful indie band Ida, put the record together for her own daughter, who sings on several tracks. My sister Peggy gave me the CD for my birthday, and I've since given it to a couple of friends.

I was especially pleased to find this song, which I'd been unfamiliar with before stage-managing a production of The Mousetrap in 2006. An eccentric character sings this particular snatch of song at a tense moment. Fortunately, our director knew the tune; none of the rest of us had heard it. I'm glad to have the recording as a memory of that play, and will never hear it without Lynette's and Peter's voices in my head, too.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

"I'm afraid of people who like 'Catcher in the Rye.'"

The Song: "William Holden Caulfield," Too Much Joy. Words & music by Too Much Joy (Jay Blumenfeld, Tim Quirk, Sandy Smallens, Tommy Vinton). Track 3 of Cereal Killers, 1991.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1992
Listen/read here.

People he'd despise say I feel like that guy
I don't want to grow up 'cause I don't want to die
When I'm 31, and keep living on
For 50 more years

I don't like Catcher in the Rye, and never did. Somehow I was never the right age for it. I loved Nine Stories, and "Seymour: An Introduction" changed the way I understood myself, but I always wanted to give Holden Caulfield a good smack upside the head.

Still, if you follow the link above you'll read Tim Quirk's thoughts about the book and the song, and I can't disagree with any of that. The dramatic revelations of adolescence can be summed up in three basic truths:
1. The world is not as it seems.
2. The world is not as it's "supposed" to be.
3. Adults know this and have decided, for one reason or another, not to do anything about it; therefore, becoming an adult is about finding your own compromise with Truths 1 and 2.

Two weeks after my 15th birthday, a man who liked Catcher in the Rye reminded all of us of these hard truths when he shot John Lennon. He had a copy of the book with him, and said the book inspired him. I've blamed the book ever since, even though the book could not possibly have been the reason why. There is no reason why. These things never have a "why."

On the morning of December 9, 1980, my mother turned on my bedroom light, the way she always did, and said, "John Lennon was killed last night. Someone shot him." She'd been crying. She'd met him a couple of times; as an executive secretary for Capitol Records, she'd taken Cynthia Lennon shopping during their visit to New York in 1964. (Mrs. Lennon bought a pair of gloves.) They were the same age; John Lennon was seven months older than Mom. I was too young and too self-absorbed, at 15, to understand how hard his death must have hit her.

All day yesterday I thought it was weird that the 8th was the anniversary being marked, when it wasn't until the 9th that most of us woke up to a world without John Lennon.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

"Half of what I say is meaningless/But I say it just to reach you"

The Song: "Julia," The Beatles. Words & music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Track 9, side 2 of The Beatles (the White Album), 1968.
How/when acquired: Gift LP, c. 1980
Listen/watch here.

It's hard not to imagine what John Lennon would be saying and doing if he were alive today. It's hard to think about the fact that he was younger when he died than I am now.

This song, written in memory of John's mother, remains one of my favorites, and I quote this line all the time. It distills so much of John's public persona, I think. It was hard to know what he actually thought or felt, partly because he might not always have been sure himself; what he was looking for was engagement, for himself and the people around him. Even listening to his songs now we feel obligated to care, to pay attention, to think about things larger than ourselves.

It's work, of course. It's exhausting, which is why today's pop stars don't ask us to do anything more than raise our glass. Why so serious, Pink asks; what's the dealie-o?

Excuse me while I go yell at some kids to get off my lawn. Not that I have a lawn.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"You're making lists today of all the things you haven't done yet/You're driving everyone crazy, are you having any fun yet?"

The Song: "Simple Life," Mary Chapin Carpenter. Words & Music by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Track 2 of Time*Sex*Love, 2001.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2001.
Listen here (might just be a sample).

I often feel I have no need to write or even say anything original. Instead, I could just walk around with an MP3 player loaded with Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, and play the lyrics as my side of any conversation. She too goes by her middle name, by the way. When I was in college, she played coffeehouses in the DC area, and I saw her several times at Georgetown before she was famous. I had a girl-crush on her then, and have never really gotten over it.

My favorite part of this song is the chorus, which says, "There's nothing wrong with you." That is kind but untrue, at least today. Everything is taking a good bit longer than it should, and I feel I am swimming through Jello. I'd try a nap, but I doubt it would help.

I live just about as simple a life as anyone could. I have no dependents but a dog. I own almost nothing. I make the bare minimum of money I need, most of the time (at least, I hope I do). And I still have days like today, where I'm half an hour late to everything and can't keep it all straight.

Time to take a breath and make another list. And have another cup of coffee. If that doesn't work, then I'll take a nap.

Monday, December 06, 2010

"Funny how my memory slips while looking over manuscripts/Of unpublished rhyme."

The Song: "Hazy Shade of Winter," Simon & Garfunkel. Words & music by Paul Simon. Track 11 of Bookends, 1968.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, c. 1987
Listen/watch here.

Today brought the first big storm of the season, interfering with my plans to go to a book fundraising event in Boston. The first big snow of the year, people always get a little crazy; we're not used to it yet, the plow guys need some warming up.

So I'm home, and should be working. Instead I feel restless and bored. I'd been looking forward to playing with friends tonight. If I lived in Portland or even in Brunswick, I could have made it to the party; according to radar, the snow line was just south of Gardiner. Yes, the point is obvious.

This is a great song off the second side of Bookends, which is a collection of good songs rather than a coherent album side. The Bangles made a fascinating cover of it in 1987 for the soundtrack of Less than Zero (evil book, stupid movie). I am not ashamed of liking The Bangles, who, as it turns out, still get together to play a gig once in a while.

Friday, December 03, 2010

"I wish I was in Tijuana/Eating barbecued iguana."

The Song: "Mexican Radio," Wall of Voodoo. Words & music by Stan Ridgway and Marc Moreland. Track 6 of Call of the West, 1985.
How/when acquired: Borrowed CD, 2010
Listen/watch here.

My brother-in-law Scott was nice enough to share his music collection with me over Thanksgiving. We share a love of 1980s New Wave, but he apparently had more money to spend on music in those years than I did. I never owned this track, but when I listen to it now, I'm catapulted back to the basement of Healy Hall, right down to the unique fug of Georgetown's old, iconic Pub.

"Mexican Radio" is a track that shows up on a lot of one-hit-wonder lists, although Wall of Voodoo first came to my attention with their cool, spooky 1980 cover of "Ring of Fire." I also loved "Lost Weekend," another track on Call of the West.

Wall of Voodoo is still touring. They're returning to Iota in Arlington next April, the week before Easter, and I could probably get there if I wanted to. I don't know whether I want to. I've seen the bands of my youth in recent years, and for the most part they've been great; but I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago, I'm not doing the same things in the same ways, in principle I think I disapprove of anyone who is.

This summer my friend Gary gave me Squeeze's album Spot the Difference, a set of re-recordings of their greatest hits. They're basically covers, but the goal was to be as faithful as possible to the original sound. I love having this album, but it's a peculiar artifact I wouldn't recommend to anyone who isn't a hardcore Squeeze fan (which I am). While the songs sound great, part of me thinks they shouldn't sound so much like the originals; at some point, wouldn't you just feel like a rat on a wheel?

I digress. Today's quotation is because I've never eaten barbecued iguana, although I have had deep-fried alligator (yes, it tastes like chicken). I don't particularly want to be in Tijuana — I've been there, it was dirty and ugly and depressing — but since we're about to get socked with a big winter storm, I wouldn't mind being someplace warmer.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"Bring me a day full of honest work/and a roof that never leaks/I'll be satisfied."

The Song: "Head Home," Midlake. Music and lyrics by Tim Smith. Track 3 of The Trials of Van Occupanther, 2006.
How/when acquired: Purchased MP3, 2007
Listen/watch here.

Home again, after a good trip, but horribly behind on several projects. This morning I have to do the usual errand-running after a week away (mail, groceries, etc.), which means I'll be working well into the night. Glad to have the work, though.

I was relatively late to this album, which friends recommended for months before I finally listened to it. Critics compared Midlake's sound to early Fleetwood Mac. I don't really hear that, but Midlake definitely comes out of that 1970s-era synth-pop tradition. I love the sound, and Midlake's one of my favorite bands of the decade.

It was a mild shock to wake up this morning and see the date "December 1" on the calendar. End of the year, end of the decade. I'm not ready.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"I'm glad it's your birthday/Happy birthday to you."

The Song: The Beatles, "Birthday." Words & music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Track 1, side 2 of The Beatles (the White Album), 1968.
How/when acquired: Gift LP, c. 1980.
Watch/listen here.

Officially I do not believe in astrology (though I can tell you that I am a double Scorpio with Gemini rising, and explain what that's supposed to mean). However, I do wonder about the coincidence that so many of the most important people in my life share this birthday: my sisters Peggy and Susan, my brother Ed, my son Christopher, and my dear friend Doyle. Happy birthday one and all, and let the celebration extend from one end of the eastern seaboard to the other.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"And I think to myself, what a wonderful world."

The Song: "What a Wonderful World," Joey Ramone. Words & music by Bob Thiele (as George Douglas) and George David Weiss. Track 1 of Don't Worry About Me, 2002.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, c. 2005

Spending the next few days with the people who matter most. Some days I feel so overwhelmed by the extravagant, ridiculous blessings of my life I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Thank you all.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"I'm on my way/I'm on my way/I'm on my way/I'm on my way again."

The Song: "Song for a Girl Who Has One," Too Much Joy. Words & music by Too Much Joy (Jay Blumenfield, Tim Quirk, Sandy Smallens, Tommy Vinton). Track 2 of Son of Sam I Am, 1988.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1992
Can't find it online, but you should already own this album. If you don't, buy it here.

Fog and the need to finish a couple of things delayed my departure from Maine yesterday, and I did not get to Pennsauken, NJ until sometime around 11:00 p.m. No two ways about it: that drive is miserable, despite the company of some saved-up Kermode and Mayo's Film Review podcasts. Dizzy and I are about to get back into the car for the next leg of the trip, which if all goes well — and it won't — should take about six hours.

There must be a better way to do this.

Major takeaway from yesterday's drive: I-95 from New Haven to the New York state line is one massive shopping mall. Where do people get all that money to spend? Why does anyone need that much stuff? The entire state of Maine has two malls. Two: one in South Portland, one in Bangor. Augusta has an outdoor shopping center, but I'm never there, except to go to the movies. Crossing that bridge into New Hampshire feels like entering another country.

Monday, November 22, 2010

"Here I am/I'm playin' daydreamin' fool again."

The Song: "You're My Favorite Waste of Time," Marshall Crenshaw. Words & music by Marshall Crenshaw. Track 6 of This is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw, 2000.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 2000.
Listen/watch here.

Among the many mysteries of American popular music is why Marshall Crenshaw was never a huge, huge star. Oh, he's had a decent career; he's been able to support himself as a musician, which is as much as most professional musicians can hope for. He's a recognizable name, and his 1982 debut, Marshall Crenshaw, has never been out of print. He's a musician's musician, with the respect of his peers, and that's no small thing.

But his is the kind of excellence it's easy to take for granted. I loved Marshall Crenshaw from the first notes of "Someday, Someway" (which this song was the B-side for), but never spent any money on him until Rhino Records released this greatest hits collection in 2000. Fortunately, lots of artists have paid Crenshaw to cover this song, and his work is a favorite choice for movie soundtracks.

I'd originally planned to drive south today, but bad weather this morning pushed all my plans back a day. What we got was mostly rain, but I've heard enough reports of black ice and crashes on I-95 to make me glad I stayed home. I have a lot of work to do, and was just as happy to have some extra hours to get it done — paradoxically, though, I've spent much of the day dithering, and haven't been anywhere near as productive as I needed to be. Why does it always seem to work that way?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Can't pretend that growing older never hurts."

The Song: "Slit Skirts," Pete Townshend. Music & lyrics by Pete Townshend. Track 11 of All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, 1982.
How/when acquired: Gift bootleg cassette, 1982.
Watch/listen here. That's a remix with a cool harmonica riff that isn't on the album version; the album version is here.

In honor of my 45th birthday — and my twin sister Kathy's — the closing track of the one album I'd need on the desert island, if I could only keep one. My friend Gary gave me my first copy of this record, taped from his LP. I still consider it Townshend's finest work, which is saying a lot, and this song has turned out to be more important to me than I could have imagined, when I first heard it at the age of 16.

Townshend was only in his mid-30s when he wrote this song, which is all about that realization that you can't pretend to be young forever. It gets harder to take risks, to be willing to be seen as foolish, to absorb losses and start over. As Pete says, we have to be so drunk to try a new dance . . . and yet, once in a while, we still do.

"My Three Angels" closes tonight at Hallowell City Hall, so if you're in the area, you've got one last chance to see it. 8:00 p.m., $12, reservations shouldn't be necessary.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Hey you with the pretty face,/Welcome to the human race."

The Song: "Mr. Blue Sky," Electric Light Orchestra. Words & music by Jeff Lynne. Track 3 of Strange Magic: The Best of Electric Light Orchestra, 1995.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, c. 2003
Listen/watch here.

This song originally appeared on the 1977 album Out of the Blue, as the last of a four-song suite called "Concerto for a Rainy Day," side three of a 2-LP set. (I've never owned Out of the Blue, a mystery since I have coveted it from the first time I listened to it, at my friend Adrienne's house sometime in 1978. Did I mention I have a birthday coming up?) The Delgados made a great cover of this song, which you can listen to here.

Anyway, this song is a like an emotional "Get out of jail free" card for me, to be rationed carefully during the winter months when things get a little dark around here. It's never failed yet, but I don't want to overuse it, in case it wears out. It always reminds me, when I need reminding, that the world is pretty great and people can be both kind and funny if you just let yourself see them.

Tuesday night was the 10th annual Brewer's Dinner at The Liberal Cup, central Maine's finest (well, only) brewpub and my hangout of choice. The Brewer's Dinner is a six-course meal that pairs food with beers brewed at the Cup, introduced by brewmaster/owner Geoff Houghton. I'd never been able to go before, so was especially grateful when my friend Richard included me when buying tickets for this year.

It was a magic evening, and exactly the sort of thing I hoped for/fantasized about when I made the move from big city to small town. The Liberal Cup seats about 80 people. Of those 80 on Tuesday night, I knew at least ten, and my dinner companions knew most of the other 70. The food was ridiculously good: beer-cheese soup, chicken-pistachio pate with sauce verte over microgreens, wort-braised pork belly on a bed of toasted barley, roast duck with smoked mashed potatoes, and a coffee/stout float with chocolate creme brulee in a brioche for dessert. (There was also a fish course. I don't eat fish, but people seemed to like it.) I did not drink all of the six half-pints I was served; I had to drive home, and there was a limit to how much I could consume. But it was a true feast, in great company, and that's about the best life offers.

The great danger of depression — and I say this not because I am depressed (at the moment, I'm not), but because the latest posts have all seemed to deal with this subject — is the cycle of isolation. Humans are inconvenient and annoying and loud and kind of gross sometimes, but they can also be loving and kind and endlessly amusing. Sometimes all you need is just to get out there and meet some. Paradoxically, sometimes it's easier to do that in a small town.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Whatever it is, we are all the same."

The Song: "Secret World," Peter Gabriel. Words & music by Peter Gabriel. Track 10 of Us, 1992.
How/when acquired: Purchased cassette, 1992.
Listen/watch here.

I might not have bought this tape the day it came out, but it wasn't long after. It was the fall of 1992. I was living in a low-rent apartment complex near Baileys Crossroads, Virginia, and dating a man I suspected didn't even like me much. I bought my first new car — a Saturn XL — and it had a tape deck, which seemed an extraordinary luxury. This tape spent a lot of time in that deck.

As the title suggests, Us is all about finding connections with the people we love, and this is the last song on the album. Depending on one's mood, the song is either a celebration of or a eulogy for the world two people create when they're in love with each other. It's a fragile place, and for many (most?) people it doesn't last; the real world intrudes too sharply. But, bitter spinster that I am, I do believe that people who work at it can keep that secret world going, at least for moments here and there, at least enough to want to spend a life with that one other person. It seems to be the goal, anyway.

I've been a little startled by the venom and ugliness I've seen online in response to the announcement of Prince William's engagement to Kate Middleton. In her place I would not want to wear William's mother's engagement ring — if ever a piece of jewelry carried a curse, it would be that one — but I understand why he wanted her to have it. And for us Americans, it's really none of our business. We're not paying for any of it, and they're never going to be our heads of state. We settled all that 234 years ago. But any young couple deciding to make that leap deserves support; it's a hard road ahead for any set of newlyweds, and likely to be harder for them.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Long ago it must be;/I have a photograph./Preserve your memories/They're all that's left you."

The Song: "Bookends," Simon & Garfunkel. Words & music by Paul Simon. Track 7 of Bookends, 1968.
When/how acquired: Purchased cassette tape, c. 1987.
Listen/watch here.

Bookends is a wonderful example of how form dictates content, and why the disappearance of the LP really is a loss. This lovely song closes out the album's first side, a suite of songs about the phases of life and aging — written by a man who was 26 when the album was released. The second side, which isn't as good even though it includes at least two songs I'll probably quote here later, is a collection written for the soundtrack to The Graduate (a movie I've always considered overrated, but that's a post for a different day).

I got to see Simon & Garfunkel live on my last birthday in Los Angeles, as a gift from Gary, one of my oldest friends. It meant so much to me to see the two of them on stage, having managed to save their friendship after so many years, so many public squabbles and private injuries.

I don't take photographs. I don't even really keep photos that other people give me, and I rarely look at the pictures I have. Something about photographs feels like cheating, as if a photo somehow absolves me of having to do my own work of remembering.

As the next birthday approaches, though, I can imagine a time when I'll need the pictures. That scares me more than almost any other piece of aging, the idea of losing those memories. I think that's at least part of what this blog is for.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Take me out tonight/Because I want to see people and I/Want to see life."

The Song: "There is a Light That Never Goes Out," The Smiths. Words & music by Johnny Marr and Morrissey. Track 9 of The Queen is Dead, 1986.
How/when acquired: Illegal cassette copy, c. 1987; legal MP3 download, 2004
Listen/watch here.

It's a little disorienting, as I begin the last week of my 45th year, to think that this song is 24 years old — as distant from today's generation as "Hound Dog" was from my college-age self. But I am not ashamed of still liking the things I liked when I was 20, even if my middle-aged self thinks that this song teeters dangerously on the verge of self-parody. Violent emotion of any kind does. It can't help but do so, because that kind of passion and despair can't be self-conscious or regulated. The minute you step out to look at it, to hold it up to the light to question or even celebrate, you're not in the moment any more.

Part of adulthood, maybe, is realizing that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. This blog has a widget that keeps track of visitors, and in the past couple of weeks I have noticed a disturbing spike in visits to last year's post on Five Practical Reasons Not to Kill Yourself. An anonymous commenter who visited the post from Davidson College (yes, the site meter gives me that much information) earlier this week called that post cold and callous. I think I meant it to be. The whole point of that post was to dispel any ideas someone might have gotten (from songs like this one) that anything about suicide is romantic.

Because these lines, in the song's second verse, tell us what the singer really wants. He doesn't want to die, not really; he wants to see people, he wants to see life, and he wants not to feel separate from those things. He wants to be part of that light that never goes out, but he doesn't know how.

Here's a tip: the double-decker bus in this song's third verse is not the answer. To the people who come to this blog looking for reasons not to kill themselves, and to that unhappy Davidson student in particular, I say: You already know the most important reason not to kill yourself. You don't really want to. If you did, you wouldn't be asking the universe (in the form of the cold and anonymous Internet) to talk you out of it.

What you really want is to see people and to see life. Everybody else wants that, too.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"This ain't no party/This ain't no disco/This ain't no fooling around."

The Song: "Life During Wartime," Talking Heads. Words & music by David Byrne. Track 7 of Stop Making Sense, 1984.
How/when acquired: Gift LP, c. 1984.
Listen/watch here.

No holiday for me today; I am scrambling on a number of fronts, and will be through the weekend. But it is Veterans Day, so I wanted to take a moment to thank my dad and all the men and women who have served in this country's armed forces — including one of its newest members, my nephew, Airman Patrick Miller. Patrick graduated from basic training last week, and we're all very proud of him.

It's too easy for most Americans to forget that we're still at war, and will be for the foreseeable future. But almost every man or woman serving abroad leaves family behind, and they're all serving, too. If you know a wife or husband whose spouse is serving overseas, offer them some help: a meal, some babysitting time, a night out with friends. It will mean more than you can imagine.

This song originally appeared on 1979's Fear of Music. I never owned that, though I think my friend Adrienne did. A group of about a dozen of us went to see this movie the night it opened, sometime in the fall of 1984. Something went wrong with the projector or the sound system, and the movie ran without sound, which made the whole thing kind of pointless. We booed and hissed and might — I say might — have thrown things at the screen. They gave us our money back, and while I know that I did eventually see the movie in the theater, I have no memory of the event. The night we didn't see it was more fun, and is etched in my memory. There's a moral in there somewhere.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

"But just for a moment I wanna be free/To dream how I used to dream we could be."

The Song: "Let's Be Kids Again," Howling Bells. Words & Music by Howling Bells (Glenn Moule, Brendan Picchio, Joel Stein, Juanita Stein). Track 5 of Radio Wars, 2008.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2009
Listen here.

This CD was part of a birthday present last year; Howling Bells are an Australian band that should be better known in the United States.

A lot's going on this week, and I'm dealing with anxieties both real and imaginary. In the absence of a more thoughtful post, it's been almost two months since I posted a reading list.

Good Books I've Read This Fall

Peter Quinn, THE MAN WHO NEVER RETURNED. Peter Quinn wrote one of my all-time favorite books, a novel about the New York conscription riots called BANISHED CHILDREN OF EVE. This book, a sequel to his detective novel THE HOUR OF THE CAT (which I haven't read), is nowhere near as ambitious. Twenty-five years after the disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater, a magazine publisher hires PI Fintan Dunne to reopen the investigation. Quinn does a great job of recreating 1950s New York, and lays out the history in fascinating detail. But the Crater case is only one of the book's mysteries, and its solution is more satisfying than the book's larger puzzle, which felt a little far-fetched.

Clare O'Donohue, THE DOUBLE CROSS: A Someday Quilts Mystery. An above-average amateur sleuth mystery that manages to avoid most of the genre's usual pitfalls: the crime is taken seriously, and the sleuth has a plausible reason to be involved. Quilt-shop owner Nell Fitzgerald and her customer/friends go upstate to a bed-and-breakfast owned by a couple with an old connection to one of the quilters; Bernadette had once been engaged to George, but he married her best friend, Rita. Good characters and strong plotting, though one important figure undergoes a radical character change for no apparent reason about 2/3 of the way through the book.

Cammie McGovern, NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH. Librarian Betsy Treading gets out of prison after 12 years, when new evidence clears her of a neighbor's murder. She needs to figure out what really happened, and her search uncovers not only secrets she didn't know but things she had deliberately forgotten. Compelling but ultimately unsatisfying, maybe because of the narrowness of the narrator's point of view. What's here is great, but I wanted MORE; it all feels undeveloped, and the book ends with too many questions unanswered.

Graham Moore, THE SHERLOCKIAN. An impressive debut that moves back and forth between the present-day story of a hunt for Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary missing journal and the story of the months in Doyle's life that journal covered. Bram Stoker plays a key role, and the ghost of Oscar Wilde hangs low. The novel's ambitions exceed the author's skills, but Moore announces himself as a writer to watch.

Robert Love, THE GREAT OOM: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. Fascinating material about the compelling figure of Pierre Bernard, who more than anyone else brought yoga to middle-class America, and reinvented himself half-a-dozen times as spiritual guru, sports promoter, animal trainer and country gentleman. Bernard is part of a great American tradition of spiritual showmen, but the author never seems completely clear on what he believed or what he wanted.

Tom Franklin, CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER. A teenaged girl disappears without a trace, and the prime suspect is her shy classmate Larry Ott, who was the last person known to have seen her. Twenty-five years later, Larry is a recluse, permanently suspected of a crime that may not even have happened, and another girl goes missing. The town constable, Silas Jones, has secrets of his own, not least of which is an old, strange friendship with Larry. A gripping, heartbreaking, ultimately redemptive story about the power of old secrets. One painful revelation follows another in a way that feels not just right but inexorable, and Franklin manages a complex structure like a master. One of the best books I've read this year.

Spencer Quinn, TO FETCH A THIEF: A Chet and Bernie Mystery. Another great entry in this truly unique series, hardboiled detective novels narrated by Chet the Dog. This time out, Chet and his human partner, Bernie, investigate the disappearance of a circus elephant and her trainer. I always learn things about my own dog from these books, and they are genuinely suspenseful crime novels, with a real edge.

Monday, November 08, 2010

"Those romantic young boys/All they ever want to do is fight."

The Song: "Incident on 57th Street," Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. Words & music by Bruce Springsteen. Track 5 (Track 1, Side 2) of The Wild, The Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle, 1973.
How/when acquired: Gift LP, c. 1981.
Listen to a clip here.

This album is too often overlooked in discussions of Bruce Springsteen's music, even though it includes the essential "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" and the classic "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)." It's one of my favorites, an album that's like a collection of short stories. The band played the whole thing in concert in New York last year, and I wish I'd seen it.

A topic left undiscussed at last week's NoirCon was noir in popular music. This song certainly pays homage to classics of the genre, books and films like The Friends of Eddie Coyle — which, coincidentally or not, came out as a movie in 1973.

The question "What is noir?" has been so rehashed that by the second day of the conference, author/editor Anthony Neil Smith had a two-word answer that was not "Happy Birthday." But for people who don't spend their lives talking about it, I'll say that noir is romantic outsider fiction taken to its violent extreme. A lone individual, outside the mainstream, embarks on a course of action fueled by nothing but desire, although the nature of that desire may be obscure to the protagonist. Things don't end well. Noir requires that outsider protagonist, that overpowering desire, and that inexorable doom. At least, that's what I say.

But it is, for obvious reasons, a genre that appeals to young men. It might be an unforgivable generalization, but I'll say it anyway: for the most part, young women want to believe in romantic compulsions that end happily ever after. A certain breed of young man prefers romantic compulsions that end in flames. (Calling to mind another excellent example of modern noir, the David Cronenberg movie Crash.)

It was a good conference and a great chance to spend quality time with some people I hadn't seen much of at Bouchercon. It is dangerous to drop names, because I'll leave someone out — but highlights included Laura Lippman's interview of George Pelecanos, a discussion of Patricia Highsmith in film by Rich Edwards and Thomas Kaufman, a conversation between Megan Abbott and the aforementioned Anthony Neil Smith about the relationship of history and noir, and a tribute to the late David Thompson from Patti Abbott, Scott Cupp, Christa Faust, Scott Phillips, S.J. Rozan and Reed Farrel Coleman. Wallace Stroby and David Corbett told great stories about their personal encounters with the dark side, and I spent quality bar time with Judy Bobalik, Sarah Weinman, Rosanne Coleman, Kieran Shea, Sarah Cortez, Larry Light and Meredith Anthony. I even got to meet the legendary (and lovely) Bride of Swierczynski, also named Meredith, although I feel as if I barely talked to Duane.

As usual, I came away with lists of books I need to read and movies I need to watch. I shouldn't admit this, but I've never actually read The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Friday, November 05, 2010

"I might be great tomorrow, but hopeless yesterday."

The Song: "Don't Get Me Wrong," The Pretenders. Words & music by Chrissie Hynde. Track 13 of The Singles, 1987 (also Track 6 of Get Close, 1986, but I don't own that).
How/when acquired: MP3 download, 2007.
Watch/listen here.

In Philadelphia for NoirCon until Sunday. Normal service will resume on Monday.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

"I had no reason to be over-optimistic/But somehow when you smiled, I could brave bad weather."

The Song: "1921," The Who. Words & music by Pete Townshend. Track 2 of Tommy, 1969.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2006
Listen/watch here.

I always loved The Who, but didn't love Tommy. My first exposure to it was the Ken Russell film version, which frightened and confused me (as it was meant to). Tommy was one of the very first films I saw on HBO, when HBO came to Hampton Roads in 1981 or 1982. I was an unusually sheltered 15-year-old, but I've seen the film since and felt justified: there's no excuse for that movie. The stage show might be better, but I haven't seen it and probably won't.

That said, the music cannot be denied. This song works for me out of context; I don't want to think about the story being told, I just like the words and music. I like this couplet in particular, as it perfectly captures the feeling not of being in love, exactly, but of hoping/suspecting that someone might love us. Which would make us lovable, and thus resilient.

I'm rambling. The point I want to make this morning is that elections are all about this feeling of wanting to be loved, but not in the way we usually think about that. Of course politicians — or at least, a lot of politicians (Bill Clinton) — run for office because they want voters to love them. But I think voters elect politicians, particularly in "reaction" years like this one, because we want the politicians to love us.

Every love affair begins, or should, with that period of fascination, when we want to know everything about the object of our affections: What do you eat for breakfast? When did you lose your first tooth? Were you a Boy Scout? What was your confirmation name? It can't last, at least not at that level of intensity, and people start taking each other for granted until eventually — in bad relationships — they stop paying attention to each other at all. At which point, very often, they meet someone new who finds them fascinating.

That's all that happened yesterday. It was shocking to see some longtime veterans lose their seats; Rick Boucher (D-VA) has represented southwestern Virginia since I was a freshman in college. I don't even know if he was a good Congressman or a bad one, but it probably didn't matter. The Ninth District's voters just wanted to be wooed again.

This morning, as Maine continues to count its gubernatorial ballots, I feel cautiously optimistic. Last weekend's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear reminded us that if we smile, we can brave bad weather.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

"Mr. President, have pity on the working man."

The Song: "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)," Randy Newman. Words & music by Randy Newman. Track 4 of Good Old Boys, 1974.
How/when acquired: Purchased LP, 1988.
Listen to a clip here.

This might be the last vinyl album I ever bought. The turntable wasn't mine; it belonged to my then-fiance, and I haven't owned one since. I still own the LP, though. It lives in a cedar chest in my bedroom, and I wonder how badly the years have warped it.

Good Old Boys is a concept album that became the soundtrack for a musical version of All the King's Men produced at Washington's Arena Stage in 1988. The show blew me away, and it's still one of the best live performances I've ever seen; I don't know why it never went anywhere. But I needed the music, so I bought the album.

I voted for President Barack Obama. I still believe in him. I still like him. It still makes me happy that we elected him President; I was never prouder of my country than I was on Election Night 2008. But I have to admit that he seems a little out of touch.

It's not so unusual in Washington, a city full of people who grew up being the smartest kids in class. It takes a while to figure out that "smart" is not always what the situation calls for. Some people never do. Today's election might deliver that lesson in some painful ways, and I hope we all learn the right things from it.

Monday, November 01, 2010

"Get up, stand up/Stand up for your rights."

The Song: "Get Up, Stand Up," Bob Marley & the Wailers. Words & music by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Track 6 of Legend, 1984
How/when acquired: Gift cassette, 1989; gift CD, c. 2002.
Listen/watch here.

Yes, reggae purists, I know that "Get Up, Stand Up" was originally Track 1 of Burnin' (1973). Legend is what I own. In fact, I'd be surprised if any college-educated, 40-something white person in America doesn't own a copy of Legend. It is the best-selling reggae album of all time, and was essential to the cultural enlightenment of my whole generation.

It was not, however, my first exposure to reggae. That would have been Jimmy Cliff's movie The Harder They Come (1972), which my friend Adrienne and I saw at the Naro Expanded Cinema in 1980 or 1981. I don't remember much about the movie, but the music was thrilling. Our friend Melissa had grown up in Jamaica, and had all these records; she played them for us, and did not make fun of me, as would have been justified.

Tomorrow is Election Day. Maine's choices aren't great this year, but I'm voting anyway. If you can vote and don't, please leave a comment to remind me why we're friends.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid."

The Song: "John Wayne Gacy, Jr.," Sufjan Stevens. Words & music by Sufjan Stevens. Track 4 of (Come on Feel the) Illinois(e), 2005. Track 13 of Into the Dark, a soundtrack to the novels of John Connolly, 2007.
How/when acquired: Gift CDs, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

If you're looking for an extra scare this weekend, that video is one of the most chilling things I've ever seen.

"Humani nihil a me alienum puto," wrote the Roman playwright Terence: "nothing human is alien to me." This is why I read crime fiction, and probably why I hang out with crime writers. I can imagine myself capable of almost anything, given the circumstances; what would would those circumstances be?

In his very entertaining talk on Wednesday night, my friend John Connolly read from his new novel-in-progress, the next book in a series about a private detective who is literally as well as metaphorically haunted. The scene he read made a passing reference to what I think is the most important truth of stories about any human atrocity: the speed at which the horrifying becomes normal, once you're living it.

I'm sure that John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and others knew that other people wouldn't think that what they were doing was "normal." I'm equally sure that fairly early on in their stories, what they were doing became normal to them.

This morning I got up, checked my e-mail, threw a load of laundry in the washer, took the dog for a walk. I'm making coffee right now, and have the TV on for white noise ("Being John Malkovich" is on, which I haven't seen in ages). All of this is normal to me. I won't kill anyone today if I can help it. But I can imagine a world in which I did things I would not want the neighbors to know about, and I think — in fact, I hope — most of us can.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Five Semi-Random Questions with SCOTT PHILLIPS

Scott Phillips, author of The Ice Harvest, The Walkaway, and Cottonwood, is a man whose deceptively sweet nature masks a twisted soul. I mean that in the best possible way. He'll be at Noircon next week, but took a few minutes to answer five semi-random questions about his life and his newest book.

1. What sport did you play in high school?

None. I did not play any sport. I was a nerd.

2. What kind of car do you drive right now?

A sleek 2005 Hyundai Accent.

3. Do you currently have any pets?

I do not. The last one died and I didn’t replace it. It was a cat. A really obnoxious cat.

4. What’s your favorite place you ever lived?

Bordeaux, 2006. I was there for a couple of months, as writer in residence in the Department of Gironde. I had to go talk to libraries and schools, and be interviewed frequently by my friend Christophe Dupuis, a bookseller and scholar. It was great. I wish they’d ask me again. It helped that I spoke French, so they didn’t have to hire an interpreter.

5. Briefly describe your new book and how readers can get it.

RUT is the story of a small town in Colorado, 40 years from now, as it spirals toward extinction. It’s the story of a place and a time where nothing really works any more, and I hope it’s a funny book about decline and fall. It is available from Concord Free Press. Readers are asked to donate to charity in exchange for receiving a free book, and report their donations at At the moment, Concord Free Press is the only place the book is available.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"It's not a deal, not a test nor a love of something fated (death)."

The Song: "Nautical Disaster," The Tragically Hip. Words & music by The Tragically Hip (Gordon Downie, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay). Track 7 of Day for Night, 1994.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, c. 1996
Listen/watch here.

In honor of Halloween, the next few posts will be lyrics that send chills down my spine. This line does it every time, a distillation of the randomness of disaster and survival. The meaning we assign to things has no effect on its outcome.

According to an interview with Gord Downie, "Nautical Disaster" was inspired by the sinking of the Bismarck, and ties that disaster to the end of the singer's relationship with a woman named Susan. Devastation comes from any direction, at any time. Some live, some die. There is no why.

My brother Ed is responsible for introducing me to The Tragically Hip, and to this album in particular. I think I remember buying this CD at a store in a strip mall on Little River Turnpike in Alexandria. I'm pretty sure I've seen them live, but I can't remember when or where. The Hip are like that; they hide under the surface of your consciousness, until you happen to hear one of their songs and remember anew, "Wow, this is a really good band." Maybe that's a Canadian attribute?

Continuing the spirit of the season, I'm headed down to Kennebooks tonight, where the internationally-beloved John Connolly will discuss and sign his latest Charlie Parker novel, THE WHISPERERS, at 7:00 p.m.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"So I gave myself to God/There was a pregnant pause before he said OK."

The Song: "The State I'm In," Belle & Sebastian. Words & music by Stuart Murdoch. Track 1 of Tigermilk, 1996.
How/when acquired: Downloaded MP3, 2007.
Listen/watch here.

I would like to pretend that I'm so cool I bought Tigermilk when it was new, but of course I didn't. I did not become aware of Belle & Sebastian until I moved to Los Angeles, and heard them on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. Around the same time, they got a funny shout-out in the movie High Fidelity:

Barry (Jack Black): Holy shite. What the fuck is that?
Dick (Todd Louiso): It's the new Belle and Sebastian...
Rob (John Cusack): It's a record we've been listening to and enjoying, Barry.
Barry: Well, that's unfortunate, because it sucks ass.

Transatlantic friends refer to them as "cardigan music," which may be a reference to the fact that the second track on this album, "Expectations," opens with the sound of Stuart Murdoch unzipping his cardigan, or maybe just to the clothing preferences of Belle & Sebastian's fans.

Anyway, I was late to them, and did not acquire Tigermilk until 2007, after my friend Kevin quoted this song to me and expressed surprise that I didn't own it. An iTunes gift certificate at Christmas remedied the omission.

"Precious" is a word I've heard used to describe Belle & Sebastian, and "twee" is another, although "twee" is one of those words that seems to mean whatever the person using it wants it to mean. But if they take themselves a little seriously, even when they're joking, what is wrong with that? I have said before in this space that I often feel wistful for the days of my adolescence, when I took myself seriously and felt I had a right to do so.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Don't listen to your teacher, you're not crazy/Just smarter than the rest of them"

The Song: "Life is Sweet," Maria McKee. Words & music by Maria McKee. Track 11 of Life is Sweet, 1996.
How/when acquired: Purchased used CD, 1999
Listen/watch here.

I bought this CD and You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, McKee's 1993 masterpiece, at Amoeba Music in Los Angeles during my month-long scouting trip in 1999, before I moved there. Life is Sweet was exactly the album I needed, and hit so close to home that the first time I listened to it, I burst into tears. (Today's quotation was almost from another song off this album, "Smarter," but it's so close to my own life story it's too personal to post here. And no, you can't listen to it online. I checked. Buy a copy if you want to know.)

Yesterday a friend asked, in an apparent non sequitur, "How patient are you?" I had no idea what he was asking. We've been friends for almost ten years, and I've been plenty patient with him in that time (as he has been with me, of course).

I gave him a blank look and he said, "Well, you're really smart. How patient are you with people who aren't as smart as you?"

Here is something that should not be a secret: I am not as smart as I pretend to be. I am not as smart as anyone thinks I am, and quite often that includes myself. I never have been. I have an uncanny verbal memory, and I'm good at words. That is not "smart." I can barely multiply two-digit numbers without a calculator. I am terrified of money. I'm an awful driver, and had no hand-eye coordination even before I started to lose my vision. I didn't learn to tie my shoes or tell time until I was well into the first grade. Anyone who has seen my apartment knows that I lack quite a few basic life skills. Everybody does certain things better than I do.

What, then, would I have to be patient about? I'm busy being grateful that people are patient with me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"And I need a job,/So I want to be a paperback writer."

The Song: "Paperback Writer," The Beatles. Words & music by Lennon/McCartney. Single, 1966. Track 14 of The Beatles 1, 2000.
How/when acquired: Gift CD, 2000.
Listen/watch here.

That link is to a short film the Beatles themselves made to promote the single, along with one they did for the B-side, "Rain." They were arguably the first two true music videos. "Paperback Writer" is one of Paul's, though both Lennon and McCartney are credited as usual.

The great paradox of readers' conventions and book events is that they put me way behind on my reading. I have two manuscripts to finish reading for notes and a book to finish for script coverage, and I declined some books I actually want to read at Bouchercon simply because I have no idea when I'll get to them. I don't read as fast as I used to, for reasons that range from the proliferation of distractions to the fact that the way I read has changed. It's getting harder and harder for me to turn off the editor in my head, even with books I'm reading for pleasure. Earlier this year I had to set aside an award-winning debut novel because I could not restrain myself from picking up a red pen and slashing away at needless words.

A good bit of my living comes from aspiring authors, and I'm always excited to find new good work. But I worry, coming away from Bouchercon, about aspiring authors who are more interested in being read than in reading. I heard more than one say he or she was too busy writing to read, and that alarms me. I also worry about the aspiring writers who count on being able to support themselves by writing fiction, because only a fraction of the published novelists I know can do that. A couple of my friends do very well, but the vast majority still have day jobs, even with multiple titles in bookstores.

It's a great leap and a lonely effort to sit down and write a book. It's a hero's journey, and money isn't enough reason to do it, even if you sell it for hundreds of thousands of dollars — which about as likely as winning the lottery, in that we all know someone who has, but it wasn't us. It has to be about something more important, or you're almost bound to be disappointed.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"If songs were lines/In a conversation/The situation would be fine."

The Song: "Hazey Jane II," Nick Drake. Words & music by Nick Drake. Track 2 of Bryter Later, 1970.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 2004.
Listen/watch here.

I often think I'd communicate more effectively if I could just carry around my iPod and play songs for people, rather than try to put words together myself. Presumably that's the point of mix tapes, or at least the point of mix tapes that aren't assembled for the sole purpose of impressing someone with one's musical taste (I've gotten a few of those).

The music of Nick Drake (1948-74) has enjoyed something of a revival over the past decade, at least in part because it's been part of several TV advertising campaigns (VW, AT&T). But I discovered him because his music is a key element in Phil Rickman's fine novel The Wine of Angels, which launched his Merrily Watkins series. A major character in the novel (and in the series to follow) is obsessed with Nick Drake's music, and more dangerously with the legacy of his early death. I am old enough to understand that there's nothing romantic about early death; it's just wasteful, and it makes me angry as much as it makes me sad. But Rickman wrote so beautifully about the music that I had to find it for myself.

Nick Drake only made three studio albums, and I bought them all: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, and Pink Moon. (A compilation of unreleased home recordings, Family Tree, was released in 2007; I don't have it.) The music is light but heartfelt, almost mystical, and formed the soundtrack for the six weeks I spent waiting to move from Los Angeles to Maine. Nick Drake's death — an overdose of anti-depressants — may or may not have been deliberate, but he made it clear that he never felt at home in the world. During my own period of homelessness, it was exactly what I needed.

Blatant self-promotion alert: A piece I wrote to mark Agatha Christie's 120th birthday is now up on Gale-Cengage's Books & Authors blog. Check it out here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"I'm so tired, I don't know what to do."

The song: "I'm So Tired," The Beatles. Words & music by John Lennon & Paul McCartney. Track 2 of side 2 of The Beatles (the White Album), 1968.
How/when acquired: Gift LP, c. 1979.
Listen/watch here.

I have no real memory of when or how I got this album. I think it was a gift for my 14th birthday, but that might be confabulation. If you remember giving it to me, speak up. My mother, who worked for Capitol Records before her marriage, owned all the American Beatles LPs through Beatles '65. Those records were the soundtrack of my childhood, but everything from Rubber Soul on, I found on my own.

Although credited to Lennon/McCartney (like most Beatles songs), this one is John's, and he sings it. He wrote it on that famous Transcendental Meditation retreat to India, in February-March 1968, and it's addressed to Yoko ("I wonder should I call you/But I know what you would do . . .").

On my second day home, I ought to be back to the normal routine. Instead, I woke at 4:00 a.m. for no reason, and could not get back to sleep. I got up at 6:00, had five productive hours, ran some errands, then crashed hard for about an hour and a half. Now I need to get back to work but feel fuzzy, with a catch in my breathing that bodes no good at all. I always get sick after Bouchercon, a combination of overexposure to other people, sleep deprivation, and (just possibly) alcohol abuse. I'm pounding Vitamin C and fluids, will go to bed early, and hope to catch whatever this is in the bud.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"For your kindness I'm in debt to you."

The Song: "Kind & Generous," Natalie Merchant. Words & Music by Natalie Merchant. Track 3 of Ophelia, 1998.
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1999.
Listen/watch here.

Twelve years after I first heard this song, it can still surprise me into tears. I listen to it whenever I need a reminder to be grateful, which is often.

I was telling a story at a party a couple of years ago when my friend Jenny said, "Yeah, but you live that kind of magic life." It's true. My whole life is a series of miraculous surprises, starting with my birth as an unexpected twin. From day one, the universe has come to my rescue; I try never to take it for granted, and I try to be grateful.

It happened again last night. I took buses from New York to Portland, then a cab back to the airport, where I'd left my car. I found my car, but could not find my keys.

I carry a giant black tote bag, a gift from my friend Karen L., that is something like a magician's hat. I never know exactly what's in there, and sometimes it's best not to look too closely. But I dumped the entire contents on the hood of my Beetle, sure that the keys would fall from the bottom. They didn't.

The last place I remembered having them was at the airport a week ago, so I thought it couldn't hurt to ask whether anyone had found them there and turned them in. Otherwise, they could be anywhere: on a plane, at Dulles Airport, somewhere in San Francisco, somewhere in New York City, on a bus traveling the Northeast Corridor.

"We don't have lost-and-found on site any more," the woman at the Traveler's Aid desk told me. "It got to be too much. There's an automated system. I can give you the phone number." I called it and got voice mail. I left my name, phone number, and details of what I'd lost, with no real hope that anyone would return my call.

Plan B was to return to the bus station, catch a bus to Augusta, then take a cab home and get my neighbor to let me in. I have an extra car key somewhere in the apartment (though to be honest, I don't know where), so figured I could beg another friend for a ride to Portland today to pick up my car. Dizzy wasn't scheduled for pickup until 4:00 this afternoon.

So I walked to the taxi booth, staffed by a tall, handsome older man (a man who looked very much like old pictures of my grandfather McLaughlin, in fact) named Dan, who knew I had not come in on a plane. I told him my whole sad story and he said, "Let me make a phone call. Or two, actually." He did, and asked, "How many keys were on the ring?" I told him, and added that the key ring also has an old card from the Beverly Hills Library (sentimental; I couldn't give it up). "Let's go upstairs," he said.

"They found them?" I said. "They have them?"

They did indeed. Twenty minutes later, I had ransomed my car and was headed for home. I picked up Dizzy first thing this morning, just because I missed him.

So thank you, Dan, and thank you, St. Anthony (finder of lost things), and thank you, whatever forces in the universe continue to save me from myself, time and time again. I will try not to make it so hard for you, I promise.