Saturday, July 31, 2010

Five Things I'll Be Doing Next Month (Instead of Blogging)

Well, my friends, it's the end of another blog year. Thanks for coming along on the Five a Day adventure; I liked this theme so much I may return to it occasionally in the future, whatever next year's official theme turns out to be. (At the moment, I have no idea.) I'll probably post a couple of reading lists in August, and might put up another Five Random Questions or two if I find some willing subjects. Otherwise, I plan to spend August getting things done. Here are five items on my to-do list.

1. Clean my apartment. Seriously. I have company coming in another week or two, and this place is a shambles even by my standards.

2. Get some "real" writing done. I have two book-length projects — one for a client, one of my own — that need sustained attention.

3. Look for a real job. Yeah. I'm not looking to give up my freelance work — and have no plans to do so — but for a whole host of reasons, I need to get back to a more conventional work environment: something that has benefits, something that requires me to socialize and collaborate with other human beings, something that means I have to wear clothing other than sweatpants or worn-out jeans. I'm willing to relocate; I'm willing to work part-time; I'd rather be a worker-bee than a manager. If you know of anything, send me an email.

4. Figure out where I need/want to live. Related to but separate from #3. I am losing my night vision, and need to move to a place — in Maine or elsewhere — that has public transportation and brighter street lights. I hate the idea of moving, but I don't know how much longer I'll be able to drive at night, even on routes I know well.

5. Catch up on my reading. My to-be-read pile is completely out of control, even though I currently have five books going (one in audio, two in e-format, three in hardcover). Titles that are waiting include The Deputy by Victor Gischler, Faithful Place by Tana French, Expiration Date by Duane Swiercyznski, Savages by Don Winslow, The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer, Fragile by Lisa Unger . . . and I don't even have a copy of Laura Lippman's I'd Know You Anywhere yet, because it's not out until August 17.

What are you planning to do with your last month of summer? Leave your own goals in the comments section, and don't be a stranger. See you in September!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Five Random Questions with KENT HARRINGTON

My friend and client Kent Harrington is the author of six crime novels, including THE GOOD PHYSICIAN and RED JUNGLE. His latest book, SATELLITE CIRCUS, is the first to be published to the Amazon Kindle by Get-Back Editions, a new venture of the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency. Kent's best-known novel, the cult classic DIA DE LOS MUERTOS, will be available in Kindle format from Get-Back Editions on August 3.

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

I traded some stuff when I was a junior in high school for a 1959 VW bug with that small round window in the back pre-1960 VW bugs have – classic. This was in the '70s and the car was in bad shape when I got it. But I loved that car! It had no front windshield, so when I passed cops I would turn the windshield wipers on like I was running the washer! Of course in the winter it was a real drag, and I couldn’t always drive it. But I got it in the summer and until the rain started that winter, it was a blast. I used to go up on the fire trails we have here in Marin, and the thing was like a jeep. You couldn’t get it stuck if you tried.

The hippie girls I dated (I was a jock, so this was unusual as the two camps didn’t mix back then) seemed much more interesting than the bra-wearing girls; they read books and liked sex, didn’t hold it against me that I was short-haired for some reason, and they were interested in the larger world so we actually talked. Anyway, they noticed my funky little green bug, which gave me game in their eyes. But obviously the VW was hard to get to know each other in! I would have to remember to bring a blanket! I still think about that car and the interesting girls who rode in it. It was a good time to be young. The car was repossessed by the guy I’d bought it from, as I failed to make the necessary payments and he was the kind of older guy you didn’t argue with. So I just handed him the keys, but it hurt. I miss that VW’s cool Blaupunkt radio to this day.

2. What's the best book you've read this year?

It’s a cookbook I bought in Italy this summer. I’m like the kid in the movie Breaking Away right now. I’m in love with all things Italian since I got back, and am cooking from this book. It’s called The Italian Diet by Gino D’Acampo. I highly recommend it, as it’s all easy but delicious recipes that are very authentic. One of the mind blowing things I learned in Italy is that the Italian food we get here in the Bay Area — which is very good, mind you — and Italian food you get in Italy are not the same. The food in Italy is beyond anything I’ve ever had.

3. Who plays you in the movie of your life story?

Colin Farrell, because of his don’t-give-a-damn attitude. I am, fortunately or unfortunately, possessed of that attitude. It’s what you get — in my case — when you mix Latin and Irish together and shake!

4. What's the worst job you ever had?

It was working selling life insurance in Daly City, California, the foggiest place in the world, and making “cold calls.” I was the worst salesman in America; I finally got fired. My father was a great salesman — truly gifted. I couldn’t sell ten dollar bills to you for five dollars. I don’t know why, as I did try to live up to my dad’s gift. I did get a novel out of the experience, though.

5. For Bouchercon registrants, what's the one thing every first-time visitor to San Francisco must do?

I love this question because I love San Francisco. I am, on my dad’s side, a fifth-generation San Franciscan, and was born there. (My mother rushed home from Guatemala so I would be born in the States.) I think there are many neighborhoods that have retained their characters despite the inroads corporate architecture has made in the city, especially along Market Street where my dad’s office used to be. (He had a great view up Market Street.) However, the Ferry Building is very cool now, as it was redone well, and visitors should stop in and check it out. The Mission District, for example, retains much of its character; so do North Beach and Nob Hill. They are pretty much the way they were forty years ago.

But I think the most important place to visit is Coit Tower because it is not only oddly evocative of what San Francisco was, but perhaps — because of the important murals on the ground floor — evocative of what the greater Bay Area was like, which in turn will help you understand modern San Francisco. Whatever you do, do not miss the WPA murals on the ground floor, please.

San Francisco is unlike any other city in the US. It’s always had a special air and sense of freedom, I swear it’s true. People are just more open-minded here. Thank God I was born here!

The view from the top of Coit Tower (after you ride one of the most interesting old-time elevators in the world) is breathtaking, and if you look to the south you’ll see hills with the kind of views that made San Francisco so famous. That view of the hills from Coit Tower is a education and a wonder. There is a profundity to the experience, believe me. Then of course you have the bay, and the views towards Berkeley, etc., that are mind-blowing. The views from up there put the city in a context I don’t think you can get from anywhere else. (And are a good orientation for your visit.) Go. Afterwards, the parking lot below the tower is a great place to view the Embarcadero, Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, etc.

October is the very best time in San Francisco, too. We usually get an Indian summer in October, and everything is soft and delicious. Everywhere I’ve been — in and out of the US — when I tell people I’m from San Francisco, they smile! Really.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Five Must-Dos on a Visit to Los Angeles

The lovely and talented Claire Bea and her retinue of admirers are heading out to Los Angeles next week for some adventures I am not yet allowed to discuss in this space. I wish I were going, too, but could not make it work; instead, I offer this list of five essential experiences for the first time visitor. Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments section.

It goes without saying, no visit to Los Angeles is complete without a visit to The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. Tell them I sent you.

1. Drive Sunset Boulevard. Los Angeles was arguably the first major American city constructed to serve the automobile. The boulevards run east to west, from downtown to the ocean, and the best way to take in Los Angeles is simply to drive across it. Sunset is the most scenic route, if you're willing to put up with occasional traffic bottlenecks. Start downtown — have breakfast at The Pantry first — and take your time, stopping at whatever catches your attention along the way. Beverly Hills is approximately halfway, so you can have lunch there and do some shopping. Continue west through Bel Air, Brentwood, Westwood, Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades, and you can have cocktails in Malibu at sunset.

2. See a movie. I know; why would you travel 2,500 miles to spend two hours in a darkened movie theater? Trust me on this one. Movies are better in Los Angeles. For one thing, it simply feels different to watch a movie in a city where it's the way everyone makes their living. But in a good theater in Los Angeles, the sound is better, the projection is better, and the choice of films is better than in the average East Coast multiplex. The ArcLight Hollywood is the true state of the art, but the big movie palaces in Westwood are great, too, and even the multiplexes in Santa Monica are better than their East Coast counterparts.

3. Shop Amoeba Music. This may be a generational thing, but I miss record stores. Maine has Bull Moose, which is still a magic place to spend an afternoon, but Amoeba Music takes up a full city block. You'll find things there you never knew existed. I can't walk in there without setting rules for myself: I bring in a set amount of cash, and that's all I'm allowed to spend, and I have to set a time limit.

4. Visit the Getty Villa. This takes some advance planning, because you have to book tickets (free) ahead of time. But it's worth doing, because it's simply breathtaking. The giant complex in Westwood is worth a visit as well, but if you only have time for one, the Villa is the place to go. If you go to the Westwood center, go late in the day to see the sunset over the hills; you can have a glass of wine on the patio, or have dinner at the Getty's restaurant, which has spectacular views.

5. Go to the taping of a live television show. I am not a fan of studio tours, which don't show you much and give you little sense of a TV or film studio as being a place where people are actually working. You get a much better sense of "the business we call show" by being a member of a live studio audience. It almost doesn't matter which show. Several websites offer free tickets, or you can just see who's handing them out along the stretch of Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Since one of these items (I can't say which) is already on the Bea-Fithian agenda, I'll add a bonus sixth:

6. Have cocktails at Musso & Frank's. The Musso & Frank Grill has been a Hollywood institution since 1919. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Orson Welles — they all ate here. (Of course, the last time I was there, I sat across a room from Ron Jeremy. But that's kind of my point.) More important, they drank here. The Musso & Frank martini (or gimlet, my preference) is a work of art, served in a chilled glass with a carafe of the extra serving next to it. The menu, which I've heard is changing, is like time travel; it's the only place I've ever seen Welsh rarebit served. I recommend it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Five Favorite Movies

Something about posting personal "Top Five" lists feels like cheating — but I'm juggling multiple deadlines this week and we only have another four days left on this blog theme, so I'm not ashamed to take the easy way out.

Lists like these are always arbitrary. These are my top five today; ask me tomorrow, and it might be a different list. I'm not even going to try to rank these within the list, so they're in alphabetical order. Leave your own favorites in the comments section.

1. All About Eve (1950). I came late to this movie — in fact, I don't think I saw it until I moved to Los Angeles. It's possible that I wouldn't have appreciated it as much before I lived in L.A., although no one can deny the sheer brilliance of this movie. Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, an aging Broadway star, and Anne Baxter is the oh-so-helpful Eve Harrington, who wants everything Margo has. George Sanders steals the show as gossip columnist Addison DeWitt, who manages to be both slimy and sexy: "I'm Addison DeWitt, and I'm nobody's fool — least of all yours." Hard to choose between this movie and Sunset Boulevard, a very different take on similar themes, but today I'll give Eve the edge.

2. Broadcast News (1987). Holly Hunter plays Jane Craig, a TV news producer struggling against lower standards (represented by handsome new anchor Tom Grunick, played by William Hurt) and oblivious to the devotion of her colleague, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks in the best role of his career). So much of finding a favorite movie is about when you see it; this one came out the year after I left school, when I was first trying to figure out how to be a grown-up and a career woman in Washington, DC. For better or worse, Jane Craig was my role model. I have written about this movie before, more than once. I own it, but will still watch it whenever I find it on the cable TV schedule. I can recite long stretches of its dialogue by heart.

3. The Exorcist (1973). Yeah, I think this has to go on the list. I read the book before I saw the movie, and the book scared me silly. The movie is better. Linda Blair is always the one people mention, but Ellen Burstyn gives an extraordinary performance as Chris MacNeil, a brittle, self-absorbed actress whose daughter is taken over by forces beyond her imagination. Jason Miller is gut-wrenching as Father Karras, whose final triumph over doubt is a Pyrrhic victory. I don't own this movie, because I can only stand to watch it about once a year; it still scares me that much.

4. A Face in the Crowd (1957). I was lucky enough to grow up near one of the nation's great independent movie theaters, the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk, VA. When I was a teenager, the Naro showed double features every night, some thematically-linked combination of old, foreign, and art-house movies that formed my basic education in film. If I ever win the lottery (unlikely, as we know, since I don't play), I want to run a theater just like the old Naro. A Face in the Crowd would make a perfect double feature with Broadcast News. Patricia Neal plays an ambitious small-town radio producer who discovers Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a charismatic grifter whose larger-than-life personality becomes the foundation of a media empire. Mesmerizing, uncannily insightful, and should be required viewing for anyone interested in American politics.

5. Manhattan (1979). Yes, the things we now know about Woody Allen (and wish we didn't) can't help but change the way we watch this movie. But I fell in love with it in 1981, the summer I was 15, and love it the way I still love my high school boyfriend. Woody Allen plays a character who is basically Woody Allen, having a doomed affair with the teenaged Mariel Hemingway and falling in love with Diane Keaton as a neurotic, self-destructive writer. Woody is at least trying to be a grown-up here, without understanding what that means; the ending is both tragic and hopeful, and Mariel Hemingway's last line may be the best final line in any movie, ever.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Five MIniature Golf Courses in Central Maine

My friends Jodi, Joe and Richard and I have spent Sundays this summer playing the miniature golf courses of central Maine. Years ago I played real golf, but these days it's too big a commitment of time and money. Miniature golf provides the same opportunities for socializing and focus at a tiny fraction of the price, in 90 minutes instead of four hours. Plus, while I was never much good at real golf, miniature golf offers the constant possibility of random brilliance. I've always been a sucker for the cheap-and-easy payoff.

It took us a while to get to five different courses, but we hit our fifth yesterday, which allows me to post this list. We're always looking for new ones, and we're willing to drive up to an hour or so — if you've got a recommendation, please leave it in the comments section.

From best to worst, these are the ones we've played so far:

1. Dolphin Mini Golf, Boothbay. Far and away the best course we've played, Dolphin Mini Golf hosted the 2008 U.S. Open of miniature golf. It's deceptively compact; the holes are short but challenging, with most of them Par-3s. No fancy statues, no real gimmicks, just tricky slopes and angles in a beautiful, shady setting. It's family-owned, and the Stoddards are passionate mini-golfers, playing tournaments around the country in the off-season. At $5.50 a round, it's the most expensive course we played, but worth it, and worth the drive. The course also has a free Shell Museum (the private collection of the owners' father, Kenneth E. Stoddard), a covered bridge over a lily pond, and an ice cream bar.

2. Gifford's Mini Golf & Batting, Waterville. Gifford's is known for serving the best ice cream in Maine, at five locations around the state. The Waterville and Skowhegan locations also have miniature golf courses. Gifford's in Waterville is the course most like the ones I remember from childhood, with brightly-colored statues and artificial hazards (a miniature ice cream truck, a spinning windmill, bridges, etc.). We played after a heavy rain, so the course was a little damp, but it's well-kept and pretty. A round is $5.00, but you get two-for-one on Tuesdays.

3. T's Miniature Golf, Manchester. T's miniature golf course is part of a larger complex that takes golf seriously, so this course has no plaster animals or whirligigs. It's the only course we've played twice, and I expect we'll go back again soon; it's just a good, clean, no-nonsense course that teaches you how to play it as you go along. The front nine are all par-2s, the back nine are a mix of par-2s and par-3s. T's too is very pretty, well-landscaped with wildflowers and water hazards, shady and clean. A round costs $5.00.

4. Deb's Ice Cream and Mini Golf, Randolph. I could walk to this course if I wanted to, and I actually might, next month. Deb's was the beginning of our mini-golf adventure this summer. It's a little shabby, but sweet and well laid-out and very affordable (at $4.00/round), and the ice cream is excellent.

5. Roy's All Steak Hamburgers and Golf Center, Auburn. We played this course on a gray, muggy day. That might color my attitude, but I'd say it wasn't worth the trip. It's a bargain, at $4/round, but the course is drab, grubby and unshaded. We didn't try the all-steak hamburgers; the ice cream was fine, but if you can't find good ice cream during the summer in Maine, you're not even trying.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Five Movie Trailers I Saw Yesterday

My cousin Kathleen has spent a big chunk of the last two years working on Salt, so I saw it last night. Everybody should see it: great fun, totally implausible but unapologetically kick-ass, and Angelina Jolie is an inspiration to us all.

Salt being a summer blockbuster, we got a full dose of preview trailers — six, in fact, although I only remember five, so that's today's list.

1. Faster. Dwayne Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton star, but I couldn't hope to tell you what the movie's about. Then again, the trailer showed Dwayne Johnson and Billy Bob Thornton driving cars fast. I guess it's self-explanatory. This movie opens over Thanksgiving weekend.

2. The Debt. Helen Mirren seems to have replaced Michael Caine as the hardest-working British actor; she's in everything these days. This is a thriller that moves back and forth in time between the present day and 1965, when three young Mossad agents capture and kill a Nazi known as the "surgeon of Birkenau." Decades later, a man claiming to be that Nazi turns up alive in the Ukraine. U.S. release date: December 29.

3. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Michael Douglas reprises his role as Gordon Gekko, out of prison and back in the game. Shia LeBoeuf is his would-be son-in-law, Carey Mulligan is his estranged daughter. I could not be less interested in this movie, and the trailer made me feel I'd seen the whole thing anyway. In theaters on September 24.

4. The Town. Now, this movie I'm excited about, and not just because it's based on my favorite Chuck Hogan novel, Prince of Thieves. (The book is being rereleased as a movie tie-in, retitled The Town; if you haven't read it, you should.) Ben Affleck is a bank robber in love with a woman he took hostage in a robbery; Jon Hamm is the FBI agent determined to nail him. I cannot wait to see this movie, and I will be at the theater when it opens on September 10.

5. The Other Guys. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play hapless New York cops who seize a chance to go after some big crime lords, Starsky-and-Hutch style. It's a great premise, but the in-your-face trailer made me wonder whether I'd already seen every laugh in the movie — and the trailer wasn't even that funny. Still, Michael Keaton's in it, and it's been way too long since I saw him on screen. It opens August 6.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Five Favorite Things that are Bad For Me

Today's list is a variation on a theme offered by Christopher Bea — he had suggested favorite foods and drinks that are bad for me, but that's too narrow. My life is full of self-destructive self-indulgences, and since I plan to spend August trying to reform my ways, I'll name a few of them here.

What's not on this list? Caffeine: I need it, I love it, I have the equivalent of three cups a day (a triple-shot skim latte, first thing in the morning), and I refuse to believe it is bad for me. Alcohol: I don't drink every day, and rarely have more than two drinks in an evening, and all the research says it's good for me. Chocolate: don't care much about it, and too much of it gives me a terrible headache. Leave your own favorite vices in the comments section.

1. Solitude. People ask all the time why I moved from Los Angeles to Gardiner, and I say that it's because they don't actually let you be an anchoress any more. The truth is that I enjoy my own company very much, and socializing with others requires energy and accountability. Catholic mythology aside, nothing is virtuous about solitude. Solitude lets you get away with stuff society would never put up with, and solitude increases productivity only if you're working to deadlines. I spend too much time by myself, it's not good for me, and it needs to change.

2. Procrastination. Related to but separate from #1. Sometimes it's laziness, sometimes it's distraction, very often it's fear, but there's no reason in the world I should procrastinate as much as I do, unless it's a secret addiction to the adrenalin rush of having to get it all done at the last minute. Oh, wait. I may have just stumbled onto an essential secret truth about my life . . . is it possible that I am addicted to that hunted feeling? Not only possible, but likely. Sigh.

3. Jumbo gum drops. Random, but every couple of months I have an overwhelming craving for those big gum drops. The smaller spice drops do nothing for me; it's about texture as much as the artificial "fruit" flavors. The ones in the shape of orange slices don't work, either; they have to be the big domes.

4. Cheese curls. Puffed, not crunchy. Cheez Doodles are the original and best. I can't have them in the apartment, because once the bag's open, they're gone.

5. "House" reruns. My latest addiction. The many wonders of Hugh Laurie aside, the message of "House" is that it's okay to be a terrible human being if you're really smart and good at your job. This is NOT a message I need fed to me ten times a week. (Seriously; if I wanted to, I could probably watch more than a dozen episodes of "House" a week. And sometimes, I really, really want to.)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Five Things I Did Not Know About Moose

You know you're in Maine when you see the first of these signs along I-95. After five years here, I'm skeptical; I have yet to see a live moose, though I have seen dead ones, and I have heard plenty of stories about friends' encounters with them. Sometime next month I might venture north on a quest. In the meantime, I've been looking stuff up.

1. Moose (Alces alces) are large deer. The largest deer, in fact, standing six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing as much as 1,800 pounds. I don't know why it didn't occur to me that moose were a species of deer; I always thought of them being more like cows.

2. Moose are good swimmers. They'll even go underwater for up to 30 seconds at a time. They like to eat aquatic plants, and can swim for miles.

3. Moose can run really fast. I think of moose as being kind of slow and ponderous, but they can hit speeds of 35 miles an hour, and 20 miles an hour is no big deal for them.

4. Moose will use their hooves to defend themselves before they use their antlers. Only the males have antlers, so don't think you're any safer from the females.

5. A castrated male moose stops growing new antlers. If a male moose is castrated, he sheds his antlers immediately and grows a new, misshapen set ("devil's antlers") that he never sheds again. Skeptics of natural selection, take note: moose antlers are mainly for display, to attract females. A castrated moose's deformed antlers tell females he's no good for them. Female moose are probably smarter about this than female human beings.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Five Oldest Women's Colleges

"First" and "oldest" are tricky designations. If something starts as one type of establishment and becomes another, does it get to claim that it is the oldest? I think so, in the way that caterpillars become butterflies and kittens become cats.

Chris Bea, gentleman and scholar, asked for a list about colleges and universities. The standard "five oldest" is obvious and boring: Harvard (1636), William and Mary (1693), Yale (1701), Princeton (1746), Columbia (1754). I thought about putting together a list of the oldest co-educational colleges, but that's complicated: many colleges allowed women to audit classes before they awarded women degrees, and allowed women into certain programs but not others, so where do you draw the line?

Here, therefore, are the oldest American institutions of higher learning that still exist primarily to educate women.

1. Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC. Founded in 1772 as the "Little Girls' School," it became a boarding school for girls and young women in 1802, and was renamed Salem Female Academy in 1866. It conferred its first degrees in the 1890s. Today it is a four-year liberal arts college for women, which accepts men into continuing education and graduate degree programs. Forbes magazine ranks it 67th among "America's Best Colleges."

2. Stephens College, Columbia, MO. Established in 1833 as Columbia Female Academy, the school became Stephens Female College in the 1860s. Stephens also permits men into its Graduate and Continuing Studies division. In 1944, Stephens became the first college in the country to offer an aviation program for women. It is recognized as one of the nation's best undergraduate theater programs, and counts Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick among its alumnae.

3. Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MO. The oldest of the "Seven Sisters" was founded in 1837, and is the oldest women's college that was originally founded as an institute of higher learning for women. Its student body of 2,200 is extremely diverse, with one in three students coming from a background other than "white American." Mount Holyoke's founder, Mary Lyon, was a chemist who believed in science education for women, and her college continues this tradition.

4. Wesleyan College, Macon, GA. I said firsts were tricky: Wesleyan College, founded in 1839, was the first women's college created specifically to grant degrees to its students. It was chartered as the "Georgia Female College" and awarded its first degrees in July 1840. Its name changed to Wesleyan Female College in 1843, then to Wesleyan College in 1917. It is also the birthplace of the first two Greek societies for women, Alpha Delta Pi and Phi Mu. Among its famous alumnae are Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong May-ling) and her two sisters, three of the most influential women in modern Chinese history.

5. Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia, PA. Sarah Worthington King Peter, daughter of a U.S. Senator and wife of a British diplomat, founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1848. Renamed the Moore College of Art & Design in 1989, the school remains the nation's only women's visual arts college, offering Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in ten disciplines. It has a student body of approximately 500; its distinguished alumnae include the fashion designer Adrienne Vittadini.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Five Historical Figures I'd Want on a Desert Island

Today's topic was suggested by my friend Julie Barrett, and it's a more complex question than it might appear at first glance. Six people trapped together on a desert island would form their own society, so you have to pick carefully — not just for company, but for the essential skills island living would require. Gender balance and group dynamics would be important, too, so you'd have to pick a group whose members would get along with each other.

Who would you want on your island? Leave your guest list in the comments section.

1. Marcus Aurelius. He might be a little gloomy, but he'd get us organized, he'd hold us all to very high standards, and he'd probably know how to build things.

2. Jane Austen. If her books and letters are anything to go by, Jane Austen was cheerful, sociable, and generally a delight to be around. She also had important English country lady skills that I don't have, such as gardening and sewing.

3. Julia Child. Somebody would have to cook, and I've always thought that Julia Child would be great company. She spoke several languages, had a terrific sense of humor, and worked extremely hard.

4. Homer. His blindness would limit his ability to work, but he'd keep us entertained in the evenings, and in his spare time could immortalize us all with a new epic poem.

5. Thomas Jefferson. Not only was he charming, well-read, and a great inventor of gadgets, but he was also an ingenious farmer, and he played the violin. Somebody on this island would have to be able to make music.

People I have deliberately left off this list, whom I might include if this were a dinner party instead of a new civilization: Elizabeth I (fascinating but too moody); Oscar Wilde (amusing, useless in a crisis); Paul of Tarsus (too inflexible); Tz'u-hsi, last Empress of China (homicidal); and Leonardo da Vinci (too easily distracted).

Monday, July 19, 2010

Five Things in Any Woman's Handbag

We're in the last two weeks of this incarnation of the Answer Girl blog, so I'm taking requests. Any lists you'd like me to include that I haven't gotten to yet?

This is my own laziness, as much as any generous impulse. In the absence of my own ideas this morning, I threw it out to my Facebook friends, and have already gotten several excellent suggestions. This one came from my friend Ann Marie, who is much better at all things feminine than I am — so Ann Marie, please add your own items in the comments section.

1. Wallet or Billfold. Women have big, unwieldy wallets. I had a great red one that was a gift from my friend Maeve, and I stuffed so much in it, over a period of years, that it eventually came apart. I've since replaced it with a much smaller black one, in an effort to be more efficient/less packratty, but it's just as bulging.

2. Sunglasses. At the moment, I can't find mine, which is why I often carry more than one pair. I can't find any of them right now.

3. Keys. I have a giant black shoulder bag that was a gift from my friend Karen, who gets fed up at how shabby I allow my bags to get. I am very grateful for friends who pay more attention to this stuff than I do. The size of the bag, however, means that my keys always plunge to the bottom, so I'm perpetually looking for them. My sister Kathy addresses this problem by keeping her keys on a cluster of key rings, so that the bundle of key rings is always the largest thing in her purse.

4. Lipstick and lip balm. Not the same thing, and you do need both, especially in winter. In wintertime I am constantly thinking I've run out of Chapstick, and buying more, or throwing an extra one into my bag because I couldn't find the last one. At any given time in winter, my bag may hold up to five tubes of lip balm.

5. Pens. I don't always have paper (though I usually carry a hard-sided notebook), but I always have pens. They need to be replenished periodically, since I lend them out and leave them places.

And what else? To be perfectly honest, this list would need to be at least 12 items long . . .

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Book: THE SECRET LOVERS by Charles McCarry

Today's post is a contribution to Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books project. Thanks for asking me to play, Patti!

THE SECRET LOVERS by Charles McCarry

Thanks to the fine work of the Overlook Press, Charles McCarry seems to be enjoying something of a rediscovery. If you’ve heard of him, the title you probably know is The Tears of Autumn (1974), McCarry’s extraordinarily plausible alternate history of the Kennedy assassination. At the center of that book is CIA operative Paul Christopher, whose investigation leaves him outside the organization and exiled from everything he loves.

But what does Christopher love, or what did he? The Secret Lovers, published three years after The Tears of Autumn but set three years before the Kennedy assassination, in 1960, tells the story. The title is a pun, referring not only to lovers who hide their relationships, but to the people like Christopher and his colleagues who love secrets for their own sake.

We meet Paul Christopher in Berlin, where a German courier passes him a manuscript written by a Russian dissident. The courier is killed in a hit-and-run accident moments later, and Christopher must find the source of the leak that led to the courier’s death.

The urgency of this search parallels the desperation Christopher feels about his marriage to Cathy, a beautiful and mercurial American who has only the vaguest understanding of Christopher’s real job. All Cathy knows is that some portion of Paul’s mind is constantly preoccupied, hidden from her, unavailable. Her need for his undivided attention spurs her to more and more irrational behavior — public infidelities, tantrums, fights.

Regardless of the leak within his operation, Christopher’s mission is to get the Russian dissident’s manuscript published. A key part of this plan is Otto Rothchild, a legendary, semi-retired agent now living in Paris with his wife Maria, herself a former agent. Otto is confined to a wheelchair, the victim of a mysterious medical disorder; Maria has given up her professional life to care for him. Otto and Maria are the Christophers’ only friends as a married couple, and Maria is one of the few people who can understand Cathy’s torment.

Of course, since The Secret Lovers is a spy novel, nothing is as it seems. Christopher’s loyalties make him vulnerable at every turn. That those loyalties will betray him is not a surprise. How they betray him is truly shocking. The Secret Lovers is a violently romantic novel, in the classic sense of that word: the characters act not out of logic, but out of raw emotion. It’s one of those rare books that demands a reader’s heart as well as her mind, and is my favorite Cold War espionage novel.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Five Random Songs

Juggling several projects today, as well as a recurring ear congestion/tinnitus combination that makes me feel as if my head is underwater. It's a good thing I'm not flying anywhere. In the absence of anything more substantive, it's been a while since I posted one of these lists.

1. "Friday Night Saturday Morning," Nouvelle Vague. A cover of the Specials song. This is why I love cover versions: sung by a girl, this is a totally different song from the original. Man, it's been a really long time since I danced in a circle — or come home on Saturday morning, for that matter. When you don't work in an office, Friday night loses a lot of its meaning.

2. "Sexfaldur," Amiina. Instrumental Icelandic electronica, a gift from the same friend who gave me the Nouvelle Vague CD. ITunes calls this music "Unclassifiable," and they would know. It's lovely, though, and good music to work by. This particular track is wistful, and feels like autumn to me. Apparently the title means "sixfold" — can anyone confirm this?

3. "Goodbye Ohio," Too Much Joy. Or "Goodbyeohio," according to the iTunes playlist. I miss Too Much Joy, the post-punk pop band I probably saw more than any other in the 1990s. Now I follow Tim Quirk on Twitter. It's not the same.

4. "Forever," Eurhythmics. It's easy to mock Annie Lennox for taking herself too seriously, but you know what? That's nothing but fear of embarrassment. There was a time in your life — or at least, in my life — when I took myself seriously and felt I had a right to do that. It was called adolescence. I miss that, too.

5. "Lean on Me," Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock & Keith Urban. Never understood the appeal of Sheryl Crow, don't care about Keith Urban, but I like Kid Rock and this song isn't bad, if a little on-the-nose. Still, it was a fundraiser for Haiti relief, which is why I own it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Five Vice Presidents Who Took Office as President

At a traffic light the other day I saw a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker on the car in the other lane. I'd almost forgotten how close John Edwards came to national office, but then thought, "Well, just Vice President."

Still, Vice President is a heartbeat away from the highest office in the land. Eight men have had to take on this role earlier than they'd planned, becoming some of our more obscure Presidents. These are five who had greatness thrust upon them.

1. John Tyler, 1841-1845. Tyler's running mate, William Henry Harrison ("Tippecanoe" of the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too"), died only 31 days into his term. Tyler wasn't even in Washington at the time, having returned to his home in Williamsburg, VA after overseeing the Senate's confirmation of Harrison's cabinet on March 5, 1841. The nation was only 65 years old; Harrison was only the ninth President. No one had died in office before. While the Constitution specified that the responsibilities of the Presidency "shall devolve on the Vice President," no one knew exactly what that meant, and in fact the issues weren't fully clarified until the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967. It was Tyler who decided that he should be sworn in as President, to serve out the remainder of Harrison's office. His political rivals and the contemporary press referred to him as "His Accidency." He was unpopular from the beginning, not only with rivals such as John Quincy Adams (serving in the U.S. House of Representatives after his single term as President), but also with theoretical allies such as Henry Clay, who had assumed that President Harrison would be his puppet. Instead, Tyler vetoed two bills to create a national bank, and became the first target of an impeachment motion after vetoing a tariff bill. On the plus side, he settled a potential rebellion in Rhode Island without military intervention, led the campaign for the annexation of Texas, and established the U.S. interest in Hawaii. Unable to secure his own party's nomination to a second term, he returned to private life in 1845. When he's remembered now, it's mostly for having more children (15) than any other U.S. President.

2. Millard Fillmore, 1850-1853. Millard Fillmore's presidency was short but important. Fillmore and his President, Zachary Taylor, were uneasy political allies; although Fillmore came from a free state (New York), he was an appeaser on the issue of slavery, and supported allowing slavery in the new Western territories. He presided over the Senate debates on the Missouri Compromise before Taylor died of cholera and medical incompetence in July 1850, after only 16 months in office. As President, Fillmore oversaw the final shaping of the Missouri Compromise. In trying to please everyone, he pleased no one; he saved the Union at the cost of his own political career. He did not win his own party's nomination for the 1852 election, and lost an 1856 run on the Know-Nothing ticket. Something about Fillmore's story seems sad; for a highly entertaining alternative history, check out George Pendle's brilliant THE REMARKABLE MILLARD FILLMORE: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President.

3. Andrew Johnson, 1865-1869. As far as I can tell, he managed to have an illustrious political career without being liked by anyone. He was a Senator from Tennessee who took the Union side when Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861 (East Tennessee, which Johnson represented, voted against secession). He became military governor of occupied Tennessee in 1862, and was nominated Vice President in 1864 as part of the National Union Party ticket. He was supposed to be assassinated on the same night as President Lincoln, but his would-be assassin, George Atzerodt, chickened out and got drunk instead. Therefore Johnson succeeded Lincoln as President, but under an undeserved cloud of suspicion: why had he survived when several others had been attacked? Johnson didn't help his cause, vetoing his own party's civil rights bill (it was overridden) and opposing the Fourteenth Amendment. He survived two separate impeachment actions, and didn't even try to run for reelection as President. Instead, he ran for one of Tennessee's Senate seats, and lost. He was eventually reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1874, but served only five months before dying of a stroke.

4. Chester A. Arthur, 1881-1885. Chester A. Arthur was a New York political appointee seen as lightweight at best and corrupt at worst when he was added to James A. Garfield's presidential ticket. Arthur was the only man who'd accept the job, once it became clear that Garfield would be the Republican party's compromise candidate, an alternative to Ulysses S. Grant and James G. Blaine. He surprised everyone when he took office after Garfield's assassination by being a very good president. His championship of civil service reform meant the end of years of patronage, which was good for government but bad for his political career. He signed federal legislation that banned polygamists from voting or holding public office, and vetoed legislation that would have imposed a 20-year-ban on Chinese immigration. A long-hidden case of Bright's disease, a degenerative kidney disorder, led to a serious decline in his health; although he was a candidate for President in 1884, he didn't campaign very hard, and the nomination went to James G. Blaine. He was quite ill by the time he left office, and died of a stroke in the fall of 1886.

5. Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929. A native of Vermont, Coolidge was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1918. His handling of the Boston Police Strike of 1919 drew national attention, and spurred suggestions that he run for President. While he drew a few convention votes as a "favorite son" candidate, the 1920 nomination went to Warren G. Harding of Ohio, with Coolidge as Vice President. Coolidge was the first Vice President to attend Cabinet meetings, which was helpful when he took office after Harding's death in 1923. Coolidge was on vacation in Vermont when he got the news, and took the oath of office from his own father, a notary public. He surprised almost everyone when he ran for reelection in 1924. The death of his son, Calvin Jr., in the midst of the election year made it a subdued campaign, but Coolidge was reelected easily. The economy flourished under his hands-off approach ("Generally speaking, the business of America is business"). He declined to run for reelection in 1928, and left office well ahead of the 1929 stock market crash. He died of a heart attack in 1933, at the age of 60.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Five Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

It's the height of the summer publishing season, with not one but four books coming out today that I can't wait to read: The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke, Damaged by Alex Kava, Faithful Place by Tana French, and Savages by Don Winslow. It's also the U.S. publication date of The Whisperers by my friend and client John Connolly — which you should buy from an independent mystery bookstore, so you can get a copy of "Love & Whispers," the CD of music he compiled as a soundtrack.

Anyway, this is why I will never catch up with my reading. At the moment I have three books going, strategically positioned in spots around my (small) apartment, and I'm listening to an audiobook recording of another — to say nothing of the manuscripts I'm working on for clients. Yes, it's a little distracting; it may not be the most efficient way to work. But it means that I finish several things more or less at once, and that gives me an inflated sense of accomplishment. So it works out, kind of.

These are five books I've finished in the last week or so. Driving from Gardiner to Bangor to Brunswick and back in one day helped with the audiobook part of the program.

1. Michael Koryta, SO COLD THE RIVER. This supernatural thriller has gotten more praise and attention than any book so far this summer, so my expectations were high. It's a solid summer read, in the tradition of Stephen King's best work. Filmmaker Eric Shaw, who had hoped to make it big in Hollywood, supports himself as a videographer at weddings and funerals. A woman asks Eric to make a biographical tribute video about her dying father-in-law, and gives him a bottle of spring water from her father-in-law's hometown — which, despite having been on a shelf for 70 years, is ice cold. Eric Shaw traces the water to its source, a spring in Southern Indiana that holds the truth of an old and terrible evil.

2. David Benioff, CITY OF THIEVES. The opening chapter of this book establishes it as the story of how the author's Russian grandfather survived the siege of Leningrad, although the grandfather tells the author to "make it up" where necessary. Seventeen-year-old Lev, alone in the starving city after his mother and sister flee, is arrested for looting the corpse of a German pilot. The NKVD colonel who runs the prison camp offers Lev and Kolya, a romantic young Army deserter, their freedom if they can procure a dozen eggs for the Colonel's daughter's wedding. What follows is an amazing odyssey, horrifying and hilarious and fiercely moving. Ron Perlman's narration is a perfect match of reader and material; I was so absorbed in the story I didn't want to get out of the car once I'd reached my destination.

3. Paul Doiron, THE POACHER'S SON. This will be the book I recommend from now on to anyone who wants to know what Maine is "really like." Mike Bowditch, a rookie Maine Game Warden, gets a mysterious late-night phone message from his estranged father, an alcoholic wilderness guide who's always supported himself on the fringes of the law. The next day, Mike learns that his father is the prime suspect in the fatal shootings of a real estate developer and a sheriff's deputy. Convinced of his father's innocence, Mike puts his own career at risk to get the truth. Look for this book to show up on many awards shortlists next year; I read it in a single day, and did not want to put it down even to walk the dog.

4. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, FEVER DREAM. FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is one of crime fiction's oddest protagonists, and I realized in this novel that he's basically Batman: a wealthy, mysterious bachelor with a dark personal history and an endless supply of cool toys and unlikely skills. But this novel is a solid return to form after last year's disappointing CEMETERY DANCE, as Pendergast avenges the previously-unsuspected murder of his wife, Helen, 12 years earlier. (She had been mauled to death by a lion; I don't remember this being mentioned in earlier books, but anyway it turned out to be an elaborate murder plot.) When these books are good — and this one is — this series is as much fun as a Saturday morning cartoon, and FEVER DREAM is a perfect vacation read.

5. Kent Harrington, SATELLITE CIRCUS. Cheating a little, because I edited this book as it was being written — but it's just been published in e-format on Amazon, so I promptly downloaded it and read it again. It's just as good as I remembered it. British tabloid journalist Stanley Jones, on his last of last chances, arrives in the small Caribbean nation of Tortola to report on the disappearance of an American college student. The local police chief, Lawrence O'Conner, knows he has only days before American authorities take the investigation away from him, or worse. The Mary Waters disappearance becomes something more than a simple missing-persons case for both of them, as SATELLITE CIRCUS takes its place alongside the classic suspense novels of Graham Greene and John Le Carre. I'd say it even if I hadn't worked on the book: it's something very special, and I can't understand why it hasn't found a traditional publisher yet. At least the e-publication means Kent's hardcore fans won't have to wait.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Big Five Personality Traits

I think of it as the Turkmenbashi phenomenon: something I was previously unaware of suddenly presents itself at all turns. A dozen or so years ago, I saw a passing reference to the leader of Turkmenistan, which won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. His name was Saparmurat Niyazov, and he had led the Turkmen Communist Party for six years before becoming President of the new state.

In the space of a week or so, although no major news was coming out of Turkmenistan, I started to see and hear mentions of Turkmenbashi everywhere. Magazines mentioned him. There was something on "MacNeil/Lehrer." I had lunch with a friend, a government economist, who told me she'd just read a report on his wacky infrastructure projects. (This was years before 2004, when he commissioned a giant ice palace. It was never built; Turkmenistan is a hot desert.)

Jung wrote about this kind of synchronicity, which he said was not about causality but about the meaning we assign to these coincidences. That is, the universe wasn't telling me to pay attention to Turkmenbashi — unless I thought it was, which would be my own added meaning. What mattered was that I was noticing it, and what personal meaning that signified.

Anyway, over the past several days I've seen half a dozen mentions of the Big Five personality traits, a list I was previously unaware of. For most of the 1990s I worked for men who believed in theories of management and organizational behavior the way I believe in the communion of saints. My colleagues and I all got tested and evaluated and labeled according to the strengths and weaknesses of our personality traits, but we used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the DISC program. (If you care, I am an ENFP — though just barely E — and an almost perfectly-balanced strong D/strong I. Click through the links to take the tests for yourself.)

The Big Five theory of personality traits, developed by University of Chicago psychologist Donald W. Fiske is similar to these other systems, but adds one delightful factor that I wish my colleagues and I had been tested on while I was still working in an office. It would have explained so much! The traits are these:

1. Openness. Curious and adventurous, or cautious and conservative?

2. Conscientiousness. Neat, orderly and goal-oriented, or undisciplined, haphazard, and feckless? (I do love that word "feckless." I wish it meant something better, and that I didn't have to feel guilty about applying it to myself.)

3. Extraversion. Jung and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator don't use this word in the way we commonly understand it; it refers to where people get their energy, not to how people appear to others. Among the Big Five, though, "extraversion" does refer to the outward appearance of sociability, talkativeness, engagement with others and emotional connection.

4. Agreeableness. Are you helpful, kind, compassionate, or do you compete and conflict with others?

5. Neuroticism. How vulnerable are you to negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and despair?

It's probably best that my co-workers were never able to put a numerical value on the extent of my neuroticism, and I'm sure they didn't need a test to notify them of it. But I sure would have loved to see this number for some of them.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Five Ways Mel Gibson Can Save His Career

I overcame my addiction to TMZ a while back, but even I cannot look away from the train wreck that is Mel Gibson. It's so extreme it hardly seems possible. His behavior is not just terrible but wantonly and creatively bizarre, beyond anything my imagination could produce on my shakiest woman-on-the-verge day.

Can he save himself? I think so. He's a talented guy who used to have a lot of friends. Anyone who was a close friend of Jodie Foster's (as he was, I've heard) must have something going for him. I once went to the Tridentine Rite Mass at his private chapel in Malibu, and he seemed like an ordinary dad at the head of a big, normal family. He shook hands with people outside the church after Mass, the way you do, and I was impressed at how much it all felt like a regular Sunday outside the church I'd grown up in.

So yeah, I think he can save his career and salvage his life, if he wants to. If you've got ideas, leave them in the comments section.

1. Rehab and public repentance. The tried-and-true approach is the obvious one. It needs to be a real rehab, one of those places run by monks in the Irish countryside or the Arizona desert, and he needs to be gone for at least 90 days. When he gets out, he needs to spend another 90 days doing some kind of below-the-radar volunteer work, preferably with his older children, before saying anything in public. Then he can found a school or a hospital somewhere in Africa, and start the round of talk shows.

2. Be diagnosed with a brain tumor or other serious neurological illness. If it turns out that all of this bizarre behavior is because of a temporal lobe tumor, a previously undiagnosed brain injury, or early-onset Alzheimer's (which can lead to sudden, irrational rages), no apology will be necessary, and we'll forgive him and feel bad for him. Saving his career will be less important than saving his life, but at least we'll all be able to watch Chicken Run again with a clear conscience.

3. Announce that this has all been an elaborate social experiment, filmed as a documentary to be released at Sundance next year. Now, it's possible that Oksana Grigorievna didn't know that she was part of this experiment, which would make it all the longest-ever episode of "Punk'd." But Mel Gibson already had a reputation for taking practical jokes too far, so maybe that's what happened here. No? Too much of a stretch?

4. Have Oksana Grigorievna exposed as a Russian spy. Come on, during all these news reports about spies among us, didn't you take a minute to wonder about Mel Gibson's baby mama? Well, I did. Not that physical and verbal abuse would have been acceptable even if she were a spy, but desperate men can do desperate things, as we know from Mel Gibson's movies.

5. A staged death, followed by facial reconstruction surgery, a name change, and a new life as an independent film producer in Eastern Europe. He could just reinvent himself. He's a good actor, he can learn new languages and change his appearance. Sure, he's put a lot of time and effort into "Mel Gibson," but what is life if not the promise of constant self-reinvention? If he suddenly disappears, and we start hearing about a strangely compelling Polish actor-director making small movies about the Crusades, I'll know what happened.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Five Random Questions with GREGG HURWITZ

Gregg Hurwitz is the internationally-bestselling author of ten novels, including the Tim Rackley series and the Thriller-award nominated The Crime Writer. He has written Wolverine, Punisher and Moon Knight comics for Marvel, and in his spare time, he serves as a consulting producer on the television series "V." A former competitive pole-vaulter, Gregg is one of a handful of bestselling authors who can say that he knows Dizzy personally. His new book, They're Watching, is the Mystery Bookstore's Crime Club selection for July. He kindly consented to five random questions. (Photo by Gwen + Eddie)

1. If you could be a superhero, which one would you be?

The Punisher.

2. What is your favorite flavor of Campbell's soup?

Tomato. With grilled cheese to dip in it.

3. What was the last movie you saw in the theater, and was it worth the money?

Knight and Day. And yes, especially with my lowered expectations from unfair buzz.

4. If you could give your 16-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Riding on the roofs of cars isn't the smartest way to get from party to party.

5. No wagering, but who's your pick to win the World Cup?

Spain. No wagering! Bah.

If you're in the Los Angeles area, you can see Gregg in person at The Mystery Bookstore tomorrow (Saturday, July 10) at 4:00 p.m. If you can't make it — or even if you can — a trailer for THEY'RE WATCHING is online here.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Five Songs about Toledo

Some days' lists are more random than others. Today's is the product of a conversation at pub trivia last night, with a teammate who grew up in Toledo, Ohio. Toledo, Ohio (founded 1833; pop. 293,201) is not to be confused with Toledo, Spain (founded c. 600 B.C.; pop. 80,810); one is a World Heritage Site, and one is an industrial city on the Maumee River. Nevertheless the name "Toledo" is fun to say, a lilting amphibrach (three syllables, short-long-short), and it lends itself to musical phrasing.

That's the only explanation I can think of for its showing up in an unusual number of popular songs. I had three in my iTunes, and my friend Joe (the trivia teammate) came up with two more without even thinking about it. What other medium-sized cities have this many songs written about them? If you can think of some, leave them in the comments section.

1. "Because of Toledo," The Blue Nile. The saddest, most beautiful song on the album High, and possibly its emotional centerpiece: "Because of Toledo/I got sober and stayed clean . . ." Listen to a live version here (the song itself starts around 1:19).

2. "Lucille," Kenny Rogers. Of course. "In a bar in Toledo/Across from the depot/On a barstool she took off her ring."

3. "Saturday Night Toledo Ohio," John Denver. This was Joe's contribution. I have no trouble admitting my ignorance of the works of John Denver, but this appears on two of his albums, and was a staple of his live shows. It's not very complimentary; the first line is "Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio, is like being nowhere at all."

4. "Tina Toledo's Street-Walking Blues," Ryan Adams. This one might be cheating, as it's not about Toledo at all, but about a young woman who supports her kid by working as a prostitute in New York City. "Tina Toledo" is presumably her street name, though, and she must have picked it for a reason, right?

5. "Toledo," Elvis Costello. From the album he made with Burt Bacharach, Painted from Memory. I was trying to remember the exact words to this song last night, and mangled it; the relevant lines go, "But do people living in Toledo/Know that the name hasn't traveled very well/And do people living in Ohio/Dream of that Spanish citadel?" Do they?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Five Signs of Heat Exhaustion

It's going to be another 90-degree day in Maine, and I don't have air conditioning. I have errands to run this morning in my air-conditioned car, and will probably spend the afternoon in the Maine State Library. In between, Dizzy and I will head down to the river so he can take a swim.

Stay cool, and watch for the following symptoms, which can be signs of heat exhaustion. You can cool yourself down by drinking non-alcoholic beverages, plunging your hands and feet into cold water, applying cold compresses to pressure points, taking a cold shower, and — obviously — going someplace air-conditioned.

1. Heavy sweating. You're supposed to sweat, though; if you're not sweating at all, you're in serious trouble, and need to seek medical help immediately.

2. Muscle cramps. A sign of dehydration, muscle cramps may also signal sodium depletion, low calcium, low magnesium, and/or low potassium. Water is almost always better than anything else for dehydration, but Gatorade was originally developed to replace minerals and electrolytes lost in excessive heat.

3. Tiredness and weakness. There's a reason animals sleep through the heat of the day. Afternoon naps are a good idea.

4. Headache. Another sign of dehydration. Drink more water.

5. Nausea and vomiting. By the time you start throwing up, things are getting dangerous, because that makes you even more dehydrated. Heat stroke is a medical emergency that can be fatal. It makes victims disoriented; if you suspect that someone near you has heat stroke, call 911 or get them to an emergency room immediately.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Five Mysterious Disappearances

Last week marked the 73rd anniversary of the day Amelia Earhart disappeared. The most promising modern hypothesis is that she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, strayed south of their charted course, ran out of fuel and landed on Gardner Island, one of the Phoenix Islands in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati. Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) was uninhabited at the time, and later efforts to settle it ultimately failed because of the lack of fresh water. We'll never know, but if Earhart and Noonan survived their crash, they may well have died of dehydration.

It's not as easy for the modern Westerner to disappear, though it still happens all the time. In college, a castmate of mine didn't come back from spring break. I never heard what happened to him. His parents filed a missing persons report and hired a private investigator, but he was over 18, and the assumption was that he'd had some kind of breakdown. I heard someone had seen him in the Greyhound bus station in downtown DC, but that was only a rumor, and he never came back to school.

It has occurred to me more than once that this blog is a sort of insurance policy against my own disappearance. I take August off, but otherwise if I miss more than two days at a time, people start to check in by email and phone. It makes me think that everyone who lives alone should probably keep a blog. That wasn't an option for these people.

1. The Roanoke Colony, c. 1588. In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh sent a group of 117 men, women and children to found a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island, near present-day Manteo, North Carolina. An earlier attempt to settle the site had failed, but this did not deter new colonists hoping for wealth and opportunity. Relations with the local Croatan tribe were never good, and got worse after a colonist was killed. The colony's governor, John White, sailed back to England to ask for help. Weather and the Spanish Armada kept him from returning until 1590. By extraordinary bad luck, the years 1587-89 marked the peak of area's worst drought in 800 years. White found the settlement's stockade abandoned, but not in a way that suggested the colonists had fled in a hurry. The name "Croatoan" was carved into a post, and the letters "Cro" were carved into a tree. White thought this might mean that the colony had moved to nearby Croatoan Island, but a coming storm — it was August, the heart of hurricane season — forced him to abandon his search, and he never made it back. The most popular (and happiest) theory is that the colonists were assimilated into one of the native communities.

2. Benjamin Bathurst, 1809. Benjamin Bathurst was a British diplomatic envoy who was sent to Vienna in 1809 to shore up the English-Austrian alliance against France. After French forces moved into Austria, Austria made a separate treaty with France, and Bathurst needed to return to England. He set out for Hamburg with a German courier, under assumed names. They stopped off for food and fresh horses at an inn in Perleberg, near Berlin, and when the time came to resume their journey, Bathurst was gone. His disappearance went unnoticed in England for weeks, but once it was reported, a massive search mobilized. Wild rumors circulated. The disappearance caught the imagination of the British press, and inspired several early science fiction stories. In 1852 a skeleton with a bashed-in skull was found under a nearby stable, but it was impossible to identify the remains as Bathurst's.

3. The Mary Celeste, 1872. The Mary Celeste, a 107-foot brigantine, left Staten Island for Genoa, Italy on November 7, 1872. She carried a captain, a crew of seven, and the captain's wife and two-year-old daughter, as well as a cargo of commercial alcohol. On December 4 or 5, the Dei Gratia, a Canadian merchant ship that had left New York a week after the Mary Celeste, spotted the Mary Celeste adrift, though still under sail. The captains of the two ships were friends; the Dei Gratia sailed in to investigate. When the Dei Gratia's mate boarded the ship, he found it "a wet mess," but intact, still laden with cargo — and empty. The people were gone, along with all of the ship's papers except for the captain's log book, which had a final entry dated November 24. The last entry on the ship's slate was dated November 25. No trace of the captain, his family, or the crew was ever found.

4. Ambrose Bierce, c.1914. The journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce was a prickly, cranky man who had survived the Civil War (including the Battle of Shiloh), an ugly divorce, and the loss of his two sons. At the age of 71, he left Washington, D.C. for a tour of the battlefields he had fought on in the Civil War. From there he went to Mexico, where the revolution was underway. He attached himself to Pancho Villa's army as a reporter, and filed an account of the Battle of Tierra Blanca in November 1913. On December 26, he wrote a letter from Chihuahua. He was never heard from again.

5. Jimmy Hoffa, 1975. The most famous disappearance of modern times has to be that of union leader Jimmy Hoffa, last seen in the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. He had been working on his autobiography, and trying to overturn a federal ban on participating in union governance that had been part of the deal to release him from prison in 1971. Hoffa had told people he was going to meet two men with known Mafia ties — Anthony Giacolone, from Detroit, and Anthony Provenzano, from Union City, NJ — at the restaurant, but they claimed to know nothing about this, and were found to be miles away at the time of Hoffa's disappearance. The assumption has always been that Hoffa was murdered and his remains destroyed, but authorities have never found any evidence to confirm this theory.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Five Forgotten Signers of the Declaration of Independence

I'm feeling more independent today than I'd like to be, far from the people I care about most. Since I didn't expect to be here this weekend, I made no plans, and the thought of inviting myself somewhere makes me want to weep in a corner.

Turner Classic Movies to the rescue, with its usual holiday screening of 1776. If you didn't grow up in Virginia, chances are that 1776 is the only way you'd ever know the name Richard Henry Lee. But 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence, and only a handful of them are household names. Here are five whose names you might not recognize.

1. Abraham Clark, New Jersey. You've seen signs for Clark Township if you've traveled the Garden State Parkway; it's named after this man. He was born into a farm family in present-day Elizabeth, NJ in 1725, but his father thought him too frail to be a farmer. Instead he trained as a surveyor and lawyer, where he specialized in land disputes. He served in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1784, and died in 1794 at the age of 69.

2. William Hooper, North Carolina. A Boston native, he moved to Wilmington, NC in 1767, at the age of 18, to practice law. (I'm always amazed by how willing people were to travel great distances back then, when it must have been grueling.) He was a member of the Continental Congress for only one term, 1774-76, and was among its younger members. He later served briefly as a federal judge, but died of illness in 1790.

3. Thomas Lynch Jr., South Carolina. South Carolina's delegation was the youngest, with an average age of 29; Lynch signed the Declaration only four days before his 27th birthday. He was born in South Carolina but educated in England, where he earned a degree with honors from Cambridge. He returned to South Carolina in 1772 and became involved almost immediately in the quest for independence. Illness forced him to resign from the Continental Congress soon after he signed the Declaration of Independence. Later that year, he and his wife sailed to the West Indies, presumably for his health. The ship was lost at sea.

4. Matthew Thornton, New Hampshire. Born in Ireland in 1714, he came to the colonies with his parents at the age of three, first settling in what is now Wiscasset, Maine. (Maine was part of the colony of Massachusetts then, and didn't become a separate state until 1820.) His family moved to Worcester, MA, where he trained as a physician. In 1745 he was appointed surgeon to the New Hampshire troops. He settled in Londonderry, N.H. and eventually became President of the Provincial Assembly. In 1775, he drafted what became the nation's first state constitution after the rejection of British rule. He arrived at the Continental Congress too late to participate in the debate over independence, but in time to sign the Declaration. He went on to become the first Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and died in 1803 at the age of 89.

5. George Walton, Georgia. He was born in 1741 in Prince Edward County, VA, to parents who died soon afterwards. Reared by an uncle, he made his way to Savannah, where he studied law. He served in the Continental Congress from 1776-77 and from 1780-81, and fought as a Colonel in the Georgia Militia in between. Captured as a prisoner of war and released, he was elected Governor of Georgia in 1779, but served only two months because of a lifelong feud with his fellow Georgia representative Button Gwinnett. Walton was present at the 1777 duel at which Lachlan McIntosh killed Gwinnett. Censured for his role, Walton nevertheless went on to hold a variety of public offices — including one more short stint as Governor — before dying in 1804.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Five Random Facts about Canada

Happy Canada Day! This was going to be the year I got to New Brunswick, but it hasn't happened yet. Road trip, anyone? We'll need to take your car.

In honor of the day, five interesting things I did not know or remember about Canada until I looked them up.

1. The aboriginal population of Canada was as high as half a million when John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) first explored the eastern coastline in 1497. Between 1500 and 1867, that number dropped to no more than 125,000, mainly due to exposure to diseases the native population had no immunity to: smallpox, measles, influenza, tuberculosis. (Just to keep things fair, as many as a third of European immigrants to Canada before the 1890s also died of infectious diseases.) Today, Canada recognizes more than 600 First Nations governments or bands, with enrolled membership of close to 1.2 million.

2. The name "Canada" comes from a misunderstanding. Jacques Cartier, landing near present-day Quebec City in 1535, asked the local inhabitants for directions. They pointed toward the nearest settlement, Stadacona, telling him it was a village, or kanata in Iroquoian. Cartier thought they were telling him the name of the place, so referred to not only the village but the whole region as "Canada."

3. Canada had the world's second-wealthiest economy at the end of the Second World War. It now ranks 10th, according to the latest lists from the IMF and the CIA.

4. As of the last census, Nova Scotia is Canada's oldest province, with a median age of 41.8. The territory of Nunavut is youngest, with a median age of only 23.1. Of course, at last count, only 29,474 people lived in Nunavut (a geographic region the size of Western Europe), so every new baby has a big impact.

5. While Canada is officially bilingual, the percentage of the population that uses French as its primary language (i.e., at work and at home) is only about 22%.