Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Horribly Mean Editor

I want to be a nice person. I really do. I think of myself as being kind, generous, and empathetic. That's the way I hope people will one day (years in the future) describe me at my funeral. However, less than one month at the new job, and I am already realizing I am not.

I had forgotten until this month that I am a horribly, horribly mean editor. Seriously. You do not want to send a proposal with high hopes to any company where I work and have it land in my in-basket. Nor do you want to be inside my head when I am reading through such unsolicited material. Want some proof? Here's a dip into some of the thoughts I've had while reading some the the proposals my predecessor was wise enough not to tackle before leaving the company.

"Your 'modest opinion' seems a little light on the modesty and quite heavy on the ego."

"Four pages of acknowledgments? Really? If you want me to be awake enough to get to the heart of your manuscript, you just might, you know, want to leave those out for now."

"I'm no expert, and this is definitely a new subject area for me, but, trust me, sometimes there's a very good reason that 'There is nothing else like this out on the market.'"

"If you begin your email with a sentence like this one, "I am sending to you a book proposal that I and two other..." chances are, unless you happen to be a bestselling Trade author, no editor in the business (we being somewhat picky when it comes to grammar) is going to get much past that."

"Please, please, please don't waste my time if you are someone who likes to blather on for 3 pages without getting to some sort of point -- without even hinting at some sort of point. This is not an exercise in free association. This is not a journal entry. It's not a blog post. You are proposing a book that you would like a reputable publisher to publish. Act like it."

"I wonder if this guy is schizophrenic or something."

There. See? The problem is, though, that no matter how bad the proposals are, I still feel horrible telling our editorial assistant to reject them (because, you know, if I were to do it, some of those thoughts might end up somewhere other than my head or this blog post). Does that make up at all for all my mean-spirited thoughts?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Quinn Cummings's Notes from the Underwire

(First of all, sorry, everyone, but I've had to add word verification for those of you who wish to comment due to an annoying "commenter" who keeps sending stuff that is written in Chinese -- or one of those languages that uses characters I don't recognize -- to every "Monday Music" post of mine.)

When we met up with Hobs and Dorr last month for hiking in Acadia National Park, we afterwards decided to have dinner in Bar Harbor. Dinner at Lompoc's (a nod to Hobs's California roots, although, according to our waiter, the restaurant was not named after that) included drinks from the cocktail list -- the sort of concoctions my father, in his younger days, would have referred to as "drinks for women and children." We 21st-century, food-network-trained drinkers like to think of them as "chances to expand our palate," which they most certainly did (the side effects of that being an expanded tongue that is not easy to hold). I can't even begin to tell you what was in mine. Nor do I know exactly what (I'm guessing at least vodka and blueberries?) was in the blueberry martini we stopped at a bar to have after that drink we had with dinner.

What I do know is that we should not, then (or at least I should not then) have been allowed to roam free in Sherman's Bookstore. Roam free, however, we did, commenting loudly on signs that blew down and hit us, as well as books. I'm glad we did, though. You see, this is when I discovered, as Hobs read dramatically to us from absurd cover copy and endorsements, that I am not alone when it comes to mocking cover copy and endorsements. (In fact, Hobs has me beat. Go have a fancy cocktail and a blueberry martini with him and see what I mean.)

His reading was so apropos. At the time, I was nearly finished reading Quinn Cummings's (of QC Report fame) Notes from the Underwire, and I had been so disgusted by two of the three cover endorsements. (The third, Bob Tarte, caught my eye. I must look him up. I mean, how can I not be interested in what someone who wrote a book called Enslaved by Ducks has to say?)

It's not as though the cover endorsements had any effect on me. I've been reading Quinn's blog faithfully for over two years. As soon as the book was released, I ordered it from Powell's, having no idea who'd endorsed it. I would have done so regardless of who had. But then I got my copy and began to look at it. I read the cover endorsement from Jen Lancaster, "Charming, hilarious, and just snarky enough to be ultimately satisfying."

"Jen Lancaster?" I thought. Who's she to be judging the likes of Quinn Cummings? She probably read it, seething the whole time that Quinn can write intelligent, bespectacled, subtly- wry circles around her. I finished the book and felt Quinn ought to be outraged to have this author endorsing her work, even if she does happen to be a bestseller. Really, it's like having Jackie Collins endorse Dorothy Parker or something.

Then there's the quote from USA Today on the back cover: "Erma Bombeck with an edge." I'm sorry. You could show me a portrait of Erma Bombeck painted by Picasso, all edges -- well, and a few points -- and no way in hell would I think, "Ahhh...sort of like Quinn Cummings."

Don't get me wrong. I love Erma Bombeck for what she was. But nothing Quinn writes encourages such thoughts as, "Oh, yes, green grass on that side of the septic tank." Quinn is not the typical 1960s suburban housewife trying to make something funny out of that dismal life. Quinn is leading her own, fascinating, 21st-century-female life and giving us an achingly honest and screamingly funny description of it, while letting us know how human she is and having no qualms when it comes to self deprecation or admitting that this life is often very sad.

Just like her blog, it's laugh-out-loud funny. It's annoy-your-husband-because-you're-laughing-so-hard-and he's-not-a-part-of-this-uproariously-good-time-you're-having funny. Did I mention laugh until the tears stream down your cheeks? I didn't? Shame on me!

Go on. What are you waiting for? I've been raving about Quinn ever since I discovered her blog. She's ten times funnier than I am. If you're reading me, you really ought to be reading her. Get her book. Now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bob and Emily Talk VI

Since tomorrow Bob and I will be celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary, I thought it was appropriate to post one of these today.

Emily: If I tell you something, will you promise not to laugh and make fun of me?

Bob (already looking like he might begin laughing): Well...I'll try.

Emily (risking it anyway, because she so wants a vodka gimlet tonight): You see, I'm kind of afraid of the basement at night, especially that room, and I'd like to have some vodka (we store alcohol in this room down in the basement that's really quite creepy). Would you mind going down and getting it?

Bob (for some reason, he doesn't even snicker): Sure, but you're the one who is all enamored of Spooky Days (what we call the month of October in this house), and yet, you're afraid of the basement?

Emily: Yes, all the ghosts and vampire bats and cool things hang out in the attic (where she has a little area she uses as a writing nook when it is neither too hot nor too cold). Creepy, scary, human things hang out in the basement. Oh yeah, and zombies (in case you didn't know, zombies live in garages, too).

Bob goes down to the basement and comes up with the vodka.

Bob: There was a huge spider down there. It nearly killed me. (Ahhh! Now we know why he didn't snicker.)

Emily: No there wasn't. The spiders are hanging out in the attic, too. It's the creepy serial killer in the basement. He was watching you through some hole in a board the whole time you were down there.

Bob: Oh-oh-oh, the creepy serial killer.

Emily doesn't reply. She's checking to make sure the basement door is securely locked.

It's true. Basements are horrible places where serial killers set up shop or "camp out," waiting to strike families they've been stalking. Basements are where incestuous fathers build special rooms and keep their children imprisoned. They're where people hide victims' bodies. Give me the attic rafters and a few rattling chains over that any day...

Friday, September 18, 2009


One of you lovely readers of mine nominated my blog in the funniest/most amusing category for Book Bloggers Appreciation Week. Thank you, whoever you are (you can 'fess up, if you'd like, but I understand if you're shy). I was humbled on two accounts: 1. I'm not really a book blogger. I just pretend to be one and 2. I'm not nearly as funny as many of the real book bloggers out there whose blogs I know and love.

I didn't even know there was such a thing as BBAW, but what a cool thing to have (even if none of my most cherished book blogs made the short lists this year). Anyway, I visited the site and discovered that during this week (which is about to end), there were topics given everyday on which to post. I've been too busy getting back into the groove of working to be able to do something like post on other people's topics for a week, but I did (surprise! surprise!) like the meme that was supposed to be Tuesday's post (I think). Since then, I've seen two of my favorite book bloggers who should have made the short list pick up on it, Litlove and Stef, and so, I'm picking it up from them.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack? "A book without food is like a day without sunshine," I always say. Not that I really mind days without sunshine (just as I don't at all mind reading a book with no food to pair with it. But if I had to do that for days and days on end, well...), you see. In fact I love a nice, rainy day, which is almost always good for curling up with tea and toast and a book. But, really, I don't have a favorite reading snack. The food I eat, like the books I read, depends on my mood.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? If they belong to me, and they are nonfiction, I will mark them. I find myself doing quite a bit of arguing in the margins, when I'm not resorting to the boring old, "So true!" I don't mark up fiction much, unless I know I'm going to be writing a blog post about it or attending a book discussion meeting.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open? Bookmarks, and I have lots and lots and lots of them, and still appreciate every single new one I get.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both? Both, but many of you have heard me say that I don't believe anything I read except fiction.

Hard copy or audiobooks? I listen to a few audiobooks every year, but I much prefer to read myself.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put down a book at any point? I stop wherever, knowing I can never plan when a phone might ring, cat might start meowing pitifully, stomach might start growling, husband might desperately need me to find a blue sock, etc. Also, I am someone who takes a book with me everywhere I go. If I'm waiting in line at the grocery store, I can't exactly say to the person behind me, "Just let me get to the end of this chapter, please, and then I'll check out."

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? (Well, I used to worry I was pretty anal retentive and had at least a couple of toes over the OCD line until I read this lovely question, which has convinced me that I most certainly must not.) Never, which is probably why I only vaguely know what half the words I use mean.

What are you currently reading? I'm down to these four right now: The Portable Dorothy Parker, The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift, Ill Wind by Nevada Barr, and The Village by Marghanita Laski (which means there is something terribly wrong, and I am due to pick up at least three more very soon).

What was the last book you bought? This is pathetic! I honestly can't remember. Let me think a minute and get back to you...

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time? Ummm, I think I answered that question two questions ago.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read? Every hour of every minute of every day, if I could, and in any comfortable spot, but beds are almost always nice places to read.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books? Stand alones. Series are problematic for those of us who have only just discovered that we don't have those couple of toes over the OCD line, because, you know, you might think you have to start with the first one and then read all of them (in order), and it may be an old series, and some of them may be out of print and hard to get...(You know how it is, but those of us with all our body parts firmly on this side of the OCD line need not worry about such things, so perhaps we'll soon discover that we LOVE series.)

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over? Unfortunately, I thrust Jack Finney's Time and Again on anyone who even whispers "New York City" to me. And, well, you know, then there's what some might call my obsession with David Sedaris.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc). I fantasize about organizing all the fiction by author's last name and all the rest by subject and title. But everyone knows that fantasy is not reality, so you will never be able to find what you're looking for on my shelves unless you ask me (for some odd reason, I usually have a vague idea of where things are, despite the fact that Charles Darwin seems to be having tea with Maureen Dowd and Jack London).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ms. Barton and the Vicious Short Story

I am not, by nature (with the exception of ghost and horror stories, of course), a short story reader. Occasionally, I will come across something in The New Yorker that grabs my attention, but on the whole, I shy away from the genre. I chalk this up to two things:

1. High school. Some of you have heard me say that high school nearly made a non-reader out of this voracious reader and ruined lots of great literature for me by introducing it to me at an age at which I could neither understand nor appreciate it. What did we read most in high school? Short stories. And I did not have the sorts of teachers who seemed to care about making them relevant or bringing them to life for me. (God knows how I made those As in English. Must have been my ability to BS or something.)

2. A short attention span. I know that makes no sense, but hear me out here. In order to hold my attention, I need something that invites me in and asks me to stay awhile, that entices me with interesting little details and tidbits, that lets me get to know it. Most short stories are kicking me out the door by the time I decide that, why yes, I would like another cup of tea and slice of cake, and please, tell me what happened after she left you at the train station.

Things seem to have changed this year, though. First, I read The Twilight of the Gods, got to the end of it, and found myself craving more, very disappointed that it was the only published collection of stories by Richard Garnett. Then, I decided to read Richard Yates's Collected Stories (maybe it's not short stories. Maybe it's authors named "Richard" I like), each and every one of which invited me in for tea and cake. As I drew near to its end, I went browsing our bookshelves looking for more short stories (not hard to find since I'm married to a former high school English teacher. I'm sure, if I'd had him, I would have wound up loving short stories. However, I would not be married to him, because he does not believe in teachers marrying students, even former students. So I sacrificed loving the short story in order to marry the man I love).

I pulled from those shelves Viking's The Portable Dorothy Parker. I've always enjoyed Dorothy Parker (being a fan of light verse. To hell with the critics -- critics never like anything that's truly fun, do they? After all, she was a critic, so they're criticizing one of their own, and she could write circles around most calling themselves critics today), but I hadn't read too many of her short stories. I bought this book at a library sale a few years ago after watching the movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and there it sat ever since, unread, until now (I highly recommend it. The poems and stories are great, but the most fun are her reviews. I'm in the midst of the section on plays from Vanity Fair and am laughing out loud at almost every one, a nice antidote for the depression caused by both her stories and Richard Yates's -- although her stories will make you laugh. His won't).

You can tell I'm reading Dorothy Parker (a Queen of Digression), because it's taken me this long to get to the point of this post, which is to post my thoughts on a movie, the aforementioned Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Long before I knew what a blog was (maybe even before blogs existed. I'd have to check that), I started keeping book journals where I jotted down my thoughts and feelings about every book I read. One of these days, I plan to start posting some of those "from the vault" essays, but today, since I am in the midst of reading Dorothy Parker, I thought it would be fun to post from my companion journal, the one I keep for movies and plays (which I have to admit, is not as well kept as the book journals. I often go long periods forgetting -- or being too lazy to bother -- to write about movies and plays, but I never forget a book). So, here you go:

(Note: you don't know HOW badly I wanted to edit this piece. So much of it needs to be reworded, but I've left it in its original form, word-for-word for you.)

Date: April 21, 2007
Movie: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

Bob DVRed this one some time ago, thinking I might like it. Like it, I certainly did, but it was an extraordinarily disturbing movie. Poor Dorothy Parker comes off as an extremely unstable, distraught, and unhappy woman -- self-destructive in all the classic ways.

It's funny, because when Bob and I first started watching it, our comments to each other ran along these lines, "Man, wouldn't it have been so cool to have been part of the Algonquin Round Table?" "Can you imagine sitting around with all those people?" By the end of the movie, my thoughts were more like, "Thank God I've never been a part of something like that."

I'd like to know how true-to-life the movie actually was (as always, I'm led to wanting to read more: more by Dorothy Parker and more about her). I always find it so sad to discover that what I thought were a bunch of brilliant minds were really just a bunch of superficial egoists, drowning their depression in oceans of alcohol.

Of course, I never get away from accepting the fact that most brilliant minds are combined with an ultra-sensitivity that makes living in this world extremely difficult. These people often have to self medicate in order to survive. I've long since gotten away from wondering what they would have been like without the alcohol or the cocaine addiction, because I'm not so sure they could have produced what they did without their addictions.

What I found saddest about Dorothy Parker as portrayed in this movie was the fact that she was just such a typical woman trying so hard not to be a woman. Everyone else could see she was making mistakes in her relationships with men. Everyone else could see, despite her wry wit and less than flattering observations about love that she was dying to be madly in love with someone who was madly in love with her. Men were her downfall, and they were all both fascinated and somewhat repelled by her.

The movie was beautifully filmed. I loved the dark scenes of her little apartment life, the overcrowded Algonquin with all its dark wood, and the "Great-Gatsby-ish" garden party scene. I think the 1920s as portrayed in film are one of my favorite eras. I like the clothes both the men and women wore, the way everyone holds glasses with unidentified alcoholic beverages in them, and the way the men light cigarettes for women (oh, if only all that glamorous smoking with those long cigarette holders hadn't gone on to kill everyone, huh?). It must be really fun to get to dress up in that garb.

So, yet another bleak movie that's piqued my interest in picking up some bleak books. Let's see whether or not I do.
(The answer is "yes," 2 1/2 years later.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Music Monday/Lyric Lundi

I can't believe that it's been nearly five months since I found out that my friend Danny's twin boys had been born very prematurely. Until then I had been eagerly awaiting the announcement of their birth sometime around Aug. 10th (their original due date), so excited for Danny, because I knew this was something he'd been wanting for some time. Here it was April. Suddenly, what had been a great joy had become dismally bleak. Dear little Oliver did not live even for 24 hours, dying in his parents' arms (as Danny told us), but his brother Charlie has been hanging in there ever since, and those of us who know and love Danny have been hanging in there with Danny and his wife and "big sister" Leah through multiple surgeries and months and months of life at Cedars-Sinai Neonatal Intensive Care Unit out in California. He's made it, though, and I cannot describe how I feel every time I read the words "my son" written by Danny.

Sometime back, I decided that when Charlie finally came home, in tribute to him, I would post my favorite Wilco song on the Monday that followed, since Charlie is Jeff Tweedy's nephew. Charlie came home this past weekend. Making that decision to post a song by "Uncle Jeff" was easy. Deciding which was my favorite Wilco song was much harder. I love Wilco. Finally, I settled on the one I've chosen below, because I'm hoping that "someday soon," I will get to meet Charlie. I love this song for all kinds of other reasons, though. It's one of those songs that hit me the first time I ever heard it, with its wonderful guitar work and very optimistic sound.

Meanwhile, I don't want to forget Charlie's brother Oliver, so I am also posting a song for Oliver. This is a song that helped get me through the death of another friend of mine's 8-month-old baby (who would be thirteen now, had he lived). I still cry every single time I listen to it, but it's a beautiful song by Eddie From Ohio, on their CD "Actually Not." You know, as absolutely horrible as it is for those of us on earth who know and love them to lose children, I know that heaven (despite the fact I have no idea what it is) would not be a place I'd ever want to go if there were no children there. Now, when I listen to this song, I think of both Baby Jeremy and Baby Oliver helping to make heaven a place I'd like to be.

To Charlie (Welcome home!):

Someday Soon
by Wilco

Wind will blow and the sun will shine
On that hill where we used to climb
I look in your eyes
And you'll be mine
Someday soon.

I won't even make a scene
That will be just like a dream
Cash will flow down by the old mainstream
Someday soon, someday soon.

You don't know me but I know you
(You don't know me)
You have no idea what I do
(What I do)
Make you mine and see you swoon
Someday soon, someday soon.

Sun's gonna shine, wind's gonna blow
On that hill where we used to go
I look in your eyes and down I roll
Someday soon,

Someday, someday soon.
Someday, someday soon.

To Oliver (please forgive the Christian reference to St. Peter. One thing I do know about heaven is that there are no such religious distinctions):

In Paradise
by Eddie from Ohio

i woke up this morning went to pick up the mail a routine that I always do
probably find bills and catalogues, full of junk i'd never use
as i reached in the box, i felt a sensation
i didn't know what it could be
then i pulled out a card and looked at the postmark it said p.o. cloud 23
and i thanked the heavens for sending this letter to me

dear mommy and daddy, i asked god if he'd let me write a letter to you
he said he felt bad about all of the sad things he was permitted to do
so he took me to peter and he asked him to help me
cuz i was too young to write words
so i climbed on his lap and i leaned over to hear him
and this is what st. peter heard

don't worry, don't you cry, don't waste the energy wondering why
the reasons are clear, safer here in paradise

each morning i wake up and the sun it shines brightly
and me and the other kids play
we eat lots of pretzels and watch lots of barney and sing-along songs all the day
and at night before bedtime i go visit grandpa who reads me a story or two
then i gather my blanket and lay off to slumber and dream about daddy and you

don't worry, don't you cry, don't waste your energy wondering why
the reasons are clear, safer here in paradise

i've got to get going st. peter is calling he's gotten a job for me
he says katy you make sure the stars are all lined up
and twinkling as bright as can be
so take comfort together that i'm doing fine
just lay your tears down to rest
my spirit is there and i'll always be with you
remembering two years the best

don't worry, don't you cry, don't waste the energy wondering why
the reasons are clear, safer hear in paradise

Friday, September 11, 2009

Work: What's Old and What's New

So, I've had my first (abbreviated) week at work, which means I am now an expert and can start writing blog posts about it. Thought I'd start with the things that don't ever seem to change and then talk about the new and different stuff. Here you go:

What's Old

1. Computers and printers hate each other, would much rather not talk to each other ever, and take it out on me (I guess because I'm always trying to get them to get along). This means that I could work for any company in the world and still have days like today, in which, instead of getting any real work done, I spend six hours trying to hook up a printer/fax machine that still isn't working properly, and I am doomed always to have to resort to "work-around" solutions.

2. The people who work in IT at every company are absolute saints. This week, I met St. Skip (who is already sick of me and how ditzy and inept I am, I'm sure). St. Skip had the presence of mind to tell me that it's good to be a Luddite. We spent so much time on the phone chatting today (yes, I was chatting on the phone. See how desperate I was?) while waiting for things to load and unload that I feel like we've known each other for years (it helps that he's from Philly, although living in California now, and actually knows this area).

3. People who can't string two coherent sentences together will always think they have a great idea for a book and want someone to publish it. Most likely, they will approach a completely inappropriate publishing company (say, an academic publishing company when they've got a memoir all about the time they were abducted by aliens who took them on a roller coaster ride to their galaxy).

4. I will always think there are enough hours in the day to accomplish the twelve things I have on my to-do list, will always forget that I might have to spend 3 hours chatting with St. Skip or the author who was abducted by aliens, and will always get to the end of the day despairing that only three things have been crossed off the to-do list. (Even when I have promised, promised, promised myself that with this job things are going to be different.)

5. Every day, some email will appear in my box that might as well have been written in Chinese for all that I can understand it. Usually, it has something to do with systems and is chock-full of acronyms.

What's New:

1. A company that is truly set up for telecommuting. What? You've sent me a phone? And that phone plugs into my wireless router? And now people call me on a number with a California area code, and I never see the bill, and I never have to remember to submit said bill for reimbursement in a timely fashion to avoid having accounting people screaming for my head on a platter? How cool is that???

2. I am promptly addressing all emails, keeping them sorted and organized, immediately deleting what can be deleted, and will never again have five billion email messages hanging around with nowhere to go and no time to organize them (although I might get a wee bit behind on days that I spend urging computers and printers to get along with each other).

3. A user-friendly, intuitive, company computer system. Really. I'm supposed to get some training on it, and I suppose I will, but I've already been playing around with it and have figured out quite a lot, because it's well-designed and makes sense.

4. Already knowing so many people on my first day of the job (lots of colleagues from the company I worked prior to my last job now work for this company). It was so nice to log into my email on that first day and to have so many people welcoming me back and telling me they'd missed me.

5. Feeling like I can't wait to get to work every morning, and that what? This is a weekend? And I have to wait till Monday to contact people and pursue all these thousands of ideas I have? (Okay, this feeling won't last, I am sure, but right now, I am loving the job and am full of ideas of things I want to do.)

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Important "Meme"

This is so important to pass on that I'm tagging everyone who reads my blog to please post it on yours and encourage your readers to do the same (especially those of you who have a huge readership, which I don't), and if you can relate a personal anecdote that highlights how horrible the current system is (one that touched/is touching you or someone you love), all the better. Let's stop all those idiot naysayers who have jumped on the word "socialism," having no clue whatsoever what it means, and who are so eager to embrace ridiculous soundbites, while so many in our country suffer unnecessarily. It's an embarrassment. I'm convinced that in the electronic age, we can change sentiment through passing on messages like this one, because it's all about education and putting faces on issues. So please watch and pass it on via your blog, and p.s. don't forget to let your Congressmen know how you feel. Thanks!

Personal Anecdote (Not anywhere near as tragic as many depicted in the video, but still evidence that we need to do something. I hope my sister doesn't mind that I'm using this story without her permission). My sister is an artist who, until very recently, worked for herself. She has been paying her own health insurance over the years, and last year, she wound up in the hospital with a very severe headache. Luckily, it turned out she was only suffering from migraines, but that did not keep her from being stuck with a whopping bill. In order to be able to afford her insurance, she had chosen to have an extremely high deductible, which meant that her insurance did not cover the bill. Stuck with monthly payments on the hospital bill and monthly insurance payments that didn't seem to be doing her much good, and barely able to afford both, she chose to drop her insurance, leaving her uninsured at an age at which no woman should be without affordable healthcare.

(Oh, and I can't help noting that R.E.M., who refused to let Microsoft use them to advertise its product, apparently had no problem with this one.)

Life According to Literature Meme

Dorr tagged me for this on Facebook and then brought it to the blogosphere. I thought I'd do it here first and then post it on my FB page.

Using only books you have read this year (2009), cleverly answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It’s a lot harder than you think!

Describe Yourself: Food Matters (Mark Bittman) -- so do books, but food is very important. Food and books together? Well, nothing matters much more than that, does it?

How do you feel: Stiff (Mary Roach) -- did a new workout routine the other day

Describe where you currently live: Main Street (Sinclair Lewis) -- truly, although it's not called that, but it's the main street right in the center of town

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates) -- what it sounds like, not the dreary place it is in the book

Your favorite form of transportation: (anyway you can get me) Cross Channel (Julian Barnes)

Your best friend is: Sure of You (Armistead Maupin) -- more sure of me than I am

You and your friends are: A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah) -- and we like it that way

What’s the weather like: In the Fall (Jeffrey Lent) -- which means it's gorgeous

Favorite time of day: The Twilight of the Gods (Richard Garnett) -- which gives way to Gaudy Night (Dorothy Sayers)

If your life was a(n): A Polysyllabic Spree (Nick Hornby) -- I don't really understand this one but like the idea of my life being a polysyllabic spree

What is life to you: The Discomfort Zone (Jonathan Franzen) -- just when I think I'm getting comfortable...

Your fear: The Killing Kind (John Connolly) -- don't we all fear them?

What is the best advice you have to give: Equal Rights (Terry Pratchett) -- for all, everywhere

Thought for the Day: The Black Spider (Jeremias Gotthelf) -- I love spiders, and I saw a beautiful black one spinning a web just outside our kitchen window today

How I would like to die: A High Wind in Jamaica (Richard Hughs) -- well, the Jamaica Part at least, and I wouldn't mind its being windy and maybe being out on the water, but nothing violent or painful, please

My soul’s present condition: Lud-in-the-Mist (Hope Mirrlees) -- right on the edge of Fairy Land

Saturday, September 05, 2009

We Took to the Woods (with a Hobgoblin)

(Yet again), it was not a dark and stormy night, but it should have been. After all, I was meeting up with The Hobgoblin for a walk in the Maine woods. Some of you may recall what happened once before during a meeting with The Hobgoblin.

But I was completely unsuspecting. After all, this time Dorr and Bob and the ever-vigilant Muttboy were all going to be with me. That was the first mistake I made: assuming Bob and Muttboy would be with us. You see, the minute we hit the trails, Dorr and I were left far behind as the other three pretty much disappeared out of sight, whisked off under the maniacal powers of The Hobgoblin.

I have to admit that poor Muttboy did his valiant best to resist those powers, so worried was he that Dorr was in extreme danger. He was going to be sure she didn't get lost in the woods, and he seems to have a few magical charms of his own, having enough influence over The Hobgoblin that he was every so often released from The Hobgoblin's powers to rush back down the path to assure that Dorr had not fallen down a well or into a ravine or suffered some other such Lassie-like fate.

I also have to admit that I easily fell for The Hobgoblin's dastardly plan. You see, I was busy being impressed with how patient Dorr, someone who has all kinds of backpacking and hiking experience (not to mention someone who is in far better shape than I am with all her bike-race training, yoga practice, and possible-marathon training), was with my climb-up-on-my-hands-and-knees-and-slide-down-on-my-butt-if-I-have-to style of making it up and down mountains. I thought she was merely being kind as we began to lag farther and farther behind, and she chose to stick with me rather than accompanying the boys. Little did I know that we were both under The Hobgoblin's spell. She had no choice but to stick with me, as it was all part of his plan.

We went on two hikes that day, all above the Sand Beach area in Acadia National Park. I should have been on my toes. However, I wasn't. I paid no attention when halfway through the second hike, during a brief moment when Dorr and I had caught up to Bob and The Hobgoblin and Muttboy, Bob's cell phone began beeping. The Hobgoblin had obviously drained the phone's battery. He suggested we all turn off our cell phones so that we didn't all end up with dead batteries. Without questioning, Dorr and I obliged. I guess I was just way too busy discussing books and books and more books (oh yeah, and jobs and religion and hiking, and a few other things) to be on the alert.

But then, we came to a fork in the road with the familiar wooden-arrow signposts marking the trails. Bob is always ahead of me on trails (because I don't feel like jogging up and down mountains), but he never fails to stop at these forks to wait for me and to make sure I continue on the right trail. I like hiking this way with him, because it allows me to hike alone (which I love to do) while knowing that if something happens to me, someone knows where I am and isn't all that far away from me. However, he seems to have a real fear of losing me on the trail. Thus, I can only surmise that The Hobgoblin had cast a mighty strong spell, because no one was waiting for us as we approached the fork in the road.

I still didn't think anything of it. Being women, Dorr and I chose the logical path, the one with the sign that read "Sand Beach." After all, we were reaching the end of the trail, and I knew we were parked in the Sand Beach parking area.

Soon, though, Dorr began to get an eerie feeling. She was quite sure we'd already been on this path, that we were now climbing down the same trail we had ascended. We were not supposed to be doing this. The trail we had picked was a loop, because I avoid going up and down the same way whenever possible. Eventually, I too, began to get the same eerie feeling.

We met a man coming the opposite direction on the trail with a big black dog who could have been Muttboy's cousin. We asked if he'd seen two men with another black dog. He looked a bit concerned as he told us that he hadn't seen them and asked where we were headed. When I said, "The Sand Beach parking area," he said, "You're on the right trail then."

The right trail to get back to Sand Beach, but the wrong trail to find Bob and Muttboy, who were obviously being carried deep into the woods by The Hobgoblin. We couldn't call them, because Bob's cell phone battery was dead. Had he managed to escape and had found someone to lend him a cell phone (something Bob has done many a time), desperately trying to reach us, we'd have been oblivious, as both our cell phones were turned off per The Hobgoblin's instructions.

We were wise. We didn't panic. We knew where we were. We knew how to get back to the car. Dorr was the wiser of the two, though, because when I suggested we go back to the parking lot, she thought it best for us just to continue to the end of this trail, where we had begun the hike. This decision must have broken The Hobgoblin's spell (although I like to think that Muttboy's persistence, when he went off in search of us and couldn't find us, put a few cracks in the spell as well). We discovered all three at another intersection, The Hobgoblin in the midst of taking them back up the mountain and away from all civilization forever. Once the spell had been broken, The Hobgoblin and Bob (obviously still under his spell) tried to explain that we had not been hiking the Sand Beach trail. The Hobgoblin tried to sound concerned, relating how they'd frantically hiked a good ways back up both trails to try to find us (the spell lingered just a bit more late that night, after we'd all had dinner together, and Bob told me how fast The Hobgoblin had hurried up and down those trails in search of us).

I, however, at long last, was paying attention, and was not fooled. The Hobgoblin may be charming company, but I now know that's how he gets me off my guard. Who knows where he and Bob and Muttboy might be now if Dorr and I had not spoiled his plans? I'm pretty sure this little episode, had it not failed, was an experiment meant to be included in a book he's writing. It will be a transcendent book (although Dorr just might disagree with that).

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Moonstone

(I read this for the Connecticut detective book discussion group. Warning: this will be a very long and fawning post.)

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. London: Penguin, 1981. (The book was originally published in 1868.)

I read both The Moonstone and The Woman in White back when I was working at the library. I was bored one day, started browsing through The Fiction Catalog in search of old mysteries and tales of the supernatural, and came across Wilkie Collins. I remembered having read somewhere that Collins had had an influence on Stephen King and immediately headed for the shelves to find his books.

Soon, I was staying up way too late, lying in bed, reading both those books, one right after the other. I remember which apartment was the setting for those late nights, which means I read them around 1992 or so. That's seventeen years ago. It's pretty amazing I can remember that much detail about why and when I read Collins.

Why the hell, then, do I barely remember a single thing about this book, one I know I loved? I might as well have been reading it for the first time. The only thing that really stuck in my mind was the quicksand and how it came into play -- not only how it came into play, but also the fact that quicksand, which I've always associated with such exotic places as Africa and South America, could be found in England. (Yorkshire, no less. There is obviously a reason Yorkshire is one of my favorite counties.)

It makes sense that I might remember the quicksand ("shivering sand," as Collins so evocatively calls it), but what makes no sense at all is that I had no recollection of the technique Collins used to tell this story, which is one of my favorite techniques, the reason I so love the likes of Lawrence Durrell. He allowed the various characters, those who were present at this "English country manor mystery," to tell the story themselves. This is not done in the typical detective novel sort of way in which Clever Detective interviews the various witnesses, and we get all kinds of contradictory information from (mostly despicable, although often with one or two sentimentally likable) characters until Clever Detective puts it all together and presents a solution to the puzzle.

No. Here we get the clever detective, called in to try to fix what is quickly becoming a botched case. He rivals Sherlock Holmes in his ability to gain the reader's trust and marvel at his genius. However, he disappears to tend a rose garden, leaving the suspects themselves to puzzle through the mystery. Each one writes his or her accounts of the events (that have now taken place a year ago), sometimes relying on journals, each one dependent on what could be faulty memories.

Trusting memory, as Collins proves on more than one occasion, is a very tricky business. I am a prime example of that. I am convinced I've told you the truth when I relate to you how I first came to read this book, that my memory is accurate. I have enough experience with my own memory to doubt these facts, though, because I know, for instance, that I read a long biography of Agatha Christie the summer I was fifteen, and my parents and brother and I traveled up to Scotland (through Yorkshire, by the way, when the Yorkshire Ripper was busy terrorizing people) from our home in Kent. However, I recall reading it in the back of a station wagon in which my family traveled around England and France when I was eight. Did I really read Collins in the apartment in which I remember reading him? Did I really read both books at the same time? Who knows?

But back to Collins's clever literary technique. I'm someone who is fascinated by the whole concept of "two sides to every story." As someone who has managed people in the business world and who has also lived in small villages and towns (not to mention having been associated with churches), I have often been privy to both sides of a story and know that the truth of it typically lies somewhere inbetween what can, at times, be two extremes. I also know that people see and hear exactly what they want to see and hear based on pre-conceived opinions and knowledge of others. Collins did a masterful job of drawing on these two characteristics of human nature. My two-sides-to-every-story fascination did not merely feed itself on this book: it gorged itself.

I'm also someone who, since my college days, has been fascinated by the whole notion of state-dependent memory. Yet again, I find myself completely baffled as to why I didn't have even the slightest recollection that state-dependent memory figures so prominently into this mystery. Perhaps I should have been reading this book, propped up in bed alone, in a sleep-deprived state, but I wasn't. Perhaps then I would have remembered more of its brilliance.

Brilliant (in case you have not yet gathered so) it is. I love the way Collins uses both the witnesses' biases and memory lapses to his advantage. I also love the way this book is so difficult to define, and I can understand why Doestoevsky was, apparently, such a fan of Collins's. Like Crime and Punishment, which can be characterized in many ways (albeit mostly different ones from this), this book could be characterized in any number of ways. Sure, it's a detective novel, but it's also a (Gothic) romance, satire, social commentary.

The man was a genius. 21st-century wannabe mystery writers would do well to follow his example. He had all the components of what's expected of the genre today: at least one dead body, suspects with motives, a detective (a real one, not some amateur one -- so popular in contemporary novels, in which it seems the most unlikely people from chefs to strippers find themselves solving crimes -- although he had plenty of help from amateurs), and even a dash of the supernatural.

Not only did Collins write a perfect page-turner, but he also did so with grace and humor. I can't believe it's taken me this long to tell you how funny he was. From satire to melodrama to complete lack of self-awareness to moments that were almost slap-stickish, it's obvious Collins had a very wry eye on the shenanigans in his book. Take this passage, for example:

"I wish certain parts of the house to be reopened," I said, "and to be furnished, exactly as they were furnished at this time last year."

Betteredge gave his imperfectly-pointed pencil a preliminary lick with his tongue. "Name the parts, Mr. Jennings!" he said loftily.

"First, the inner hall, leading to the chief staircase."

"First, the inner hall," Betteredge wrote. "Impossible to furnish that, sir, as it was furnished last year -- to begin with."


"Because there was a stuffed buzzard, Mr. Jennings, in the hall last year. When the family left, the buzzard was put away -- he burst."

"We will except the buzzard, then." (p. 454)

Maybe others wouldn't find this to be so funny, but stuck in the midst of a serious investigation, I find it hilarious in that absurdly "upper-crust" sort of way. British authors seem to have the most talent when it comes to shining bright lights on absurdity at just the right moment. I mean, a burst buzzard? Not a bear's head or a lion's head, or something equally impressive, but a buzzard, and it didn't get eaten by moths or something. No, it burst. That this should be what makes it impossible to duplicate the inner hall from last year and not because some precious chest has been damaged? Not because a love seat is being reupholstered? Priceless! (Don't worry. The buzzard and its association with carnage and how it feeds off others' misfortunes is not lost on me. Still, it's hilarious, right?) We then go onto discover another problem that keeps things from being exactly what they were: a cupid statue with a broken wing, and this is all taken very seriously by Betteredge and the others hoping to recreate the scene of the crime.

This scene is only one small example of the humor found throughout the book. We also have the aforementioned Betteredge's (rightful, in my book, and I'm sure Collins's too, but he did a good job of making it funny) obsession with Robinson Crusoe. We have a woman's obsession with saving souls and everyone else's equally strong obsessions not to have her save their souls with her books and tracts. We have numerous European stereotypes embodied in one man, ready to be observed by everyone but himself. All of this and more add to the delight of reading this book.

The book is brilliant to the end. Here's what we get in the final paragraph, "So the years pass, and repeat each other, so the same events revolve in the cycles of time." (p. 526) I won't bore you with how appropriate those lines are. Suffice it to say that this book itself, read in the 21st-century, with all sorts of characters recognizable from today's streets and headlines, is evidence of their appropriateness.

But I've gushed enough. You don't have to take my word for it. Read the book yourself to find out what a genius Collins was (and weep if you have aspirations of becoming a great mystery writer, which, fortunately, I don't. This is not to say that the writer in me did not experience moments of despair when encountering his powers of description). Now, to get to work on that state-dependent memory. If I'm going to remember not only that this is a great book but also why, well, I guess I'm just going to have to move to Mt. Desert Island, ME; do a lot of hiking every day; and drink things like Dark and Stormies and blueberry martinis.

P.S. Isn't that a fantastic cover? Way to go Penguin!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What I Read Over My Summer Vacation

I'm back from Maine and hoping no one has forgotten who I am, seeing as I posted not a single blog entry while I was gone. Perhaps I could have, but it was such a pain to have to go to the library for Internet access, especially when there was hiking and swimming and good eating to get done. Oh yeah, and there were books to be read, too. Thought I'd get back into this whole blogging business by sharing with you what I read.

The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
Richard Yates
My infatuation with Yates is as strong as ever, as I continue to be amazed by his descriptive ability. I've decided that if you were to visit his grave, paying close attention, you just might hear a bourbon-husky voice whispering, "Greatest generation, Mr. Brokaw? My ass!"

Do Evil in Return
Margaret Millar
I've now read two of Millars. Sadly, because I want to root for the woman/wife, especially in that era, I have to admit that she just can't hold a candle to her husband. A perfectly fine mystery writer, yes, but nowhere near the perfection of Ross Macdonald.

The Female Brain
Louann Brizendine
Fascinating. I learned quite a lot from this one, not the least of which is we still have so much to learn when it comes to the brain (male or female). Brizendine makes it all very easy to understand and provides plenty of "Ah-ha!" moments. A little too much "nature over nurture," and some gaps (like completely ignoring what might go on in the brains of women who choose not to have children), but nonfiction writers making a case often need to focus like that, and she still gave me plenty of food for thought.

A High Wind in Jamaica
Richard Hughs
A pirate adventure on the surface but really one of the most brutally honest portrayals of children -- both their tender and their savage sides -- I've ever read. Brilliant. A must read, if you've never read it.

Holly's Inbox
Holly Denham
Just what "chick lit" should be: implausible, fun, made me laugh, choked me up...And I loved the technique of a story being told through emails (an idea with which I've toyed from time to time).

Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy
(Still reading.) This is a book discussion group read, one I'm very glad we chose. What can I say? It's Thomas Hardy (whom, I'm suddenly realizing, is kind of like a Victorian, British Richard Yates). It's Jude (only the most callous of hearts could not feel for Jude and the fact he's just oh-so human). It's real; it's tragic; it takes to task all that's wrong with life in Victorian England; and I love it.

The Killing Kind
John Connolly
You know, I had to read something set in Maine, didn't I? Remember how Connolly's Book of Lost Things so impressed me? Well, I'm now extremely impressed with his skills as a spooky detective novelist. I'm also impressed that this Irishman knows New York and New England so well and writes about them better than many Americans I've read. Anyway, I can't wait to read more in the Charlie Parker series.

The Moonstone
Wilkie Collins
Full blog post on this (probably tomorrow, since the Connecticut detective book club is meeting on Friday). Advance warning: I will be gushing so much, you may be tempted to build a dam.

Notes from the Underwire
Quinn Cummings
Full blog post on this one coming soon, too. Love Quinn's blog? Then you'll love this book.

So, not a bad collection of reads, huh? Feel free to agree/disagree with my assessments of any of these you've read.