Friday, October 31, 2008

Horror Meme

Well, what else would I give you for my favorite holiday? A few years ago, we had the Halloween meme, which I really loved. Now, I’ve decided to do a horror meme. Here are just a few horror-related questions and answers for those of you who might enjoy a little creepiness from time-to-time.

1. What’s the best (a.k.a. scene that scared the crap out of you) scene in a horror movie?

The bathtub scene in The Shining. But let’s face it: that whole movie scared the crap out of me.

2. Who hangs out in the scary dark corners of your basement (nobody, I know, but if someone did)?

Michael Myers from the Halloween movies (or any scary, violent, insane person who has decided my basement is the best place to hide). I’m far more afraid of real killers – you know, those real killers who keep coming back to life when you’re sure they absolutely, positively must be dead by now -- than I am of mythical ones. However, I’ve been known to worry about zombies in the garage after watching movies like Carnival of Souls when I’m all alone (don’t ask me why I choose to watch such movies when I’m all alone. By now, you should know I’m a masochist).

3.Who writes/wrote the best ghost stories?

M.R. James is the Master. His hauntings are just too cool for words. A haunted mezzotint? A hotel room #13 that comes and goes? A haunted doll house? Really, does it get any better than that? Then again, I happen to be reading M.R. James at the moment. If I were reading Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, which I also happen to love, I’d probably be raving about her. And then there’s Algernon Blackwood whom I haven’t read in a while…

4. What was the last book you read that made you want to check all the locks on your doors?

Despite the fact that it’s that time of year when I am focused on reading books with a supernatural element, I haven’t read anything recently that’s truly scared me (except the stuff Sarah Palin says) all that much. The beginning of Piercing the Darkness kind of got me a little with the whole notion of a reporter disappearing while investigating the American vampire scene, but that book has become more fascinating (often in its repulsiveness and because I find it so hard to believe so much of it) than terrifying. Katherine Ramsland's book about ghosts had me more scared than this one. I’ve got Ramsey Campbell’s The Overnight lined up for November, though, which Bob is convinced will do the trick, so we’ll see. He also wanted me to read Ghost Story, another one he thought would do the trick, but that book has disappeared on me again, just like it did last year at this time when I was only about a quarter of the way into it (I will write a post about that soon. I’m convinced my copy of that book is haunted).

5. Have you ever been spooked while listening to music?

Yes. My first year in college, a friend of mine and I were in my dorm room listening to Tubular Bells. I’d never listened to the whole album and was only familiar with the opening theme that was in the movie The Exorcist. By the time we were done listening to it, he and I had convinced ourselves that the whole album was possessed. I’d never known I could be so scared by music. I’ve never listened to the whole thing since and don’t really remember what it was about it that I found so scary. I do remember that we both felt that the part used for The Exorcist was completely tame and not scary at all compared to so much of the rest of it.

6.If you had to be the victim of a mythical monster, who would it be?

A vampire. I mean, werewolves maul you to death. Zombies eat you. Ghosts are completely unpredictable as to what they might do. But vampires? All they do is give you a little, barely noticeable, bite on the neck. Some might even call it a hickey. (Of course, depending on what you read, that bite might be very, very painful, but I choose to imagine my vampire would be like those in the original Dracula, where pain didn’t seem to be the issue.)

7. Were you afraid of the dark as a child?

Are you kidding? I think I slept with a night light till I was about eighteen years old. However, I always liked scary stories and scary movies. (See? I’ve been a masochist all my life.)

8. What do you most like in a good horror story?

Fear without gore. A door that opens on its own is much more likely to get me diving under the covers than a chainsaw hacking bloody body parts all over the place. I also want ambiguity and subtlety. I want to be left wondering what really happened and letting my imagination fill in the gaps. I don’t like it when the author hits me over the head with “this is [the devil, a demon, a monster, etc.],” which so many do. Many a great story is ruined when the author resorts to this in the end (Stephen King does that a lot, and Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man also springs to mind as a prime example. That book gave me goose bumps, and then it just fell apart with its over-the-top ending. Mind you, it’s still worth reading, if you haven’t read it).

That’s it. You’re tagged for this one if:

1. You love M.R. James

2. You’ve seen The Shining, and it scared the crap out of you

3. You would rather be a vampire’s victim than a werewolf’s victim

And now I’m off to do some Halloween Haunting.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

To NaBloPoMo or Not to NaBloPoMo?

All right, you all know that that is the question! Every year since I started blogging (a whopping 2! This isn't exactly a tradition yet, but it's approaching tradition status), I question, as November appears upon the horizon, whether or not I want to commit to posting something every. single. day. during National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). This one is even more of a question than whether or not to join the R.I.P. Challenge (basically, I don't join this one, even though I consider it, because it isn't a challenge for me, and it would be pretty wimpy on my part to pretend that it's anything of the kind. Every single October and November -- granted R.I.P. is September and October, but it's still the same concept -- I load up on reading and re-reading spooky stuff).

NaBloPoMo is different, though. No one could accuse me of being someone who posts on this blog every day. To do so might be a real challenge. (It also might lead to some stuff that absolutely no one would ever want to read.) The problem is that this year I'm actually feeling that maybe I need a little kick in the pants. I've been pretty lax about posting, barely managing to do so twice a week, it seems. Maybe this blog needs a challenge to revive it.

On the other hand, those of you who want me to write a novel yesterday, might be happy to know that the reason this blog has been so neglected as of late is that I've been much more focused on novel-gazing than I have been on navel-gazing (not that the novel doesn't involve some of that. How can it not, being a satirical piece on a small college town in Virginia that seems to resemble Charlottesville, from whence my family hails? Oh yeah, and it happens to feature a Presbyterian pastor from New England via the Midwest who takes his first call in this small town in a Red State). I've been feeling a bit sad, though, that all the blog posts that are basically running dialogs in my head all the time barely ever see themselves immortalized these days. Are they jealous of all those who went before them, those that happened to be hanging out in my "oh-I've-started-a-blog-this-is-so-much-fun-I-must-post-as-often-as-I-can-and-
ignore-all-other-forms-of-writing" days and thus reaped the benefits of those times, whether they actually deserved to promenade across computer screens or not?

So, I've decided to let you, my readers, vote. I know, I'm not giving you much time (I think that makes me far better than the typical American Presidential candidate. Forget all the campaigning for at least two years. I appear one day before the decision has to be made and ask you to cast your vote). Would you like to see me post something every day (especially keeping in mind that this might mean endless memes and maybe lots of photographs of Francis), or would you rather I spent my time working on the novel and kept you from having to check on this blog more than twice a week? This is by popular vote. I promise to listen to the people and will not take this to the Supreme Court, so please, if you'd like to vote, leave a comment to the following:

Yea: I would like you to post every day during NaBloPoMo

Nay: please work on your novel.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Favorite Song Lyrics Monday

(It's Monday: I can't think of any way to make this alliterative, although I'd like it if it were. Any suggestions?)

I’m starting something new today to brighten up my Mondays: Favorite Song Lyrics Monday. How can focusing on a favorite song not help to make the beginning of the work week a little brighter? Anyone else who wants to join in and post favorite song lyrics on Mondays is welcome to take the idea and run with it. You can post lyrics every Monday, some Mondays, one's up to you.

My choice for this Monday is “A Horse in the Country” (an appropriate choice having gone on my morning walk on what was a very brisk fall day). Back when I was a twenty-something, and it seemed all my friends were settling down to “become their mothers and their fathers without a sound,” I liked to think that I was the one who bought a one-way subway ticket and left them all behind. I felt so sorry for the woman in this song, as I listened to it over and over again. Yeah, nineteen really is way too young to marry, but don’t we all know what it’s like to meet someone who makes our guts just burn? Even though I wasn’t stuck in an old marriage, wondering what might have happened if I'd made different choices, I could relate to the sadness of it all, and I loved the hope of the horse. It made me wish I were a rider and had a horse in the country. Don’t we also all, sometimes, just want to saddle up and ride away (especially first thing on Monday when we open our email in-box and feel overwhelmed)? I still hit the replay (sometimes more than twice) on the steering wheel in my car when I’m driving around and this one comes up.


The Cowboy Junkies

The money would be pretty good

if a quart of milk were still a dollar

or even if a quart of milk were still a quart.

And the hours, well, I don’t mind

how they creep on by like an old love of mine

it’s the years that simply disappear

that are doing me in.

Guess I married too young,

yeah, nineteen was just too young,

but sometimes you meet someone

and your guts just burn.

It’s not that I don’t love him anymore

it’s just that when I hear him

coming through that front door

my heart doesn’t race like it did once before.

But I’ve got a horse out in the country

I get to see him every second Sunday.

He comes when I call him

yeah, he knows his name.

One day I’ll saddle up

and the two of us will ride away.

This weather I could almost stand

if the sun would shine a little brighter

or even if the sun would shine at all.

But lately it just seems to me

that this life has lost its mystery

and these cold fall mornings seem to bite

just a little bit harder.

And all my friends have settled down

become their mothers and their fathers

without a sound.

Except for Cathy,

she bought a one-way subway ticket

and left us all behind.

But I’ve got a horse out in the country

I get to see him every second Sunday.

He comes when I call him,

yeah, he knows my name.

One day I’ll saddle up

and the two of us will ride away.

This town wouldn’t be so bad

if a girl could trust her instincts

or even if a girl could trust a boy.

Friday, October 24, 2008

5 Things I Miss About Connecticut

It still boggles my mind that Courtney and I both moved to the state of Pennsylvania within a year of each other. However, she might as well still be living in Michigan, as convenient as it is for us to get together (which hasn’t happened yet. Believe me, you will all hear about it when it does). She also may as well be living on a different planet, as far as likenesses between Pittsburgh and Lancaster go, although, from her descriptions, I get a slight hint of likenesses between Philly and Pittsburgh. Horrors, though. That’s a true foreigner’s opinion and completely marks me as someone who is neither from Philly or Pittsburgh. I do hope that those from the two major cities realize that everyone else in the country says, ‘Oh yeah, Pennsylvania. You’ve got Pittsburgh and Philly, and everything in-between is Alabama -- or Arkansas or Kansas, depending on who’s telling the story and where he or she lives. (I happen to live in the Alabama -- or Arkansas or Kansas. Technically, I prefer Kansas, because of the association with The Wizard of Oz -- part of the state.) In other words, no one else in the world is able to distinguish the HUGE differences that separate the two major cities from each other, although my new friends who have moved to this area from the Pittsburgh area are constantly trying to enlighten me.

Anyway, it’s now been just a little over a year since I moved here. I have my trepidations about my looming second winter season here. However, that’s a post for another day. Courtney has posted her five things she misses about Michigan, and I’ve been inspired by her to post my five things I miss about Connecticut (especially since last week at this time, I was there). So, here you go:

Five Things I Miss About Connecticut

1. (I have to start with exactly the same thing Courtney did and say) My Friends. After living in Fairfield Country for twenty years, I have way, way too many to list here (and I’d feel bad about leaving out any of them), but I will list those I know read this blog on a fairly regular basis. First of all, there is Becky. She came to Connecticut “fresh off the boat” to move in with my friend Michael (to whom she would soon be married) and to work at my former company whose doors are about to close. If I’d known I was moving so far away, I would have had lunch (and mint juleps and glasses of red wine) with her more often. There’s Ms. Knits. Hard to believe I was once her boss. Maybe even harder to believe that we both once had a restaurant owner drive us back to our hotel in his pickup truck in Birmingham, AL (did you know there are basically NO taxi cabs in Birmingham?). We used to have great “walk and talks” together. There are Hobs and Dorr, whom I would never have met if it hadn’t been for the blogosphere, despite the fact they lived in my neighboring town, the one with the great coffee shop where I wish I could still meet them for Saturday morning coffees. Then, there’s Zoe’s Mom, whom I barely got to know before I had to move away, but for whom I would abandon my natural distaste for shopping if she were to say “Meet me at the Danbury Mall.”

2. Snow. I know those of you who hate it won’t understand this at all, but I moved away from the South seeking more snow. Granted, with global warming, Connecticut doesn’t get as much snow as it got when I first moved there, but it does still get it. And it still gets a bit more than the Piedmont, North Carolina (which, basically, doesn’t get it at all anymore) of my childhood got. I’m told last winter was mild for this area. Whenever I complain about the lack of snow, I’m told just to wait and am regaled with stories of huge blizzards. However, when I ask when those occurred, I come to find out that it was 1977 or 1992. Nobody seems to be able to recall any recent snowy winters. Yeah, yeah, yeah, maybe there will be some sort of a fluke one day, but basically, this area doesn’t get much snow. It's like being in the Piedmont, NC of my childhood all over again.

3. Ethnic food. Don’t get me wrong. We can get it here. Lancaster City has some great restaurants. And the fresh, best-produce-I’ve-ever-had that’s available throughout the county all spring and summer has made me think I’ve died and gone to heaven. However, for the most part, this is real “meat and potatoes (and corn)” country. If I mix up a batch of Thai peanut noodles for a community picnic, they’ll go uneaten. I don’t tell too many people about my love of sushi (just happy I’ve managed to find a few restaurants where I can feed my addiction, and nobody has to know). And if I want really decent Indian food, I'm afraid I'm going to have to learn to make it myself.

4. Mountains. Oh, I know, I know. Those of you who live in Connecticut are saying “Mountains?” And those of you who live west of me in Pennsylvania, are saying, “Hey, mountains! That’s one thing we DEFINITELY GOT.” It’s true. The “mountains” of Connecticut would look like caution bumps to those of you from Denver. I didn’t notice them much when I lived there, took them for granted (especially since in lower Fairfield County, where I lived for eight years and worked for nineteen, they are nonexistent). And I know I only have to drive less than an hour to reach bigger mountains here. But when I was driving through last week and spotted those huge hills along I-84, I found myself thinking, “God, I miss those mountains.” You see, here, it’s all fields and farmland. We don’t have the mountains, and there’s just something missing out there on the horizon.

5. (Oh, for those of you who know me, this goes without saying, doesn’t it?) New York City. It’s only a 55-minute longer drive from my house in PA than it was from my house in CT to NY. That’s a 55-fucking-minute-oh-so-much-longer-that-is-it-worth-the-hassle-
this-weekend?-no drive. I’m sure you can understand. And yes, I love Philadelphia (which is closer than NY was to my house in CT). It’s a great city. I’ve got so much more to explore there. But it’s not New York.

So, there you have it. I actually could probably go on and make it to ten, but maybe I'll save that for "Five More Things I Miss" one day. Meanwhile, at some point, I need to do the "Five Things I Love About Pennsylvania" (believe it or not, despite what probably seems like mostly complaining I've done over the past year, I do have them. As a very wise friend once said to me, "There are good things and bad things about everywhere you might choose to live." He was so wise that he even chose to focus on the good). Don't hold your breath, though. I constantly seem to be mentioning blog posts I plan to write that never get written (they're becoming like my ghost stories and novels).

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hopping Mad (What Seems to Be Emily's Constant State)

We have a little organization in our community that caters to the needs of the disadvantaged youth in our area. This organization has a center where the kids can go after school, and two nights a week, during the school year, the doors are open for the kids to come and hang out to play games and socialize with each other. This organization was developed in direct correlation with a questionnaire that was sent to all residents about what they would most like to see in our township. An old house has now been bought, and money is being raised to renovate that house, so that when a family of one of the kids who attends the center is in need (as happened a couple of years ago when a woman who had four young children was about to get kicked out of her apartment, putting them all on the street), they can have temporary housing and food.

I have volunteered a couple of times to help serve the “snack” at the center on Monday nights (one of the nights they are open), and my heart goes out to these kids. On the surface, they’re a bunch of noisy, rambunctious teenagers, into the video games the centre provides, dressed in the “coolest” of fashions for their set, all trying to prove how tough they are. However, this “snack” we serve is always something substantial (chili, tacos, barbecue, etc.), and they come back for seconds and thirds. They’ll eat just about anything we serve them without complaint, but they particularly love brownies, and I get a kick out of watching them gather around hopefully, before “snack time” has been announced, with their eyes on the brownies, trying to wheedle some out of us before they’ve been allowed to eat. These brownies never last long. My friend who bakes them has been known to say, “I could bring in 10 dozen brownies, and we still wouldn’t have enough.” Obviously, these kids don’t have anyone at home baking brownies for them.

I also see many of them out on the streets. They like to skateboard. They smoke. They walk around in groups. One of these days, I’m going to stop thinking about it and just stop and offer them a ride and talk to them. I’m pretty sure they’d resist at first, but I’m also pretty sure they’d eventually latch onto an adult who seems to care.

This community center has its faults, not the least of which, in my eyes, is that it was founded by a Christian organization that is pretty fundamental. However, the people who run it, the college kids who spend lots of time volunteering, and others who volunteer all love the kids and come to this special ministry with very good hearts and the best of intentions. It’s one of those places where those of us who can agree to disagree all come together for a better, higher cause, and that’s what Christianity should be all about. Working with the center, I am reminded that I need to remove the beam from my own eye before focusing on the speck in others’ eyes (Matthew 7:5).

However, sometimes the other person has a beam in his or her eye, too, and that just makes me hopping mad. I’m on the outreach committee at our church, and we voted recently to up our donations to this community center. I’d love to do even more, inspiring the kids to become involved in ecojustice and other outlets where they can feed a passion. My feeling is that there are some who can never be “saved,” so to speak. They are destined always to live on the fringes of society, perhaps to lead lives of crime. However, I would not be me if I didn’t believe that at least 90% of them are young enough that all they need is some positive intervention from truly caring people to help them find a better path, one that will capitalize on their innate talents and lead them to productive lives.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when I learned that one of the young members of our church expressed the opinion that he did not want us to give them so much money, because the kids who go there are all “drug addicts.” Huh? My immediate reaction was rage. This is where I get so frustrated with “talking the talk” and not “walking the walk.” What about all those bracelets a lot of the young people have taken to wearing that say, “What would Jesus do?” Is that mere talk? Or maybe these young people have not been taught what Jesus really would have done. So, here I am to tell you what I think he would have done (and why he’d probably be crucified all over again were he suddenly to appear in the majority of towns and cities across 21st-century America).

Jesus would not have turned his back on “drug-addicted” teenagers. He would have realized that the drug addiction was merely a symptom of deeper problems and pain. Just as he ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, just as he told stories about Good Samaritans, he would be right there today, at the center of this community, trying to help these poor lost kids – kids that society has dumped on all their lives. That’s what I believe. That’s why I’m a Christian. And the beam in my eye is that I don’t see how those who don't feel that way can call themselves “Christians.”

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Black and White and Dead All Over

Darnton, John. Black and White and Dead All Over. Knopf. 2008.

When I first picked up this book, the October choice for the Connecticut mystery book discussion group, my initial thought was, "Oh no, it's another The Alienist," which is a book I read but didn't really like all that much by the time I got to the end of it. Then I examined it a little more and thought, "No, looks more like Original Sin," only it takes place at a newspaper publisher instead of a book publisher. I liked Original Sin (by P.D. James) very much when I read it shortly after I began my career in book publishing, but I don't remember much about it at all.

Well, turns out, this book was neither of these. In fact, although murders take place in the book and multiple characters try to solve these murders, I think of it more as satire than mystery. Reading it is like watching a really fun play in which all the characters are over-the-top, spot-on exaggerations of people you absolutely know, also quite a lot like watching News Radio in its heyday or 30 Rock today.

I've mentioned in the past that I had a very brief journalism career (1 1/2 years, to be exact. I often refer to it as my fake journalism career), working for a small legal newspaper in Connecticut. However, this newspaper happened to be part of a larger group of papers from around the country, all owned by the infamous Steve Brill. I interacted with colleagues from all those other papers, on occasion, and quite often with those in New York. We frequently had editors from the two New York papers visiting the Connecticut office. I had friends who "graduated" to jobs at other journals when they left. I know all about editor/reporter relationships (which the book publishing editor/author relationship can sometimes resemble). Basically, the editors thought the reporters were Prima Donas, and the reporters thought the editors didn't know what they were doing. The struggle between the two is epitomized in passages such as this one, which I found quite amusing:
In describing [one victim's] postmortem state, Jude eschewed the word statue and tried sculpture. That was knocked down as "too artsy," so he tried effigy; when that was eliminated because it sounded "political," he reached for relic, which was nixed because it made [the victim] sound like a tourist spot; finally he come up with phantasmagoric likeness, which was blocked as being "too poetic." (p. 157)

I had to laugh at myself as an editor. I do that to poor writers all the time (sermon writers as well as math and science writers).

The book, which takes place at a not-even-thinly-disguised New York Times called The New York Globe opens with the murder of the sort of pompous, self-important character everyone loves to hate. And, of course, because that's who he is, the sky's the limit when it comes to the number of possible suspects. Soon, there are more murders, and the skeletons in multiple closets decide it's time to dress up and come out to play. Besides all the caricatures, one of the things I liked most about the book was the struggle between the old-timers and the new world of online publishing. You've just got to love this portrayal of a group of people the police investigator notices when she sits in on the page-one meeting the morning of the first murder:

Others sat on hard-backed chairs that lined the walls. Among them were six stern-looking young people in blue jeans and T-shirts. They wore designer stainless steel water bottles attached to one side of their belts and cell phones in Velcro-fastened pouches on the other side, like six-shooters in the Old West. "They're from the web site," whispered Toothy, who was on her left... (p. 39)

Ahh, those "guys from the web site," always separated off from everyone else. Darnton doesn't miss a beat in his description of their uniforms, does he? Throughout the book, the tension between the Old Guard and the web-siters is palpable, as I'm sure it is in the real world of journalism these days. No one who's been in the business for a long time wants to admit that print media is probably going to go the way of the dinosaur.

Darnton's cleverness is admirable. Not only is he good at caricature; he also has his eye on all the different angles in newspaper publishing's very strange 21st-century geometric shape. There's print v. web site. There are celebrity columnists (long gone are the days of gentlemanly reporting, when bylines weren't published). There are Rupert Murdochs -- I love the names Darnton chose for his own characters who represented different sorts of recognizable real-world figures. In this particular case, it's Moloch -- who have no shame in their almighty quests to grow the bottom line. Darnton observes it all with a wry eye. And you know? I couldn't help thinking what fun it must be to fictionalize your own place of employment, skewering everyone.

I wondered, though, as I got more into the book if it would hold my interest. After all, I read Max Barry's Company and loved it until I was about halfway through it and then began to feel the joke was getting old. I managed to finish it, but I wasn't all that impressed. I then tried, for another book discussion group, to read Joshua Ferris's And Then We Came to the End and never even finished it. Maybe my attention span for satire is only as long as a two-hour play or a Mark Twain short story. Satire, unless you happen to be Jonathan Swift, is pretty difficult to sustain for 351 pages. But Darnton didn't disappoint. If the book had ended differently, I think I might have come away with the same feeling I had about Company, but instead, he gave me probably the best satirical moment in the book with his revelation of whodunit and why. I should have guessed if I'd really been paying attention to the whole book and what it was instead of allowing myself to get sucked into thinking I was reading a real mystery. All I can say is "Touché, Mr. Darnton."

It was difficult for me to read this book without thinking about the publisher and the publishing industry. Knopf is one of my favorite publishers, and I recently finished reading a very good biography of Ross Macdonald (by Tom Nolan) whose books were published by Knopf. Talk about old v. new. While I was reading that book, I found it very interesting to discover that, when Macdonald first started writing in the 1940s, the big trade publishers of the time like Knopf shied away from the mystery genre, that mysteries were not likely to land on bestseller lists. Publishers didn't pump much money into them, saving their marketing dollars for the likes of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. As the years during which Macdonald wrote progressed, the change that would take place in book publishing was beginning to emerge. The importance of the bottom line overtook the importance of publishing reputable, literary works. Today, bestseller lists are dominated by mysteries and thrillers. I can't help but wonder what Alfred Knopf himself would have thought of such a work as this one, which is not only a satire of the newspaper industry but also of the whole mystery genre. Would he have found it funny, or would it have angered him? And I have to give the publisher (and also the author, since he's an editor) its due: I was very hard-pressed to find typos and grammatical errors in this book, which is rarely true with most of the contemporary books I read (especially mysteries).

My overall impression? If you're a hardcore, purist mystery fan, you're probably not going to like this one too much, especially if you've never worked at a newspaper. If you've ever worked at a paper, I dare you to read it without cracking a smile. If you go into it expecting satire, my guess is you won't be disappointed. And, now I'll leave you with this quote (it's a testament to why I've already made the step of eschewing most print book review media for what I can find online) while I go off finally to read what Dorr and Becky had to say (I've been waiting to read their thoughts until I'd written my own).

She moved with the grace of an eel. Everyone, inside of publishing and out, was petrified of her. Her reviews were incisive -- the way shark's teeth are incisive -- and they cut deep because they were so intelligent. Mortally wounded authors could only take to their beds. (p. 201)

Finally! A Test Result That Makes Me Very Happy

(But I'm not telling you how many, many stupid tests -- although, in case you wanted to know, can I spot a serial killer? Yes. Would I survive in a horror movie? No. Am I a pirate? No. -- I've taken to get these satisfying results.)

Your result for The Literary Character Test...

King Arthur

Good, Human, Straight Forward Thinker

The great King, whose quest would see success only while he remained above his human imperfections. Unfortunately, that would not last forever. King Arthur is a powerful figure, but is in essense very human, and as wide as his Kingdom would expand, he could not conquer those things which make him a mere mortal human. As all good things must come to an end, so will his Kingdom, but while it still stands, it will stand tall and mighty, as a haven for all things good and pure.

Take The Literary Character Test at HelloQuizzy

See? There's been a perfectly good explanation all along for my fascination with castles and dragons and Holy Grails. Oh, and haven't I always told you I was the Knight, not the Princess? I was just being modest, you know. Being good and human and all that, I didn't want to flaunt the fact that I'm actually King.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Taking the Bullet Approach

I'm following everyone else's lead in adopting the bullet approach this evening. I've been up at office headquarters this week and am too exhausted to write about Black and White and Dead All Over, which was my plan. I sort of owe the book discussion group my post on it, but since I missed getting that to them before their meeting, maybe they don't really care at this point. Instead, I give you, in easy-to-read, bulleted fashion, some of the thoughts that are buzzing around my brain these days:
  • I hope I finally learn how to spell Obama's name if he becomes president. I can't avoid reading it at least twenty times a day, and yet my brain still tries to turn him into some sort of Irish tropical fruit or something, wanting to spell it O'Bama, every single time I write it. What the hell is that all about?
  • Where do people get off calling Obama's (hmm...that time I tried to spell it Obam'a) healthcare plan "socialized medicine?" I don't know. Dear English friends who read my blog, will you please tell me how your employer provides your health insurance for you and how much of your paycheck you contribute towards that? Somehow, I seem to have missed out on the fact that that's what those of you who have socialized medicine do, and you know, that's what Obama is planning. Those of us whose employers pay our health insurance will keep receiving those exact same benefits (he's very calmly explained that to us in three debates now). Maybe it's "socialized medicine" because he wants to -- gasp! --keep the premiums from going up every single year, which they've been doing at the company where I work for years now? Or maybe the healthcare benefits all our politicians enjoy free and that are going to be offered to those who don't have healthcare at affordable prices is some sneaky euphemism for free healthcare for all? And by the way, what's so damn horrible about free healthcare for all anyway?
  • Oh, and let's talk about Joe the Plumber whom we all got to meet in last night's debate. I bet you anything that Joe the Plumber is running around bitching and moaning and complaining about how much money these filthy-rich CEOs make and how he doesn't think we should be paying to bail them out. Yet, somehow, it's absolutely horrible for Obama to want to redistribute wealth in this country and to want to raise taxes on those wealthy CEOs.
  • But enough about the election. These days are hard, because the publishing company I worked for for ten years was sold by our parent company, split off from my current company, and most of my friends from that company are losing their jobs. It's very sad. As of December, the doors to that office will be closed. I'm meeting some of my friends from the good old days for dinner tomorrow night as I drive through Connectict back to Pennsylvania, and as I told Zoë's Mom today, who is among those affected, I think I need to go shopping for a stiff upper lip beforehand.
  • But here is some exciting news for everyone. The third sibling has finally joined the blogosphere (gee, we're regular Brontë's, aren't we?) and is writing about her experience working as an art teacher in prisons in Virginia. Very cool stuff. Check it out here.
  • And that's all she wrote.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Haunting Good Reads

I’ve mentioned in other posts that since discovering Goodreads, I’ve become quite a devotee. Like everything, it has its flaws, but as community web sites go, you’ll find it right up at the top of my list. Now when I read a book, I can’t wait to logon and see what others thought of it (much more fun than Amazon reviews, which annoy me, because Amazon reviewers seem to be of two camps: 1. very snobby, holier-than-thou, NYTimes-book-review-wannabes or 2. complete illiterates who make you wonder how they read the book). I love seeing what my friends are reading and browsing their ratings and comments about books. I love it when I read a book, comment on it, and inspire friends to add it to their “to-read” shelves. I like the fact that I can access it when I’m at the library, which is much more convenient than remembering to bring lists of books I want to read with me every time I go. And unlike LibraryThing, which I’ve always avoided, because my compulsive nature wants me to catalog our entire book collection, while my lazier side balks at such a time-consuming undertaking, Goodreads provides guilt-free ways to feed my book obsession.

I’ve been a member of Goodreads since June, and until now, I’ve pretty much been using it as described above. I haven’t invited any complete strangers to be my friends. I have browsed profiles of members who live near me or who have rated a book I liked favorably, but that’s all I’ve done. Most of them don’t seem to have similar tastes in books to mine (although, what that means, God knows. If you were to peruse my own virtual bookshelves, you’d probably conclude that I have a multiple personality disorder to rival Sybil’s). So, they don’t get invited to be my friends. Only those I know in real life or who have been long-time blogging buddies have received such invitations.

It’s October, though, my favorite month due to my favorite holiday Halloween. Is that why, suddenly, complete strangers are popping up and asking me to be their friends? And not just any old complete strangers but weirdly disturbing complete strangers. If these people showed up at my front door (especially the guy whose profile picture is of a very scary-looking clown straight out of Stephen King’s It), I’d be calling 911. And yet, I haven’t. As a matter of fact, I’ve agreed to be friends with some of them. I’m beginning to wonder, though, if this was such a wise move.

I’m not sure exactly how these people have found me, and I didn’t think to try to find out until I’d already agreed to be their friends. (“Why, yes, I know you’re wearing a very scary clown mask, but come on in. Would you like some tea?”). And I wonder, should I un-invite them? (“So, the only thing you like to read is macabre erotica? You’ve never even heard of Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Ummm, are you going to feel horribly unloved and unwanted if I decide not to be your friend?”) Goodreads doesn’t volunteer information like “psycho who has discovered you live where he’s planning his next trip and wants to get to know his next victim before he kills her and leaves an appropriate literary clue at the scene of the crime.” Unless the person requesting my friendship sends me a message or decides to “add a story” about me that needs my approval, I’m left clueless.

Recently, one of these complete strangers sent me a story to approve. Huh? How could she possibly have a story to add about me? I’d never even heard of her until that week. It turns out, she didn’t have a story about me. I’d never used the “add a story” option, but it allows users to go in and check boxes describing how they know you. They can also write something if they like, but all she’d done was check that she’d met me “randomly,” “online,” and “through Goodreads.”

This would all be fine if I’d gone to her profile, clicked on the “compare books” line, and discovered that she and I had something like 50% of our books in common. But we don’t. Would you like to know how many books we have in common? You guessed it: zero. Same with Scary-“It-Clown”-Monster-Guy (although he does read nothing but horror, has read books I love, and I’ve got a few horror titles on my goodreads shelves). Nor do we happen to live in the same area (not even the same area of the country). Nor, as far as I can tell, do we have any “friends” in common.

I’m beginning to be a little creeped out by this. I’m sure there is some natural “computer geek” explanation for complete strangers who randomly find me, have nothing in common with me, and decide they want to be my friends. Probably, there is some button I have yet to find somewhere that says, “invite all Goodreads members to be your friend.” Or maybe they've tracked me down through this blog (although that seems highly unlikely, because I get, like, 25 visits to this blog a day, and I know most of you).

My imagination obviously thinks that the invite button explanation is extremely boring. Who wants an explanation like that? Only those who want to believe that ghosts come about purely due to stimulation of certain areas of the brain. The rest of us, my imagination at the front of the line, want exciting explanations for weird things. Granted, I've been feeding my imagination lots of eerie stories this month, and the other night, we went to this. It’s jumping aboard that black stallion it so loves for its runaways. The black stallion is wearing a Freddy Krueger mask.

And so I’m being encouraged to ponder exactly how these people found me. I’m scanning my “currently-reading” and “to-read” bookshelves, and I don’t like what I’m finding. One book in particular is jumping off the shelf (or maybe it’s creeping off the shelf, big black wings poised to fly). When I added this book to the site, I was slightly concerned that it might attract unwanted attention.

The book in question is Katherine Ramsland’s Piercing the Darkness. I like Ramsland. She’s a psychologist turned pseudo investigative reporter who has also written a biography of Anne Rice (which I haven’t read. I haven't read any of Anne Rice's vampire novels, either, having been warned against them, although there's a part of me that thinks I ought to give them a go, the part of me that doesn't believe I'm allowed to have an opinion about something I haven't seen/read. But it can barely breathe due to being squashed all the time by the part of me that opines -- ad nauseam -- about things I've never seen/read). I read her book about ghost hunting a couple of years ago, then discovered that we had an ARC of this one, which is about vampire hunting. Yes, real vampires. Or those who think they are vampires. Or those who are role-playing vampires. Or those who are into truly unusual sexual practices. Or are they vampyres?

As you may have guessed, it’s all pretty confusing. I wrote on Goodreads that it's been a long time since I've found myself reading a book that's had me alternating so between disbelief, repulsion, fascination, terror, and theorizing about mythical "monsters" and the human need for story-telling. This is not a book for the faint of heart (or for those whose imaginations accidentally jump onto a sickly old brown mule, likely to stumble and fall during the first grisley encounter, instead of a black stallion ready to gallop onto the next gruesome detail). Overall, though, I’m enjoying it, Dracula being one of my all-time favorite books, vampires being one of my all-time favorite mythical monsters, and psychology being my most treasured fascination.

Perhaps, however, you can understand why I might be slightly alarmed by the prospect of people looking for this book on Goodreads, finding out that I’m reading it, and deciding they want to get to know me. Next thing you know, I’m going to be invited to some very strange midnight gatherings in the cemetery behind our house. I won’t be around on Goodreads to “approve the story” from my new "friend" Mr. BlackNight about the vampire fan who was lured away in the middle of the night. So, just to let you know that if I happen to disappear from the blogosphere without a trace, you’ll know what happened to me…

(I know. I know. I know. “Climb aboard the black stallion with your imagination, and get on with your novel-writing, Emily," right?)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Chasing David Sedaris

I don’t believe people who tell me they don’t pay attention to celebrity gossip or who make a point of shunning all celebrity news rags and TV shows. We are all human. We are all members of a successful species, which means we are absolutely fascinated by other members of our own species. If we weren’t, extinction rather than overpopulation would be our problem. Gossip rags and TV shows give us the opportunity to observe, gape, and wonder at other members of our own species.

That being said, I am the sort who, although very interested in celebrities, can never keep them straight (I hate to tell you this, but despite the fact they alternate weeks being on the cover of People magazine, if you showed me pictures of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton side by side, I’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart). This is particularly true, because, at this point in my life, I don’t watch television. And I don’t go to movies much, either. I am also the sort who, when I was a teenager, thought all those girls portrayed screaming and crying in the ancient video footage of the likes of Elvis Presley and the Beatles were nuts. What a stupid thing to do! I dreamed of meeting my own heartthrobs like David Bowie and Sting and very calmly asking questions that showed a keen ability to interpret song lyrics. David would think I was as cool as he was when I very intelligently asked him, “So, is Major Tom all of youth, and Ground Control all the parents worried about losing us?”

When I was a child and a teenager, I didn’t write fan letters to pop stars. I wrote them to my favorite authors. I wanted to meet David Bowie, yes, but I also wanted to meet Dr. Seuss and Beverly Cleary and later John Irving and Pat Conroy. The nice thing about writing fan letters to authors is that, unlike pop stars who just send sleazy autographed photographs (I did have friends who wrote letters to the likes of Shaun Cassidy), authors tend to write at least a few sentences back. I’m still likely to compose letters to authors in my head these days, although less likely to get them written and sent than I did in those days. And I dream of suddenly finding myself, one day, sitting next to the likes of Sarah Blake on an airplane, striking up a great conversation with her (complete fantasy, because I never talk to a soul on airplanes, if I can help it), and then saying to her, “Dammit. Write another book. I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting ever since I read Grange House, and that was years ago.”

The trouble with authors is that we don’t tend to have a very good idea of what they look like. If they bother to have photos on their books, they seem to be inclined to use the same ones for years on end, never aging from the time they wrote their first book fifteen years ago. They’re difficult to spot in a crowd. So, imagine my surprise when Bob and I were down in Florida, visiting Fort Jefferson at The Dry Tortugas off Key West, and I happened to take a look at the other members of our tour group. Standing a few feet from me was a very cool-looking, tall and bulky gentleman who was holding onto a crooked walking stick and occasionally smirking at some of the tour guide’s dumb jokes. He looked somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t exactly figure out why. He also looked decidedly gay, which led me to look to see who was accompanying him. Ahh, my gay theory was confirmed when I discovered standing to his right, a short, stocky middle-aged man wearing a very cute fisherman’s hat and looking very serious. He looked even more familiar to me, and then it dawned on me. I was standing a mere few feet away from my greatest idol David Sedaris.

David Sedaris? No, it couldn’t be. What would he be doing here? I looked a little more (okay, I stared -- no, I gawked. My parents would have been mortified after all those years of telling us how rude it is to stare at others), and, yes, that most definitely was the man I’d seen pictured on book jackets. Why wasn’t anyone else staring at him, though, or crowding around to get his autograph? I looked around. There was the obese guy with the “Coors Light” t-shirt. There was the all-American family dressed in Bermuda shorts and matching shirts. There was the sextet (long khaki shorts, dark socks pulled up mid-calf with their white sneakers) that was obviously on some sort “over-65” special. There was the honeymooning couple from Kansas. Not exactly a David-Sedaris-reading, NPR-listening crowd.

From this point on, I was unable to pay attention to our tour guide. I started wondering how I was coolly going to interject myself into David and (who was obviously his partner we all know and love) Hugh’s conversation. This was not going to be an easy task, as these two weren’t talking at all. They were both squinting into the bright sun, perspiring in the extreme heat with the rest of us, and trying to focus on what the tour guide was saying. After wondering why on earth they were here, it was beginning to make perfect sense to me. David was obviously on tour for his newest book, and they’d been in Florida, Hugh accompanying him for the trip. They, like everyone else on the tour, had been curious about Dry Tortugas National Park and had decided to come out and see it.

I began to imagine the piece I’d eventually read in The New Yorker that evolved from this little day trip: the salty old tour guide with his limp, the annoying, ghostly-white blond woman who kept staring at them and who eventually started asking them all sorts of inane questions and blabbering on about having grown up in North Carolina and been to France a few times... Maybe I should stop paying attention to them. Maybe I should just turn away and ignore them for a while. I began to focus completely on our tour guide and everything he was saying about the torture of building this fort in the heat, soaking up his narrative the way the soldiers’ wool uniforms must have soaked up their sweat. I was going to become the expert on what the tour guide had to say, maybe station myself as we walked to the next stopping point on the tour, so that I would be standing next to David and could casually comment on something the old guide said, something that would identify me as an intelligent, wry observer of history.

Our next stop inside the fort was the boat that had recently been brought to shore with eight Cubans aboard, ranging in age from 8 to 65. It was wooden. It was tiny. It was something I wouldn’t have taken out into a pond, let alone the waters of the Atlantic. I began to think about how desperate these people are to get to our country. I began to write a blog post in my head blasting those who are so down on immigrants and immigration. I was lambasting them for thinking that people who are desperate enough to get to our country by such means are shiftless nobodies who plan to live off us hard-working Americans. I was observing how the Cubans (because they are from that all-so-dangerous-huge-and-powerful Communist country) are welcomed once they manage to make it in such a vehicle, but our Mexican neighbors are not. With each of my imagined keystrokes, I was questioning armchair bigots, sitting around in their Lazyboys watching Fox News, about where they thought their families had come from to become citizens of The United States, and what if someone had been building fences to keep their forebears out? And then I looked up to discover that David and Hugh were gone. They’d left the group. They’d gone off to wander around the fort on their own. I was crushed! I’d been so busy fighting for immigrants, I’d lost the opportunity to become immortalized in The New Yorker and possibly even Sedaris’s next book.

Bob was, of course, oblivious to all this. He was the one who actually was asking the tour guide intelligent questions. He was also the one talking to others on the tour and finding out where they were from and asking them if they’d like him to take their pictures together with their cameras in the hopes they’d offer to take pictures of him and me together with our cameras. Unfortunately, he’d managed to miss David and Hugh (he wouldn’t have known who they were anyway. He reads Sedaris sometimes, but is not the lunatic fan I am). Good thing, really. Chances were, I’d remain anonymous, and he’d show up in The New York Time’s Book Review write-up on Sedaris’s next book as the “screamingly portrayed Picture-Taking-Pennsylvanian-Preacher.” The tour guide ended his spiel, and Bob wanted to explore every part of the fort we could, eat our lunch, and then go snorkeling. The snorkeling off this island was supposed to be some of the best in the world.

We went our separate ways for this snorkeling expedition. I’m not the world’s strongest swimmer without a float, and Bob wanted to snorkel out to posts that seemed to be miles off in the distance. I told him to go ahead and that I would stick close to the shore and snorkel around the fort’s wall where some fantastic coral was growing. He was wrong to go all the way out there, as the octopus we eventually saw, was hanging out right by the wall where I’d been all along. However, there was another spot on the island for snorkeling, and he eventually convinced me to walk over there with him. That spot seemed to be too close to boat landings and dangerous-looking posts, though, so I once again told him to go on ahead, and I’d walk along the beach that was up above and watch him.

I scrambled up the bank to the wall above the water, and lo and behold! there were David and Hugh, standing up there taking pictures. Isn’t it reassuring to find out that your idol does something as cliché as taking pictures while touring a national park? Anyway, my chance was back. I could do something cool, say something brilliant. David and Hugh would love me. We'd get back to Key West and have dinner together. Our next vacation would be to visit them in France. Suddenly, Bob popped up to the surface to call up to me to tell me how I really ought to come down, that it was so cool, and that I was missing out on all kinds of great sea life. I looked over at Hugh and David, trying to gauge what David might be writing in his own head as he witnessed all this. All of a sudden, Hugh looked at me, and said with a distinct Australian accent,

“Tell him to be careful. We saw some barracuda swimming around down there earlier.” At the same time David said, in just as distinct an Australian accent, “Let her get by, Wesley.”

I’m relieved, actually. I would hate to think that a man like Hugh, who spent his childhood in places like Africa, wouldn’t know that barracuda are perfectly harmless to snorkelers and scuba divers. And I don’t have to worry about The New Yorker essay describing the idiot couple -- she watching from above as her husband swam around in the boat landing, flirting with barracuda. Then again, maybe I'll one day read the essay about how he and Hugh pretend to be clueless Australian tourists when they're in the U.S.