Wednesday, February 29, 2012
In May of 2007, the last time I wrote about book lust – we all know what that is, don’t we? – the publishing world existed in a universe quite different from today’s.
I waxed rhapsodic about the bookness of a book:
What in this world is more wondrous, magical, intriguing, alluring than a book? An entire world contained between two covers! But It’s not the content alone that I love. I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands, I admire a sturdy spine, I appreciate an attractive cover and an elegant design. I’m a type junky and always check to see whether the book includes a note about the type. I’m disappointed when I don’t find that information. (My favorite typeface, at least for the moment, is Sabon, which is used in Stephen Booth’s British editions.)
I admitted that once I owned a book, I never wanted to let it go. When we moved, about 20 years ago, from one Washington, DC suburb to another, we thinned our book collection and donated dozens to the Arlington County (VA) Central Library’s used book room. As soon as they were gone, I began to suffer an agonizing remorse. How could I have given them up? How could I live without them? For a long time after we moved next door to Fairfax County, I made regular trips to the Arlington Library, where -- yes -- I gradually bought back a fair number of the books we had donated. They were mine. They belonged at home with me, not with strangers.
Every reader and writer I knew felt the same way. Although they sometimes complained about the lack of space in their houses for other objects, not to mention humans, they could not part with their books.
That was May, 2007. On November 19 of that year, the Kindle went on sale. Some of us laughed at it. We already knew about e-books. We knew that practically nobody read them. After all, who would want to read off an electronic screen when they could be holding a real book in their hands?
But while earlier e-readers had languished in the marketplace, the Kindle had the might of Amazon and its breathtakingly huge inventory behind it, and the Kindle began to sell. We heard a rumble deep in the heart of the book world. We felt a faint tremor in the earth beneath our feet. The rumble grew to a roar, the tremor built to a violent convulsion that threatened to leave no bookstore standing.
And the definition of book lust morphed into something undreamt of in the spring of 2007 B.K.
People who coveted printed books in the Before Kindle era started looking askance at those piles of rectangular objects that took up so much space at home and were a nuisance to carry while traveling. To be sure, diehard fans of “real books” remain. But many have turned into hybrids, declaring that as much as they love printed books and always will, they don’t have room for any more and prefer to acquire e-books instead. E-reader tablets continue to sell, and as many as one-fourth of all Americans already own one. (At the end of 2011, Amazon sold a million Kindles a week.) E-book sales are gaining market share by leaps and bounds.
In the wake of all this change, I have noticed the parallel growth of e-book lust. Some people declare that they have more e-books on their machines than they will ever get around to reading. They troll for free e-books online and download them in staggering numbers. I suspect that a great many of those books will never be read, which is not something the authors want to hear. Electronic book hoarding has a lot in common with print book hoarding. Its one virtue is that it takes up less space.
I have an iPad with the Kindle app on it, and I’ve downloaded a handful of e-books. If a reference book I might use often for research is especially cheap as an e-book, I will download it. I stay away from the Kindle Store because I know I am a book addict and I don’t want to tempt myself. Once I give in to the urge to go browsing, I will be lost.
Now let’s talk about your book habits.
Do you own an e-reader?
How many books are on it right now?
How many downloads have you bought in the last month? The last year?
Are you buying more e-books than printed books?
How many of your downloads have you actually read?
Have you downloaded books on impulse, only to realize later that you’ll probably never read them?
Do you remove a book from your reader after you’ve read it or decided you don’t want to read it?
Have you ever given an e-book as a gift? Do you think you ever will?
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
One afternoon when I was four years old, my mother left me and my brother in the car while she ran into a friend’s house to pick up a sewing pattern. My brother was about three months old, asleep in a basket on the back seat. Car seats? Seat belts? Never heard of them.
The car, with the parking brake on, was parked at the top of a hill. A few minutes after my mother went in the house, the car started to roll down the hill.
I realized I couldn’t reach the brake pedal, opened the door, got out of the car, closed the door, ran for the house yelling for my mother, and got to the house in time for her to run out, get in the car and stop it before it plummeted down the hill. I did all of this in seconds, with absolute focus and clarity that I remember to this day. That was my first experience being in the zone.
I love that zone feeling. The way that time dilates. That sense of absolute focus. The way that connections that I couldn’t see before suddenly make complete sense.
Here’s what research has discovered about how we naturally increase our ability to zone:
1. Focus on the task. If you are writing, write. Don’t answer e-mail. Don’t Google or Bing or any of those other new verbs. Don’t get up to check if your spices needs to be arrange alphabetically. Write, write, write over and over.
2. Slow breathing and pulse rate. That’s not as hard as it sounds. Find your pulse in your wrist. Take a deep, slow breath. Hold it for a couple of seconds at maximum inspiration. Let it out slowly. In those couple of seconds with your breath held, you should have felt your pulse slow. The more you practice this, the easier it gets. Um, stop somewhere short of hyperventilation and passing out, okay?
3. Enjoy the pursuit. Believe that the task is rewarding for its own sake. Find the sweet spot where your skills are perfectly matched to the task at hand. There’s no sense kidding ourselves, a lot of writing isn’t enjoyable. We get through it because we have to, because whether it’s editing for comma usage or mucking our way through a scene we don’t yet understand but have to finish, those tasks are part of the package deal of being an author. We hope for, live for those incredible, tasty bits where the writing becomes supremely fun.
4. Silence self-critical thoughts. Unlike that breathing and pulse thing, this often is neither easy nor fun. But it is doable and, over time, we either learn to cope or we give up writing and go somewhere else more fun.
5. Expand the focus to include an outside reference point. We’re talking reward points here, whether it’s a perfect cup of tea as soon as you finish this chapter, or anticipating climbing on a plane for Hawaii in three months. We need rewards and treats outside of ourselves, outside of projects for which to aim.
6. Keep doing the above 5 things for roughly 10,000 hours of practice. If we imagine 300 days a year as a base, and practice, say, 2 hours a day, that should take us about 16 to 17 years to achieve.
Or if you’re in a hurry, and putting in 10,000 hours of practice doesn’t appeal to you, you could sign up for lab experiments where your brain patterns are teased apart and projected on a screen. Then you have the fun of learning to change the shape of the pattern to create a zoning pattern. Create the right pattern and enter the zone immediately.
For the people in a real hurry, scientists have discovered that zapping certain brain areas with electricity produces transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). This fast tracks your brain instantly into a zone state that lasts as long as the electricity flows. If you’re interested, check out the New Scientist article about research in this area. This is being touted as the next great revolution in education.
If you have some concerns about this, especially for your kids, you might also want to look at the Scientific America article on the ethics of tDSC.
For the really got-to-get-to-that-zone-and-hang-the-consequences group, people are actually trying the tDCS stimulation at home as a do-it-yourself project, with instructions they found on the Internet. Never mind that we don’t know what the long-term effect of this research are. Never mind that a short-time side effects can include blindness that lasts several months. I can’t think of a single situation where home-grown tDCS a good idea. But then, maybe I’m just old-fashioned. After all, I was born before infant car carriers and seat belts.
So what’s it going to be for you: practice, practice, practice, or a 9-volt jolt to the brain?
Quote for the week:
To the make of a piper goes seven years of his own learning, and seven generations before. At the end of his seven years, one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and leaning a fond ear to the drone he may have parley with old folks of old affairs.
~Neil Munro (1863–1930) Scottish journalist, newspaper editor, author and literary critic.
The same can be said of writers as of pipers.
Monday, February 27, 2012
As I watched the event this year, I pondered the notion of the acceptance speech. How well did people really understand what they were supposed to do up there, and how gracious were their speeches?
All the speech books suggest that one should consider SPAM--situation, purpose, audience and method. At the Oscars, this would dictate that one would
A)be aware of their special circumstances and appropriately grateful for them, as well as remaining conscious that all of their fans are watching (situation).
B)understand that it really IS an honor to be nominated, and that their goal is to be THANKFUL. However, it is clear when people approach the mike that they have varying purposes: politics, networking, grudge-holding, Hollywood-bashing (or praising), or, as is the case of one starlet whom I particularly dislike and who tends to win OFTEN, celebrating themselves at long-winded length while ignoring the orchestra.(This particular person wasn't present this year). (purpose)
C)be conscious of both the audience in the auditorium and the audience at home. What would bore them? Is the speaker's job to entertain those people, or to try to please the people involved in his or her own film? (audience)
D)realize that a well-prepared and beautifully rendered speech is far more enjoyable than a list of names. Should they be reading the names of endless producers, directors and camera people off a little piece of paper, saying that they'll make mistakes because they haven't brought their glasses? Or should they try to entertain the audience by showing the very skills that won them the award--that is, skills in public speaking and presentation? Skills in ACTING? So often the award recipients are disappointing when they approach the microphone.
The best speeches by far are those that are truly heartfelt. Who can forget Roberto Benigni, who in his euphoria at winning walked across the seats of the auditorium and moved the audience to tears with his enthusiasm and joy?
For the reasons above, I have chosen my favorites from the 2012 Oscar speeches:
Octavia Spencer, for her sweet and genuine acceptance speech. I think she moved the entire audience to tears.
Asghar Farhadi, the director of the winning Foreign Language film; the paper he read from was forgivable because he had an important message that he wanted to make sure to translate correctly--and everyone was listening.
Michel Hazanavicius, who won a Best Director Oscar for THE ARTIST, for his heartfelt speech, in English, when he forgot the original.
And my winners for the best acceptance speeches: A TIE: the always-elegant Christopher Plummer, who acknowledged his fellow nominees AND his wife and daughter, and brought a gentleman-liness to his presentation that one does not always see in the actors of today.
And the wonderful Jean Dujardin, whose joy and sweet French accent as he accepted his best actor award for THE ARTIST, highlighted a true love of The Oscars and the silent films that inspired him.
All in all a truly fun and joyous Oscar ceremony, with some truly lovely speeches.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
If you’re at all squeamish, maybe you’d better skip this post. Then again, if you like mysteries and crime novels, you’re in the right place, because I’m going to talk today about the grislier aspects of crime. We’ve heard in the news several weeks ago about the discovery of a severed head in L.A.’s Bronson Canyon, where, ironically, many an L.A. film crew shoots crime dramas. It’s as noir as it gets, all right, since the head was found near the iconic Hollywood sign. And as if that didn’t satisfy our prurient curiosity, they soon found the severed hands and feet of the same victim. And because I’m just as grisly as the rest, I kept thinking, “Where’s the torso?”
On a clear day in Los Angeles, you can see the Hollywood sign from quite a long way away. It is a universal symbol of Hollywood, the studios, and all the dark deeds of a gritty Los Angeles in the thirties and forties. Minor actress Peg Entwhistle found lasting fame when she dove from the "H" in the sign, committing suicide.
L.A. is home to many a noir story and the recent murder falls right into the same category. In fact, it was the same week in 1947, that the severed body of Elizabeth Short, otherwise known as the Black Dahlia, was discovered in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, an area in the heart of Los Angeles. She was found nude, mutilated, drained of blood, with her torso nearly severed in half. The corners of her mouth were slashed giving her an eerie semblance of a rictus smile. Her murder remains in the minds of crime enthusiasts because of its grisly nature as well as the fact that it is unsolved, although many have tried to claim that they solved it.
The Cleveland Torso Murders were the act of a serial killer, also known as the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, committing his crimes between 1935 and 1938 in Cleveland, Ohio, though some investigators credit 40 victims to the serial killer, with a victim as early as the 1920s and as late as 1950. The killer killed his victims by decapitation, and often mutilated the body, castrating the men, and sometimes severing the extremities. Headless torsos were found abandoned. Sometimes the heads were found, sometimes not. Again, the killer was never found.
Why are we drawn to such things? Why is it that the news will always lead with, if they could, “the nude body of a woman was found today…”? We are all prurient, always have been no matter what we claim. There but for the grace of God go we, perhaps. But it might be more. In a series of studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researchers came away with the knowledge that women are particularly drawn to crime stories, more so than men, out of their own fears of being a victim of violent crimes. Forewarned is forearmed?
We now know the identity of that most recent victim of the January murder as 66 year old Hervey Medellin, who lived in an apartment off Sunset Boulevard. (Are you feeling the noir?)
But Medellin is more than merely a plot device. Authors are careful, or at least we mostly try to be, when we lift stories "ripped from the headlines." It's better to disguise it a bit, especially if these are recent crimes and victim's families might feel the harm of it. Crimes of years and years ago, on the other hand, as in the case of Jack the Ripper, are certainly fodder for authors. Here again is a slashing, disemboweling set of serial murders. It seems the public never gets tired of new iterations of Jack the Ripper, also unsolved.
Let us hope that this most recent killer is soon found and that there are no other victims. Meanwhile, the circus continues.
Friday, February 24, 2012
As I may have mentioned here, my Orchard Mystery series came about because of a conversation with my agent. She had seen (and rejected) a submission about a woman who stumbled into running a bed and breakfast in western Massachusetts, in a colonial house that happened to have a ghost. If you've read any of the Orchard books, you know that the house is not a bed and breakfast, and there is no resident ghost.
But we both liked the setting and the central character, so we started batting around ideas that that might work while keeping the good parts. Rural area, with some high-brow colleges nearby…hmm. We rejected the idea of an organic farm, and then I said "apples," and we were off and running.
What is it about apples that is so appealing? Well, they've been part of American culture since the colonies were settled in the 17th century: the first European apple trees were planted in 1623 in Boston by William Blackstone, who was a minister to the Plymouth settlers. Every household had an apple orchard, mainly for making cider, since people didn't trust the well water and hard cider contained enough alcohol to kill most of the bacteria. George Washington built a distillery to make apple brandy, and John Adams greeting each day with a tankard of (hard) cider. Many of us grew up with the Disney-fied version of Johnny Appleseed (a distant cousin of mine), who was instrumental in spreading apple trees westward.
So unquestionably apples and hard cider were a central part of American life—until Prohibition crushed them. And where there were once as many as a thousand varieties in this country, now we grow only a handful. Still, we regard apples as a healthy food, and their juice as a healthy drink.
But is that all? Since I've been writing about apples for a few years now (educating my city-raised heroine—and myself—about them as I go), I've become more aware of apple representations in the media—and they're everywhere. Somehow a bowl full of apples has become an iconic image.
I'm not going to get into the whole Adam-Eve-Snake-Apple issue. I'm not talking about food-related ads or cooking shows. What I've found recently is that I keep seeing bowls of apples prominently displayed in kitchens and even living rooms on television and in the movies. Take the series The Closer. Those who follow that series will know that neither the protagonist nor her spouse have much interest in cooking. Sure, an apple is a handy snack to have around. But what troubles me is that in this case (a) the apples are left sitting out, unrefrigerated, and (b) there are far more apples in that bowl than the two residents of the household could consume before those poor apples went bad (unless they wanted to risk serious intestinal upsets).
Once I noticed this, I started seeing the same bowl of apples everywhere--network shows, and a lot of commercials. And even in the White House: during a recent newscast held in the Oval Office—yes, there was that bowl of apples, front and center on a low table.
How did we manage to load a simple fruit with such iconographic significance? I'm guessing that a bowl of apples immediately suggests home, history, honesty, hard work, and healthy bowels. But at the same time we have more or less homogenized them, ignoring or breeding out the subtleties of flavor and size and appearance. Say "apple" to almost anyone and their first thought is "Delicious," or just maybe "Macintosh." (My alternate theory is that they are alien seeds, and when they hatch they will take over the world.)
I will plead guilty to exploiting that same iconography for my mystery series. Is there anybody who doesn't love apples? The apple orchard in my fictional Granford is an ongoing and growing character in the books, and my readers seem to respond to that. I'm happy to take advantage of that symbolism, whatever the origin. And I've planted six apples trees around my house.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
As a writer, I have ambivalent feelings about Kindle, its parent, Amazon, and e-readers in general. As a reader, I like paying a lower price for books and not having to carry bulky tomes around in order always to have something to read at hand. When I finally got a Kindle as a gift, I hoped that I would fall in love with it.
I’d heard a lot of users say they loved their Kindle, whether or not they expected to before they got it. In our era of constantly changing technology, there are some devices that manage not to become objects of widespread if not universal love-hate at best. I love Sadie, my GPS, who’s navigated me through strange cities all over the country to bookstores and libraries on obscure streets and back roads. I love my EZ-Pass, which has saved me endless road hours and upper arm stress that I once would have spent rolling windows up and down and scrambling for change at toll booths on highways and bridges. I love my iPhone, which gives me long distance calls for free, connects me with help when I’m lost or late or stranded, and allows me to show the latest videos of my granddaughters dancing to my friends and anyone else I can grab hold of when the kvelling fit takes me.
So far, to my disappointment, my Kindle has not joined this select company. I like it, but I don’t love it. For one thing, in spite of having heard over and over before I got it how hard it is to format books for e-readers, I’m shocked at the unprofessional quality of the text.
To do the big publishers justice, the traditionally published new novels I’ve seen so far are as free of errors as the general run of print books. But, like many new Kindle users, I’ve been stocking my e-library with classics that are in the public domain and therefore offered either free or at a nominal cost. I’ve been reading my way through the works of Louisa May Alcott (23 books for $1.00) and of L.M. Montgomery (14 novels and numerous stories for $0.99), and the errors in both are downright weird. I don’t know if humans or electronics are responsible for repeated instances of “blas” for “blasé” and “piq” (was was it “picq”?) for “pique,” but they jolted me out of my reader’s trance over and over.
In Agatha Christie’s early books, the drawings and diagrams that are an essential part of the puzzle are missing. Chapter III of The Mysterious Affair at Styles begins: “To make this part of my story clear, I append the following plan of the first floor of Styles. The servants’ rooms are reached through the door B. They have no communication with the right wing, where the Inglethorps[ rooms were situated.” No plan. No indication, eg “[PLAN]”. No footnote. Frustration for the reader.
I’ve managed to learn to use just about all of the features of my iPhone, thanks to tips from other users and the helpful folks at the Verizon and Apple stores as well as trial and error. Not so the Kindle. I have the Kindle Touch, and I can turn the page forward or back with a simple tap on the right or left. But periodically, an inadvertent hand movement sends it skipping whole chapters forward or back through the text. So far, the only way I’ve found to correct this is to go back to the beginning of the book and “leaf” through it (tap-tap-tap-tap-tap....) until I find my lost place.
Electronics manufacturers delight in making their products increasingly “interactive.” Is this really a benefit? Maybe so, to the younger generation who tell all their Friends on Facebook every time they brush their teeth. But not to me. Every time my pinkie accidentally brushes the screen as I read, the ever-helpful folks at Amazon give me a thorough definition of the word, I’ve hit, most frequently “the” or “was.” What makes them think I need it?
At the end of each book, a screen invites the reader “Before you go...” to “Rate this book (on a five-star scale) and “Share you’ve finished.” I live in dread of accidentally tapping the “Share” button. I’m afraid that doing so will broadcast my reading choices to the millions of readers on Amazon, and of course no explanation of the feature is offered, so if I’m wrong, I’ll never know. I wanted a read I could take on the subway—not a permanent relationship with Big Brother.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
(I'm at that hair-pulling stage again, feverishly working on last-minute changes to a new book for my editor and trying to root out all the overused words that dot the landscape of my novel like stubborn dandelions. This post, which first appeared here in slightly different form back in the earliest days of Poe's Deadly Daughters, remains as sadly appropriate as ever.)
Every writer will know what I’m talking about. It’s that broken-record thing your mind does without your conscious awareness. I can write a complete first draft without realizing that I’ve used a vocabulary of 200 words, tops. When I shift into rewrite mode, my inner editor is aghast to discover the same verb two dozen times -- in every chapter. She looked. He looked. They both looked. Again and again and again.
[Pause to bang head on desk.]
Out comes my copy of the Rodale Synonym Finder. Peered? A specialty word to be used sparingly, but great in certain contexts. Peeked? How many adults ever peek? Glanced and stared are easy to abuse, and like looked, they can multiply faster in a manuscript than hangers in a closet.
When I begin a manuscript with the intention of avoiding looked, some other word invariably moves in and takes over. Glared is one of my worst rough draft habits. My characters, always a high-strung lot, glare at each other, at traffic, at stormy skies, at inanimate objects and life in general, all the way through the first draft. I never realize I’m doing this while I’m doing it.
[Pause for more head-banging.]
My only remedy is to read through the first draft and make a list of overused words so I can replace them next time around. I’m dismayed at how little this list varies from one manuscript to the next. [Do you ever learn? Apparently not.]
English sometimes feels like a blunt-force weapon to me, lacking the delicate calibration of other languages. We don’t have marvelous words like Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude and hikikomori to convey complex emotional states. To say the same thing, writers and speakers of English have to string several words into a phrase or an entire sentence. Even angst and macho are borrowed from other languages.
Alaskan Native Americans have forty words for snow, to denote its many states and textures. I have three: snow, the generic white stuff; slush, what the generic white stuff becomes when it lands on warm pavement; and snirt, the dirty mounds of once-white stuff that are created by plows and always seem to last into May.
English may not have forty words for snow, but it has plenty of alternatives to said, and enthusiastic writers try to use all of them. I am no exception. Ironically, though, said is one word that should be allowed to stand in most cases, because our characters become ridiculous when they’re constantly exclaiming, shouting, pleading, crying, whispering, expostulating, etc. Said is believed to be invisible to the reader, regardless of how many times the writer uses it -- unlike, for example, looked and glared. So I often find myself striking some of the alternatives and upping my said total in later drafts. Then my editor tells me to replace most of the dialogue attributions with action.
I confess to feeling a mean little spark of glee when I realize that a well-known writer has failed to tame a bad word habit. One bestselling author is addicted to the word coursed. Adrenaline coursed through him. Anger coursed through her. Panic coursed through her. Joy coursed through her. And, of course, desire coursed through him. The author’s books are popular all over the world, which indicates that little or no irritation has coursed through her fans.
Are writers the only people who notice these things? Do they matter at all to readers who are not writers themselves? Maybe not. Maybe a book with incessantly glaring characters would go over well with readers. But as long as my overused words make me want to bang my head on my desk, I’ll continue to keep my list and spend days finding alternatives before I declare a manuscript finished.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Monday, February 20, 2012
George Washington's "wooden teeth" were actually made of walrus tusks.
PRESIDENTS LINCOLN, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy were assassinated in office.
ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS were made on the lives of Jackson, T. Roosevelt, F. Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G. H. W. Bush, Clinton, and G. W. Bush.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the only presidents to sign the Declaration of Independence, and they both died on its 50th anniversary, July 4, 1826.
James Madison was the first president to wear trousers rather than knee breeches.
James Monroe, like Adams and Jefferson, also died on the 4th of July, but in 1831.
John Quincy Adams was the only president elected to the House after his presidency.
Andrew Jackson was the first president to ride in a train.
Martin Van Buren and his wife spoke Dutch at home.
William Henry Harrison served only thirty days in office before dying of pneumonia.
Several American presidents had no formal education, including Washington, Jackson, Taylor, Fillmore, Lincoln, Johnson, and Cleveland.
Eisenhower was a skilled chef, and the first president licensed to fly an airplane.
Franklin Pierce memorized his entire inaugural speech. (3,319 words).
Rutherford B. Hayes was the first president to use a phone. His phone number was "1".
Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest person ever to be president.
John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961.
Gerald Ford held his daughter's high school prom in The White House.
Jimmy Carter was the first of the presidents to be born in a hospital.
George Bush survived four plane crashes during WWII.
Barack Obama dislikes ice cream after working in an ice cream parlor as a teen.
I borrowed the facts above from this blog and this blog.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
It all started in 2001. The Canadian Broadcasting Company (also known as the CBC or the Mothership) had this idea that everyone in Canada reading the same 5 books, discussing them, defending them, and picking their favorite would be a good thing not only for reading, but for the country in general. And so, Canada Reads was born.
This year marks the Canada Reads eleventh anniversary and, my, how the infant has grown. Here’s a summary of how Canada Reads works.
In the fall of the previous year (2011 for the awards given last week) Canadians were asked for recommendations of books by Canadian authors, currently in print, and written or translated into English. Previous years have all focused on fiction, but for the first time, in 2012, competition was for non-fiction books. A book could have been published in any year, as long as it was still in print.
Each recommendation garnered one point for that book. The 40 books with the most points at the end of the 18-day voting period made the cut.
A second round of public voting narrowed the list to 10 and that list was made public on two CBC radio programs at the beginning of 2011 November.
Each “read” involves five well-known Canadians selected to act as book defenders. This year they were a TV star, model, high-profile CEO, musician, and lawyer. Each of them picked one book from the top ten list, and those five, defended by their advocate, went into the final competition.
During one-hour debates, broadcast daily from 2012 February 6 to 9, the five defenders debated the merits of their chosen books. These programs were broadcast on CBC radio and television, and were live-streamed on the Internet.
Canadians have a reputation for being nice, so it was a surprise for a lot of people when on Day 1, one of the debaters—the lawyer—made comments that were somewhere between inflammatory and downright rude. Her book was voted off on Day 2. Controversies continued throughout the week.
The spin out this year reached incredible proportions: blogs, tweets, discussion on regional and local CBC programs, library and book store displays, discussions in coffee shops. Keep in mind this was about reading, a topic that rarely generates a yawn.
After four exhausting days, here’s how the results turned out:
Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat, defended by Arlene Dickinson (eliminated on day 1)
The Tiger by John Vaillant, defended by Anne-France Goldwater (eliminated on day 2)
On a Cold Road by Dave Bidini, defended by Stacey McKenzie (eliminated on day 3)
The Game by Ken Dryden, defended by Alan Thicke (eliminated in a tough tie-breaker on day 4)
Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre, defended by Shad (The winner)
There was one other winner. Each year the publisher of the winning book makes a financial donation to a national adult literacy organization. This year's recipient was Frontier College's Aboriginal Literacy Program. For over 100 years, Frontier College has used volunteers to deliver literacy programs across Canada. Their Aboriginal Literacy Programs operate in more than 60 First Nation and Métis communities; many are in the most isolated communities in Canada. Additionally, Frontier College contributes books into these communities.
Friday, February 17, 2012
This week my husband and I joined our daughter at a local Trivia evening, held at a bar slash bowling alley. She plays there regularly with several other people, two of whom were also there. In age they fall midway between the rest of us. One of them is scarily knowledgeable about almost anything (good man to have on your side!). I think our daughter invited us just to make sure we acknowledge how clueless we are. (Our team came in fourth out of ten or twelve.)
|The Ellis Island statue|
I had never heard of Annie Moore. And she was Irish. I bow my head in shame—I had grandparents who came through Ellis Island in 1907. Of course I had to fill in this conspicuous gap in my knowledge after I came home.
For the distinction of her arrival Annie received a $10 gold coin. She was either 13, 14, or 15 on that day (the ship's manifest says she was 13 but it was apparently wrong, and her birthday was January 1st, so she would have turned 15 on the 1st). She left from Queenstown (now Cobh), County Cork, and spent twelve days at sea on the S.S. Nevada, as one of 148 steerage passengers, which also included two of her brothers. They arrived on December 31st but were not processed until the next day. Then she disappeared into New York, to join her parents.
|Ship manifest: Annie's entry is the |
That would have been the end of that little footnote in immigrant history, except for the erection of a bronze statue of Annie Moore during the renovation of the Ferry Building on Ellis Island, completed in 2008, when her story was revived.
Problem is, they got the wrong Annie Moore. And the wrong one became famous.
This little mix-up was discovered by genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who was working on a documentary on immigration and wanted to track down the descendants of Annie Moore (as she told host Renee Montagne in a 2006 NPR interview). She did a little digging and discovered that documents for the Annie of the statue showed a birth location of Illinois. All right, mistakes happen in immigration documents all the time (and now and then, people lie!). Then she found more with the Illinois reference, and wrong Annie's cover was blown.
What was the source of this mix-up? Ms. Smolenyak says that after an earlier PBS documentary about Ellis Island, that referred to the correct Annie, somebody claiming to be from her family called the makers of the documentary and said, hey, that's my great-grandmother. And theirs became the accepted story—without any documentary verification. Maybe it stuck because it was an appealing story—the wrong Annie lived a difficult life in Texas and died tragically. The right Annie lived out her life in New York and had eleven children. Half did not live to maturity, but the rest did well for themselves.
When Ms. Smolenyak called the descendants of the right Annie, most of them said, "sure, we knew that." It didn't seem to bother them that some other Annie was getting the credit.
In these days of rampant identity theft, and poaching of people's information from any number of Internet sources, it's interesting to step back to a time when your life could be measured by a handful of documents—birth, marriage, death, maybe a deed or two—and your story was passed on (and often mangled) orally by family members. And it's also interesting that the dramatic story rather than the more ordinary one captured the public imagination.
Is it any wonder that genealogy is great training for writing mysteries?
Thursday, February 16, 2012
British mystery writer Patricia Wentworth, creator of the beloved Miss Silver, was born in 1878, the same year as my grandmother, and published dozens of novels from an early age to her death in 1961. I’ve always preferred Miss Silver to Miss Marple, and Wentworth’s books, of which I have more than forty, are still among my comfort reads. As the genteel whodunit falls further and further out of fashion, I keep checking my emotional temperature to see if my response to books like these is diminishing or if they still hold my interest. To this end, I’ve reread quite a few of them in a row recently and can share my latest observations.
In the 1940s and 1950s, when most of the Miss Silver books were written, it was acceptable to write to a formula. Today, even in a long-running series, the author is challenged both to sustain interest in the formula (because we and our publishers still want readers to get attached ot our characters and come back for more) and to break the mold in some way in every book. Wentworth uses stock epithets to describe Miss Silver, from the intelligent and perceptive gaze that sees through the human race “as if they were glass-fronted” to her dowdy Victorian mode of dress and her flat with its curly-legged yellow maple furniture and bright (or faded, depending on the date) peacock-blue curtains. (How many times in the Iliad did Homer refer to “rosy-fingered Dawn”? Stock epithets are a literary fashion that evidently ebbs and flows.)
In Miss Silver’s traditional world, like Miss Marple’s, the classes know their place. Girls are either good or bad, intelligent or silly, filled with integrity, venal, or what we would now call wimpy. Men are gentlemen or not, though some of the gentlemen are bounders or villains. Housemaids and charwomen are never clever. Working class men are never brave or talented above their station. On this round of re-reading, the women’s limitations annoyed me a little more than they used to. Too many of the romances feature girls who, underneath a façade of independence, long for their menfolk to be high-handed. This is a romantic convention that I have to accept for what it is if I want to read pre-feminist novels at all, but it does get a little wearisome.
Certain themes and literary devices recur frequently in these books. Amnesia and blackmail crop up again and again. Many of the books included extended descriptions of a character’s dreams, not as a plot device or to be analyzed in any way, but as an expression of character. While Miss Silver lives in London, the setting is more likely to be a seaside village or a big house set above forbidding cliffs. Part of the appeal of Golden Age mysteries was the portrayal of country-house life. The upper classes had endless leisure time to pay extended visits to beautifully furnished homes with extensive grounds and large staffs of servants. In Wentworth’s era, spanning World War II, that life was vanishing, which might even increase its charm for the nostalgic reader.
Some of these books were written or published during or just after the War. One feature of them that fascinates me in a bizarre kind of way is the curiously naive view of the Nazis, persisting as late as 1945. There are references to the fifth column and the Blitz, spies, secret formulas or weapons, and German concentration camps. But no mention is made of gas ovens or slave labor. In one story, when a young woman who got stuck in France and interned reappears in England three years later, she explains that she was put in a concentration camp, but they let her out because she got sick! My fascination with this innocent scenario suggests that I experience reading a book written in that era, limited by what people knew at the time, as a kind of time travel into a past in which widespread ignorance of atrocities like the Nazis’ was possible, whereas today it's as extinct as those armies of servants attending the country houseparty.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
How many young Emmas, Isabellas, Jacobs and Ethans do you know? According to databases of popular baby names, parents in the U.S. have been stuck on those names for years, so if you haven’t come across a lot of kids with those monikers, you soon will. (We have two Isabellas of different ages on our 10-family cul de sac, and one Jacob. In our own household, we have a 10-year-old cat named Emma.)
|"You named me WHAT?"|
Despite all the colorful baby names that catch our attention, and the modernized spellings some parents think are so clever, Americans have remained remarkably steady in their preference for traditional names that are both attractive and mainstream. Even during the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, when society was turning itself inside out, couples continued naming their babies Michael and Lisa, David and Michelle, James and Jennifer. John and Mary aren’t at the very top anymore, but over the past century they have been the most enduringly popular baby names in the U.S.
A handful of unusual names have gained footholds in the top ranks. Jax, Jaxen, Jaxon, and Jaxton are all on the list, as are Unique and Precious. Cheyenne (for a girl) appeared at #84 in 1999 and was #229 in 2010, and Jayden, a unisex name that is also spelled Jaden, Jaeden, and Jaiden, has risen quickly. According to the Social Security Administration’s database, Jayden was the #4 boy’s name in 2010 and the #212 girl’s name. Jaden, for boys, was at #91, and #762 for girls. Variations of the name first jumped into the top 1,000 baby names in the late 1990s. Where did it come from? Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have a 13-year-old son named Jaden, and it might seem the name was created to honor the mother, but it appeared in written records a century before any of the Smiths were born. And it was already gaining popularity before the Smiths named their son Jaden, so they may have been following a trend rather creating one. (Show business now has another baby boy named Jayden, Britney Spears’s son.)
Celebrities’ names for their offspring have little influence on most parents – and for that we should probably be grateful. Moms and Dads have not rushed to follow Gwyneth Paltrow’s example in calling her first child Apple. It’s too soon to tell, though, whether names of celebrity babies born in 2011 will strike a chord with other parents. I fervently hope Alicia Silverstone didn’t ignite a trend when she named her baby boy Bear Blu. Beyonce, as you no doubt know, has a little girl named Blue Ivy. Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon named their twins Moroccan (boy) and Monroe (girl). Mike Tyson chose the shorter Morocco as his son’s name. Viola Davis and her husband adopted a boy and named him Genesis. In similar spirit, Natalie Portman named her son Aleph, for the first character in the Hebrew alphabet. Mike Myers and his wife thought Spike was the perfect name to hang on an innocent child who was too young to defend himself.
The celebrities who arguably have the greatest impact on baby naming trends these days are Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. After the birth of their daughter Shiloh in 2006, the name appeared among the top 1,000 for girls and has been there ever since. Maddox, the name of one of their sons, appeared on the list for the first time ever in 2003 and was at #180 in 2010. Their twins’ names, Vivienne and Knox, landed on the list for the first time after the Jolie-Pitt pair were born. Pax and Zahara’s names haven’t caught on, though. The parents have perennially favored first names, and now Jolie is also popular for girls.
A few odd names show up on the top 1,000 list, fade away for a while, then reappear. Unique (for a girl) is one of those, and Maverick (for a boy) is another. A few old-fashioned names, like Ethel and Gertrude, seem to have disappeared permanently, while others have hung on. Why, I wonder, have Cora and Cornelia remained steadily in the top 1,000, while Cordelia hasn’t appeared since 1950?
My own name has been on the list every year except one since 1913, and during the decade I was born it was at #5 or #6 for eight years in a row and at #8 or 9 for another three years. That explains why I meet so many women my age named Sandra. It remained in the top 100 until 1984 and has been dropping slowly since then. In 2010, Sandra ranked #517. Soon baby girls with my name may be rarities.
Writers use various lists to find out how common a name was in the year a character was born (or would have been if he or she were real), but anybody who wants to avoid giving an overused name to a baby would be smart to check the rankings too. In addition to the Social Security site (which hasn't yet been updated with 2011 information), you’ll find helpful data at BabyCenter.com and Parenting.com. Parenting predicts that the most popular baby names in 2012 will be... pretty much the same as in the past few years.
What are your children’s names? Why did you choose them? Do you think it's better to give a child a traditional name or something unusual?
How does your own name rank in popularity?
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
While I write this blog, my husband is in the kitchen washing dishes. Which I love not only because the dishes get washed, but because it was a deliberate, premeditated act of kindness.
Forget this random act nonsense. The problem with randomness is, in the words of Paul Stookey’s song, For if loving is the answer, then who’s the giving for? I suspect random kindness has more to do with what the giver gets than the recipient.
A couple of days ago I was in line behind a woman who was three cents short of the amount she needed to make a purchase. I had three cents in my hand. It would have been so easy to say, “Here, let me get that,” and hand the clerk the money. But I didn’t. Money might be a sore spot for this woman. My random act of kindness might have embarrassed her, or made her feel worse than giving her an opportunity to rummage in her purse and come up with the three cents herself.
If she hadn’t found the three cents, abandoned her purchase, and started to walk out of the store, would I have stepped in? Maybe. Probably. I’m not sure. Sometimes emotion takes over for common sense.
Does this mean that I’m advocating for only planned, rational giving? Not at all. I love surprises and grand gestures as much as the next gal. In fact, I’d love to see people give more often, give more, and put some thought into those gifts.
Here’s my virtual bouquet to all of you for Valentine’s Day. Let’s pass those hugs around. And a little chocolate, if you’re so inclined.
Hugs from Calgary.
Monday, February 13, 2012
by Julia Buckley
In any case, making a love list is fun, and one list is never the same as another, because you're listing what you love TODAY, right now. This will include not only the memories that you find accessible in that moment, but the things which have recently left impressions upon you.
Here's a love list I made just for this post:
--my two teenage sons. They are inarguably violent and constantly bickering with each other (and with me), but they are smart and funny and mostly fun to be around.
--my hard-working husband. He's at work right now, proving my contention.
--the works of William Shakespeare, particularly THE TEMPEST, (and whoever may have written them--I'm content to be in ignorance forever).
--all of my pets since childhood: Midnight the cat, Buffy the dog, Simon the dog, and all of these cats: Max, Holly, Cato, Clouseau, Kahlua, Pibby Tails, Rose, and Mr. Mulliner.
--print books AND Kindles, because both of them give me access to the great storytellers.
--my own memory. I know it might someday fade away, so I treasure it highly now.
--watching tv. It may sound lowbrow, but I do love my television.
--flowers. The roses pictured above are a wee Valentine's Day present to myself (along with the red vase).
--my job. I get to discuss literature EVERY DAY.
--my mom and dad, my two brothers and two sisters. We're far apart, but still close.
--Griswald, the ancient teddy bear my mother brought me from Germany in 1971. There is a long and beautiful story behind his arrival in the U.S., but I'll save that for another post.
--Baby pictures of my children. No one else wants to see them OR talk about them, but they bring me such joy.
--ALL FOOD. But especially things made with chocolate. And extra-cheesy pizza.
--The classical station I listen to on the way to work, and the cool announcer who talks so softly I have to turn the volume way up.
--All kinds of music. Today I am especially appreciating the music of Emmylou Harris, ABBA, and Gordon Lightfoot. Oh, and The Beatles (George was my favorite).
--My vacuum cleaner, which transforms my cluttery house filled with cat-hair dustballs into something nice again.
--Going to the movies. It may be old fashioned, and the popcorn I like may be filled with horrible trans fats, but I still like going to a theatre and, yes, eating a tub of popcorn. The popcorn even gives me a stomach ache sometimes, but I want it anyway. Love is complex.
--A great mystery novel. And a great romance. And, based on my new love for the GAME OF THRONES series, I guess I enjoy fantasy, as well.
--Musicals. Today I was singing a song from "Oklahoma!" in the Jewel parking lot. I also love THE SOUND OF MUSIC, ANNIE, BRIGADOON, KISMET, THE MATCHMAKER, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and NO NO NANETTE.
--Babies. Any babies.
--Games. My favorite is TRIVIAL PURSUIT.
--My car. My son will be 20 by the time it's paid off, but everything in it works, and I'm glad to have it when I see all the people waiting for the bus. (It also has the very first car cd player I've ever had, and despite the fact that this is now "old" car technology, I am thrilled with it).
--The student who daily asks me what I have in my lunch. She's curious in a very sweet way. She also likes to write poetry on my whiteboard during the free period--and it's always rather beautiful poetry.
--Poetry. Today I am appreciating Edna St. Vincent Millay.
--The late Erma Bombeck.
--Candles--all shapes and sizes.
--Perfume! I am a bit of a fragrance-o-phile, and I never like to wear the same scent two days in a row. Today I am wearing Lolita Lempicka.
--Okay, last one--but this list was really fun to make! You'll think this makes me sound ultra boring, but I love MY BED. It has been so cold in our little attic room this winter that I have three blankets on our tiny bed (full size, while my husband longs for King)--but once I'm under those covers, my bed is the warmest, best place in all the world, and I have to be dragged out of it every morning.
What would be the first thing (besides your family, of course) on your love list?
HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!!
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Leave a comment and you'll be entered in a drawing for an autographed copy of No Mark Upon Her.
When Deborah Crombie was growing up in Texas, she fell in love with the Britain she read about in novels and saw in imported TV shows on PBS. She wasn’t disappointed when she visited the UK for the first time following college graduation. After living in Scotland and England for several years with her first husband, she returned to Texas, but in a real sense she has never left Britain. She began writing about English police detectives Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid and published her first mystery, A Share in Death, in 1993. Since then she has made frequent research trips to Britain a part of her writing life.
Deborah’s series has been nominated for, or has won, every major mystery award. The fourteenth James/Kincaid novel, No Mark Upon Her, has just been published in the U.S. This time out, the pair are dealing with new upheavals in their ever-changing household while Kincaid investigates the death of a young female police officer who had been training for a spot on Britain’s Olympic rowing team. When Kincaid calls on Gemma for help in the case, they discover the answer to the crime lies closer to home and is more deadly than they could have imagined.
Deborah recently chatted with me about the characters who have shared her life for almost twenty years.
Q. Some of your books give more space and emphasis to Duncan, and others, like Necessary as Blood, focus on Gemma. Which of them gets the starring role in No Mark Upon Her?
A. I think No Mark Upon Her is definitely more Duncan's book.
Q. Do you alternate the primary focus deliberately, or does it naturally work out that way because of the kind of story you want to tell?
A. It's a combination of the two. The last two books, Where Memories Lie and Necessary as Blood, have given more emphasis to Gemma, both because of the arc of the continuing series story, and because of the plots and subjects of those particular books. But I never intend to permanently emphasize one of my leading characters over the other, and I really enjoyed writing more from Duncan's viewpoint in No Mark.
Q. Your books are as much about Duncan and Gemma’s personal lives as their work. Readers are watching their sons, Kit and Toby, grow up. In Necessary as Blood you introduce another child, a three-year-old orphan named Charlotte who captures the hearts of the whole Kincaid-James family. How does Charlotte figure in the new book, and how will she change the lives of the family members? Is Toby ever jealous because he’s no longer the baby of the family?
A. There are certainly both logistic and emotional issues here. Gemma, Duncan, Kit, and Toby have struggled to find stability as a family, and now, with Charlotte, they've introduced a traumatized child into the mix. Gemma has taken parental leave to help Charlotte adjust to her new home, and it's now Duncan's turn. His case in No Mark Upon Her threatens their carefully made arrangements, and possibly both their jobs. It's hard for the boys, too. Toby is ALWAYS going to want to be the center of attention! Kit, I think, has more empathy with Charlotte, both because of his age and his own history of loss, and because he's more sensitive by nature.
Q. You’ve been writing about Duncan and Gemma for a long time. How have they changed since the first book? Have they ever surprised you with their choices or the direction they’ve taken?
A. Duncan and Gemma have surprised me from day one! I didn't know until I was into the third book that they would have a relationship. I didn't know that Duncan had a son. I certainly had no idea in the beginning of the series that Charlotte would one day come into their lives. I've found, as I've grown into the rhythm of the series, that I'm usually thinking a book or two ahead about the story arcs of the continuing characters, but they don't always do what I want!
Q. What makes these characters so special to you that you can write about them year after year without growing bored (and without boring your readers)?
A. One thing I was very certain of when I wrote the first novel was that I wanted characters who grew and changed and developed, and that's certainly been the case for Duncan and Gemma. (And it was high time they got married, in my opinion. That's what people do, and I think it only makes their lives more complicated and interesting!!!) So there is always a sense of being on a journey with them.
And there are other things that keep me (and I hope readers) from getting bored with the characters. The series doesn't run in real time. Since the first book was published in 1993, only about five years have passed in series time. This requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but it's a decision that I think must be made in series unless it's historical or fantasy/sci fi. Some writers, like Sue Grafton, have chosen to keep their series fixed in time. I took the P.D. James approach. The first Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962. In the most recent, The Private Patient, Dalgliesh is finally contemplating getting married. If the series had run in real time, he'd be doddering off to the nursing home, and what a loss that would be to us readers!
I think that readers understand this device and are willing to go along with the writer if it's done well.
Another thing that keeps ME from getting bored is that I write from multiple viewpoints, and sometimes multiple timelines, so there are always new characters for me to explore. And the stories are very compressed--more like slices of life than a day-to-day narrative. We pop into Duncan and Gemma's lives for a few weeks every few months (their time...).
Q. Your books have beautiful, “literary” titles. How do you go about choosing a book’s name? Do you search for something appropriate each time, or do you have a cache of possible titles you can draw from?
A. Oh, titles are such a struggle! And I can't really get going on a book until I at least have a working title, because the title sets the mood and the tone, and sometimes even the theme of the book. And yes, I always try to find something that relates directly to a particular book. Some titles I've made up from scratch, some are direct quotes, some are slightly... adjusted... quotes. No Mark Upon Her, for instance, is taken from The Tempest, but the actual line is, "No mark upon HIM..." The titles always have multiple meanings or interpretations for me, and I hope they will for readers, too. And I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite.
Q. Have you considered writing a standalone, as many series writers do? Would you like to write something set in the U.S., or does England have your writer’s heart forever?
A. This takes us back to the multiple viewpoints, I think. Because I introduce new viewpoint characters in every book, and often new settings, every book is to a certain extent a standalone. I always hope they can be read and enjoyed by readers not familiar with the series. I haven't yet found a story that I couldn't tell in the context of the series, but it's always possible that someday I will. I very much doubt, however, that I'll ever write a book that isn't centered in Britain. Britain does "have my writer's heart forever." And what a lovely way of putting it!
Visit Deborah’s website at: http://www.deborahcrombie.com
Leave a comment to enter the drawing for an autographed copy of No Mark Upon Her.