Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas, She Gone

It took us three days to get ready for five hours of festivities, but it was worth every minute. At left is a happy crowd of neighbors and friends starting to eat on Christmas afternoon, at a twelve-foot table set up in the addition (which is usually the guest room/meeting room/lumber room/sickroom/art gallery/auxiliary summertime retreat). We unearthed my grandmothers' dishes and glassware and table linens, and now I'm glad I kept them around.

Rob cooked a magnificent 18-pound turkey, plus stuffing and gravy and two pies. I made cookies and cranberry bread (totally unnecessary) and cranberry sauce (absolutely essential), and was in charge of set design, which included IRONING THINGS, two six-foot tablecloths, for example. Everybody else brought rolls and potatoes and squash and cake and a third pie, and we ate until we could barely sit upright.

Yesterday Rob and I utterly collapsed, and I read most of HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger, the best book I've read in a long time. I've been casually meaning to read her first one, THE TIME-TRAVELER'S WIFE, and now I'm deadly serious about that. Rob also gave me the much-anticipated WOLF HALL for Christmas as well as Bill Bryson's SHAKESPEARE, so I'm set for a while.

And we watched the 1997 BBC/A&E edition of "Ivanhoe"--part of a boxed set of dvds my friend Shelly of Connecticut sent me for Christmas--and it was so satisfying we stayed up until 11 when we meant to go upstairs and read at 9. Such is addiction.

And before Ivanhoe we watched the Doctor Who Christmas special on YouTube. What a wonderful invention that is (youtube, I mean, although also DW). I'm very eager for part two of this David Tennant victory lap and can't wait to see how they handle the transformation.

In other words, a complete two-day debauch.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Solstice Follies

Castle Ne'er-do-well is in full holiday prep, getting ready to host a sit-down Christmas dinner for twelve neighbors and friends. Finally, a chance to use my grandmothers' tablecloths. Possibly, a chance to dust the cobwebs off the rafters, although I wouldn't bet money on that.

My edited manuscript hasn't arrived from New York, "overnight" shipping meaning two or three days in this part of the world. That meant I could cheerfully goof off at the annual Rockbound Chapel carol sing Sunday and my neighbor Cope's annual women's lunch yesterday, not to mention two parties Saturday night. (I've already put on my Christmas weight. Damn.)

Rob cheerfully (sort of) went to an Emergency Management seminar in Bangor yesterday--he's the volunteer Emergency Management Director and 911 Addressing Officer for Our Little Town, appointed by the Department of Homeland Security as our first line of defense when al-Qaeda frogmen come flip-flapping up from the harbor.

But that's not the holiday spirit, is it?

The Rockbound Chapel carol sing has been taking place the Sunday before Christmas for 30 years. Some years, it's been standing-room-only, but we've been weather-cursed the past couple of years. Last year it got cancelled because of a snowstorm; we had snow again this year, but a dozen of us turned out anyway. Here's what it looked like outside--not really that much snow (we ended up with just five or six inches), but the plows had only gotten started so the driving was a bit dicey in places.

The pianist didn't make it, so we snuggled up to the Christmas Tree and sang a cappella.

Because it was the thirtieth anniversary, those who'd been around for a while told stories about how the tradition got started, the time the guy played the saw, the various pianists over the years, and the hilarity of the carillon manufacturer when George Fowler (amazing fiddler, also a bookseller and retired pharmacist) tried to see about getting the 40-year-old clock-chiming mechanism fixed. (Turns out carillons are all computerized now, and nobody's sure what to do about even such a relatively young relic.) Below, George describes the mystique of the chapel's oil furnace thirty years ago. That's Sally Aman, one of the carol sing's originators, at left. George's wife, Pat, is at right.

And here's most of the crowd--unfortunately, two of our number had left already to drive home to a neighboring town. After this, we stood around and ate cookies, then dismantled the tree, tidied up the hymnals, and mushed home.

Yesterday, I dutifully took my camera to Cope's Christmas luncheon and promptly forgot it existed in the excitement of chatting and eating. (Cope made her famous baklava. Good thing my cholestrol test got put off until January. I will eat nothing but oatmeal starting December 26.) I was so overwhelmed by it all that I almost forgot the camera all over again when I left, but Cope called me back and I got a shot of the few remaining celebrants. That's Cope at left, with Leslie in the middle (the astute observer will note that she also was at the carol sing) and Judy at right.

P.S. There's a ladybug in my office, batting against the lightbulb. She's driving me nuts, but what am I going to do, put her out in the snow? Squish her? What would Santa Claus do?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Scrooge et al

Tim Pugliese has a flexible face and a voice to match. This is helpful when you have to transform yourself from Ebenezer Scrooge into a small, shy housemaid. And back again two seconds later. (That's him talking to himself in the photo at right, courtesy of New Surry Theatre.)

My neighbor Ken Carpenter and I went to Blue Hill last night to watch Pugliese in a one-man rendition of A Christmas Carol, and we had such a good time that Rob the Grinch almost wished he'd gone, too. (Not quite. Almost.)

On a bare stage, dressed exactly as he is in the photo, Pugliese prodded our imaginations into visualizing his setting and whatever ghost or early Victorian he happened to be playing or addressing at the time. At one point I caught myself watching an empty space instead of the actual human being in front of me, a sign either that Pugliese was pretty good or I'm losing it, if not both.

The man must have a memory like a steel trap. He recited a truncated version of Dickens' novella verbatim, without a moment's hesitation. Yikes.

As usual, I was impressed by my neighbors, too. Shari John directed and her husband Frank built the set. Nolan Ellsworth, who is days away from turning 15, helped Shari John and Tim Pugliese adapt the story for the stage, and also served as stage manager, did the program art, and helped with tech. Yikes multiplied.

I have to say I was itching to meddle with the lighting design, not that I know a thing about theatrical lighting. But I envisioned, for example, a beam of white light helping us to imagine the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge spotlit on a darkened stage to heighten the drama at some points, perhaps some graying of the edges on that stark set. There was a moment when the lights went out and Scrooge's face was lit only by a candle. That was very cool, and I wish there had been more moments like it.

That's my only quibble, though. Otherwise, amazing.

IN OTHER NEWS: I got my revision letter on SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS yesterday at 6 p.m. The line-edited manuscript is, er, winging its way to me as I type. (I hope...Penguin's mailing computer kept rejecting our address.) I have until roughly the end of January to put things right for copy-editing, and there are a couple of largish issues amid the myriad of small things. For example, the magic still doesn't entirely make sense, god help me. Yikes, metastisized.

Also, the blogger E.I. Johnson has interviewed me, asking fun questions. Find them (and the answers) here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Player

This may look like nothing more than a picture of a man making the best of a power outage, but in fact it's a psychic breakthrough. Possibly temporary, but a breakthrough nonetheless.

Rob has always hated borrowing things. I blame his childhood librarian, Snagglepuss, whom I may have mentioned before. He filled Rob with such loathing that to this day--even though he's a voracious reader--he won't take out a library book for fear that he will fall asleep and let it fall on the floor open, breaking its spine. Or get chocolate on it. Or spill something. Or the dog will eat it. He will take out audiobooks to listen to while he paints, because our former librarian exerted her wiles to persuade him and, I guess, because they do not carry the Snagglepuss curse.

When our seasonal neighbors Lisa and Peg returned to Minnesota at summer's end, they left their deluxe Scrabble board with us, because the four of us had enjoyed it over the summer and they thought we could use it on long winter evenings. (They also left us their knife sharpener. Peg and Lisa think of every eventuality.)

Rob got this horrified look on his face and said no, no, no, we'd never touch it and they should take it and if they left it something would happen to it and god help us it's DELUXE. They examined his face for humor, found none, and left the Scrabble board anyway. They may have patted him on the shoulder.

I suggested several times this fall that we play Scrabble, but he got that same look on his face and pretended I hadn't said anything. It took a power outage and much red wine to settle him down at the board--next to candles, yet. Which drip wax! Melt things, burn things! He switched from red wine to milk, but otherwise he threw caution to the winds.

Unfortunately, I got all the expensive letters--even got a U at the same time as a Q, which never happens--and he was humiliated score-wise. Life is so unfair.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Let There Be...

IMPORTANT NOTE TO READERS: If you are Dr. Garrett Martin, orthopedic surgeon, Bangor, Maine, this blog post will not interest you and you should not read it. There's probably a football game on. Go watch that instead.

IMPORTANT NOTE TO THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: Thank you for including so many short, Anglo-Saxon words, which I found extremely useful today. Also the word "bugger."

Turns out snow makes a stepladder a little tippier than usual.

I found this out today when I finally, FINALLY got the lights up on the maple tree out front. Because the tree is no longer the sprout it was when I first started doing this 16 years ago, the process now involves a stepladder, a long pole, and several implements that belonged to my mother after she'd had a hip replaced and couldn't bend over and for some reason wanted to dress herself. It also involves me climbing into the tree at one point.

So it was that, around noon today, I found myself up in the tree, geriatric implement in hand, one foot on the stepladder and one on a branch. I didn't realize that I was leaning against a relatively slim branch, which happened also to be a relatively dead one.

And so the slim branch broke, and the stepladder tipped, and I found myself hanging over another branch, staring at the ground a dozen feet below, about to topple. My last appointment with Dr. Martin flashed before my mind's eye: I asked if I could ski this winter, and he fixed me with A Look and said yes but he'd appreciate it very much if I didn't break the leg with the fake knee in it, the bones of which would remain weak for another 18 months. "That would be hard to fix," he said. "There's not much to work with there."

As I dangled, I reassured myself that I probably would fall head-first and break my neck rather than my leg, thus not involving Dr. Martin. This gave me strength, and I managed to feel around with my foot, find the halfway-tipped-over stepladder, right it, and achieve some semblance of solidity.

Otherwise, the operation went well and was over in a couple or three hours, although close to the end I did almost fall off the ladder with scissors in my hand. (SPECIAL NOTE TO READERS: If you are the ghost of my mother, creator of the world's longest list of Things You Don't Do with Scissors in Your Hand, perhaps you'd like to watch the game with Dr. Garrett Martin, orthopedic surgeon. I know you didn't think much of football, but you'd flirt with Dr. Martin.)

ATTENTION CHRISTMAS SHOPPERS: If you're wondering what to get your dog, the managment suggests giving her a solid undertaking that she will never be human and thus will never be called upon to manipulate strings of things. As stunt-dog Callie demonstrates below, dogs think we're nuts. (Click on the photo for the full facial expression.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Plays in Progress

The remarkable experience of the Stonington Opera House/John Cariani playwriting course continues. I posted about this last month, and now it turns out that John, an insanely busy playwright and actor, is officially the World's Most Generous Person. The nine students in his class spent the past few weeks writing ten-minute plays, and he and a friend drove up from New York in a snowstorm to spend eight hours Sunday hashing through them and thinking of ways to make them produceable. Judith Jerome from the Opera House was there all day, too, and is actually thinking of producing the plays in some form next fall. The writers are going to meet once a month this winter, aiming for finished plays by May 1.

In the photo above, Nancy H., Maggie, and Sue sit at a work table that quickly became a food table. Those of us with laptops kept them on our laps rather than the table, because the food took up all the space, because there are priorities in this life. That's John Cariani at right, uncharacteristically serious.

I took the class to tweak my brain, and had no intention of getting serious about playwriting. But John's enthusiasm is so infectious, and this group is so well matched, that it's impossible not to get caught up in the joy of it all.

For example, below Nancy G. joins our friend and advisor John Not-Cariani in a dramatic reading of Amy's hysterical play about a bride with cold feet. Maggie's face (right) speaks for the rest of us. Amy's at left in the photo below left, with Nancy H. and Lauren.

I have to admit I'm a bit flummoxed by the notion that my first-ever play could even be read aloud in public, let alone produced. Yet another lesson in toughening up the skin, I guess.

IN OTHER NEWS: As I write this, the ginormous storm that's been traversing the country is here and is changing from snow to ice, rat-a-tat-tatting on the roof and windows. The wind's howling, the trees are bent with wet snow, and it's hard to believe some branch isn't going to break a power line somewhere.

If the rain melts off enough snow, tomorrow I'll start procrastinating again about putting the lights on the maple tree. (See post below.) Tomorrow's supposed to feature normal temperatures and lightish breezes. Friday's supposed to be freezing cold and windy. Guess when I'll end up putting the lights up.

UPDATE: I had no sooner saved this post than the power went out for 16 hours. Rob and I had a lovely evening playing Scrabble, an event of deep significance that I will explain later.

Monday, December 7, 2009


I have a ton of photos to post, taken this weekend with my newish little camera at the Bay School Faire and our playwriting group meeting. But first I have to acknowledge the latest Improv Everywhere caper, courtesy of Color Me Katie.

It's here: Where's Rob?

Oh, and I never got my lights up. Nor my snow tires on the car, nor my kayak rack off. And now it's snowed, which normally would have me jumping up and down with glee, particularly because the lights would look so gorgeous on snowy branches. *sob* And more weather is coming Wednesday.

I believe I've been in denial. But now I am ready to say...we've had all the summer we were ever going to get.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Lights! No Action!

The other day, I read that Douglas Adams' widow had commented that he "hated writing but loved having written," or something like that. I can relate when it comes to writing, but also when it comes to the white lights on the maple tree out front. (Those are last year's in the photo.)

I love them. They get me through the winter. I adore coming back from a walk or ski at dusk and seeing them on. I love sitting in the living room and seeing them out the dining room windows. Love, love, love.

I detest putting them up.

Last year, when I was crippled, Rob did most of the work even though he hates the whole idea, thinks it's a waste of our precious natural resources (electricity, his time, his sense of humor). This year I'm on my own again. Today's the perfect day to put them up, because it's warmish and calm, and I've been talking all day about This Being the Day and Well, Gonna Put the Lights Up Now and Yup, Here I Go, Going to Get The Lights Now.

I had to work this morning, of course, but now it's almost 2 in the afternoon and am I on a ladder? Nope, I'm blogging. And you KNOW how much I like to blog. (See the weeks of silence below.)

The trouble is, it's a MAPLE tree. Not a nice, cooperative spruce, which you simply drape in lights and no matter what you do it looks OK. Also, because I live with Mr. Paranoid T. Fireman, I'm only allowed three strings of lights. Which was fine ten years ago, but the trouble is, maples GROW. Every year, I must tap more and more of my minimal store of hand-eye coordination to keep these lights from looking sad and lame and overworked.

Also, there's the crisis of conscience involved. The lights take a beating out there in the wind and snow and ice. Even if last year's team seems to be working now it's quite likely that, come January, an entire string will go out when the world is an iceball and I can't replace them. This will cause me angst.

So I do tend to go out and buy new ones just to be on the safe side, which is extravagent and environmentally incorrect. I'm determined not to do it this year. But of course I haven't gotten last year's lights down from the attic and tested them yet, have I?

Right now. I'm going to do it right now.

After I order the turkey for Christmas. Wrap a birthday present for my friend Shelly. Defrag the computer. All worthy and necessary things, don't you think?

If I put this off long enough, spring will come.

EDITED TO ADD: Anytime I write about procrastination, I send up an apology to the ghost of humor writer Robert Benchley, who retired the subject back in 1949. Here's his take on it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

December Book Review

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@Barrie Summy

I decided to review an oldie but goodie this month--no particular help to book vendors in this holiday season, I'm afraid, but I didn't finish GOING BOVINE fast enough and I would have had to re-read anything else I chose and I didn't have time. So there. Plus, this is a perfect book for a winter fireside, or a snowy afternoon tucked up in your bed. As always, click the icon to find more Book Review Club entries.

Restoration London
By Liza Picard
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

If you like researching books almost as much as writing them, you can’t help envying Liza Picard. A retired lawyer with the Inland Revenue (Americans, think IRS), Picard has spent her golden years (so far) immersed in ancient diaries, cookbooks, magazines, bills, letters, and whatnot, researching daily life in London at various points in its illustrious history. RESTORATION LONDON was the first, followed by DR. JOHNSON’S LONDON, ELIZABETH’S LONDON, and VICTORIAN LONDON. Picard is now 82.

She told The Guardian years ago that RESTORATION LONDON set out to be a biography of Elizabeth Pepys, whose husband, the legendary diarist Samuel, was an official in the administration of Charles II. She collected mountains of information about domestic life in the latter 1600s, but not much about poor Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the tidbits she’d jotted on reams of index cards called out to her, and RESTORATION LONDON was born.

The book is organized the way a lawyer would organize a brief, Picard says. The result has been called “a near-perfect bedside book,” and that’s true. Picard divided her work into four parts: The Urban Environment, The Human Condition, The Social Context, and Horizons (meaning religious beliefs, superstitions, and world view). Each part is subdivided into chapters and each chapter into sections, some of them just a few paragraphs long.

The book is fun to sit down and read page after page. But if you’ve just got a minute or two, you also can open a page at random and dip in. And if you’re looking for information about a specific topic—Sanitary arrangements? Medical care? Slang? Women’s clothes? Sex?—the table of contents or index will lead you exactly where you need to be.

Utility aside, this thing’s a hoot. Here are some of the facts I now know: The less frequently you did your laundry, the higher your status—infrequent laundering meant you had a lot of clothes, and some great houses only laundered twice a year. In the kitchen, you kept flies away with pots of aromatic plants and by lining shelves with the color blue, which flies supposedly didn’t like. Articles of clothing were important bequests. The rules of mourning were many and strict—one wore black wool, for example, even when one could afford silk. A popular way of preparing a pike for cooking was to “rub his skin off whilst he lives.” Poor pike.

I just opened RESTORATION LONDON at random, and found a page and three lines about dentistry. We learn that “recommended daily care included scraping away plaque.” Also, “When caries did occur, it was thought to be due to a worm in the tooth, and an ‘operator for the teeth’ in the local market or fair would remove the worm and hold it up for inspection by his admiring audience.”

Picard then covers pain-deadening and extraction (with the comment that “operators seem to have had a curious reluctance to get in there and pull, unlike midwives”), how false teeth were made and fastened, and whether you could actually eat with those teeth.

The section ends by pointing out that nobody gave toothy smiles in contemporary portraits. “Could it be that, when caries and accident caught up with our seventeenth-century ancestors, they kept their mouths shut about it?”

I’d love to have tea with Liza Picard.

Friday, November 27, 2009

An Inkpot Poll

In a couple of weeks, I'll be hosting a discussion at The Enchanted Inkpot about maps in fantasy novels. To help get the discussion started, I'd love it if you'd take the poll below...and then check in at the Inkpot on Monday, December 14, to contribute your two cents!

And speaking of The Enchanted Inkpot, you can win a nice pile of books in the First Annual Inkies Giveaway Extravaganza. Head over here to find out how.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Sometimes, keeping a little town going seems like an awful lot of work. I'm not even a town official, so I don't know the half of it. But this is fundraising season, when we all begin to feel that the fate of Our Little Town rests on our shoulders.

We could be pardoned for feeling that we're running around in a big circle asking each other for money. I picture the same dollar bills changing hands over and over and over, and never leaving town.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Brooklin Youth Corps went through probably the most star-crossed annual fund mailing we've seen in 14 years (screwed-up labels, weird addresses, thisses and thats and the other thing). The steering committee got together three times--THREE TIMES--to sort it all out, and individuals were doing stuff at home in between meetings. Then we all took letters home to write notes to our friends across the top, making sure they feel good and guilty if they ignore us.

Last week I got a phone call suggesting that I spend $15 on an apple pie to support the Parents, Teachers, Friends group, which of course I did. (Great pie. It's almost gone.) It took the PTF all day in the school kitchen to bake all the pies. They have little crust decorations on top. (The pies. Not the PTF members.)

Today I finished writing the fire department annual fund letter, with contributions by Rob, the fire chief and another firefighter, who will now go on to do their own star-crossed mailing with the same bloody labels the BYC was graced with.

I've received annual fund letters so far from the library and the historical society, who also contended with the same addresses. Oh, and there's an emergency heating fund looking for contributions, too. I think I've got a local ambulance corps fundraising letter sitting there somewhere.

Next week, we start meeting to organize publicity for the library's Valentine's Day auction. The school board is working on its budget and the selectmen just finished the town audit, preparing for their own budget horrors before Town Meeting in April.

All for one little town of 900.

And all volunteer--well, I guess the selectmen get paid something, but it's fractions of pennies per hour. Firefighters get a "gas and clothing allowance" at the end of the year, which they pretty much spend on Christmas presents. (I know that's where mine come from.) The BYC steering committee's pay consists of the moment when a grumpy teenager dressed in black with a nose-ring thanks us for having a program.

We all agree that's ample

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Procedural Note for the Weather Gods

I just came in from cleaning up the perennial garden for winter. I'm not anal about this--my goal is simply to flatten out the flowerbed so the first snow isn't marred by brown and flaky protuberances. (I feel the same way about my face.)

The dahlia tubers are safely inside now, so here's the plan. First, we need a hard frost so I can put the brush on the garden without feeling that I'm providing a haven for rodents and other itinerants. This is particularly important because my car glove compartment now is enhanced by a cake of Irish Spring deodorant soap, deterring (I hope) those rodents who had planned to spend the winter in my heating system.

Also, we need a hard frost because it's a pain shoveling snow when the ground is soft underneath.

Once the ground is firmly frozen, the gods have my permission to send snow. Lots of it, because this year I can ski.

Got that?

In other news: Rob and I went to New Surry Theatre in Blue Hill last night to see a workshop production of "Too Good To Be True," a one-act about a Maine family dealing with a mill closing, written by Rick Doyle of Bucksport. (That's Michael Reichgott, Shari Wick John, and Kittery Shy-Hermit hashing things out at right.) We were impressed, both by the play and by the acting. I sat in front of one of the women from the play-writing workshop I attended earlier this month, and we agreed that our perspective had been sharpened by our new-found (and fledgling) expertise. We both saw things that needed work...but not much.

Tomorrow on The Enchanted Inkpot, I'll be leading a book club discussion of The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. Join us!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mickeycide: The Final Chapter

Nearly a year ago, I complained that Mickey, Minnie, and possibly several Mickey-and-Minnie-ettes had taken up residence in my car's heater box.

After many failed attempts, today--finally--is eviction day. As I write, my car is up in Ellsworth at Out-O-Town Auto, having its heating system removed, cleaned out, and reinstalled. I am praying, as I'm sure O-O-T Pete is, that no one is currently in residence.

It's been quite a siege. As far as I can tell, nest construction began last fall--I noticed when my heater fan started to sound like its stomach was rumbling. Pete vaccuumed out the fan, and got lots and lots of nest material, including lovely soft gray fur. Then a few weeks later he vacuumed it out again. Then his mechanic vaccuumed it out. And did it again and again, can't remember how many times. Our hope was that eventually the fan would suck all of the nest out of there, but this turned out to be the Taj Mahal of mouse nests. Complete with en-suite toilet, I'm sorry to say.

During the summer, it didn't matter that the air was redolent with mouse poop, because I kept the fan off most of the time and could open the windows. This fall, however, the air quality in my car took a nose-dive with the outside temperature. Eventually, I had to choose: Keep the heat off and die of frost-bite, or turn the heat on and die of pulmonary poopitis.

These mice, by the way, are trendy and hip modern mice. They have peanut allergies, and therefore ignore mousetraps baited with peanut butter. They adore the smell of Bounce dryer sheets, which a friend's mechanic recommended to fend off her resident rodents and which I distributed under the floor mats and in the glove box. I'm pretty sure they keep abreast of my planned attacks via Blackberry.

Finally, I consulted my insurance company, and discovered that there is a function for that "damage other than collision" line. I have a $250 deductible, but Hanover will cover all the rest of the cost of the Mickey-ectomy. This is an expensive proposition, because Pete has to remove the dashboard to get at the heating system.

Once I get the car home, the next task will be to discourage the little buggers from coming back. Pete suggests leftover deoderant. I'm thinking Irish Spring deoderant soap, which supposedly keeps deer away from gardens. (And, for all I know, keeps deer from nesting in your heater box.) At least my lungs will smell daisy-fresh.

IN OTHER NEWS: Pneumonia be damned--I went ahead and took an intense five-day playwriting course at the Stonington Opera House, taught by John Cariani. It was amazing, far exceeding my expectations. I'd intended it only as a way to kick-start my brain, which was getting a bit sluggish. But it also taught me new things about storytelling, and offered a bunch of helpful exercises for prying the story out of your cerebellum. John and the nine students may attempt to develop ten ten-minute plays for production in some form at the Opera House next fall. Stay tuned.

I said I wanted to talk about the Maine referendum vote. I lied. I don't want to talk about it. Here's the nub: I was very disappointed by the vote on gay marriage, particularly since I went to bed Election Night convinced that we'd won. I wish we could install a Europeanish system in which everyone gets a civil ceremony and those who want a church wedding layer that on top. That way, churches could do what they wanted and if your church wouldn't marry you, you'd just find one that would. Very sensible, in my view. And therefore impossible, probably.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November Book Review

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@Barrie Summy

The day after a massive referendum vote here in Maine (more on that later), it's a relief to distract myself with book stuff. Thanks as always to Barrie Summy for organizing The Book Review the text says, a list of other bloggy reviews is behind the icon above.

Fortune’s Folly
By Deva Fagan
Henry Holt & Co., 2009

Cinderella takes charge of her own fate in this marvelous tale by Deva Fagan.

Fagan lives in Maine and is one of my fellow bloggers on The Enchanted Inkpot. Those facts didn’t stack the deck for me, though—regardless of how much I like Fagan as a person I didn’t expect to be so enthralled by her book. High fantasy has to work pretty hard to get my attention. I demand my touch of reality…or at least I think I do.

FORTUNE’S FOLLY opened my mind, the first function of any good book. Stated baldly—poor girl gets snookered into helping a prince find the princess he’ll marry, falls in love with him in the process—Fagan’s plot is nothing unusual. But the characters are so marvelous, and the twists and turns so inventive, that I found myself galloping through this book in one sitting.

The story is set in a fantasy version of Renaissance Italy. Fortunata is the daughter of a celebrated shoemaker who lost his skills upon the death of his wife and believes he was deserted by the fairies who enchanted his tools. Fortunata doesn’t believe a word of that—she’s a realist, and she’s the one who’s out there on the street trying to inveigle the public into buying the monstrosities her despairing father now creates.

Fortunata and her father take to the road, looking for better luck. When they’re shanghaied by a mean-spirited traveling carnie, Fortunata becomes unwilling apprentice to a fortune-teller. She and we get our first hint of this book’s central question when she notices that even a fake fortune can inspire a customer to take charge of his or her fate. If the fortune then comes true, is that magic or simply skill?

Fortunata explores this question in all its richness when she is maneuvered into delivering a prophecy that will help a prince find the princess he will marry. Off the top of her head, Fortunata weaves the complicated saga of a weapon, a witch, an imprisoned royal beauty, and the magic shoes that will identify her. She then is horrified to learn that she must lead the prince on his quest for those things, her father’s life hanging in the balance.

How she deals with the quest and her relationship with the prince, working out the politics of two kingdoms in the process, is a beautifully engineered and compelling tale.

In the end, do we and Fortunata find out whether magic is real?

Maybe. That’s all I’m saying.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Wages of Smugness

These are the times that try one's agnosticism. The times, I mean, when there actually does seem to be Divine Justice.

In early October, when Rob succumbed to a nasty flu-like germ, I--veteran of many ear infections--tried to get him to breathe steam and take decongestants. He refused, loudly questioning the cosmos about why he had to be inflicted with this woman butting in when she should just leave him the frig alone to wallow in his misery.

He got an ear infection, which he still is fighting. He went to the doctor, who gave him an antibiotic and also decongestants just like the ones I'd been promoting. I was smug about this. Also about the fact that, ten days later, I still hadn't gotten sick. Thank heaven, I said, that One of Us knows something about healthy living, and isn't it too bad the Other One doesn't follow her advice and stellar example.

Heaven, unfortunately, was listening to this crap, and a week ago Friday I got sick. I was not disheartened, but saw this as a chance to demonstrate the truly virtuous approach to illness. I set up the humidifier and took decongestants. I stayed in bed until my fever went away. I maintained my sense of humor and did not growl at my beloved when he asked me if I wanted anything.

As a reward for my virtue, and an obvious invitation to further smugness, I did not get an ear infection.

I got pneumonia.

Apparently, Divine Justice has a sly sense of humor.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Maybe not the flu, but...

...horrible, nonetheless. I picked up Rob's Disease, two weeks after exposure, as far as we can tell. Fever, dreadful headache, stubborn cough, total loss of appetite. (Last chance to get into the thin jeans!) I got it last Thursday afternoon, and yesterday the fever made a surprise re-appearance just when I thought I could lift my head to peer around blearily.

Nothing to report, unless you'd like an hourly update on exactly how I'm feeling and why. No? OK. Back to bed then.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Shrunken Novels and Little Else

I just realized I never posted about my Shrunken Manuscript experience, which was singular. So I figured I'd make up for it now, since there's not much else to report.

The Shrunken Manuscript technique came my way via Darcy Pattison, whose web site on revision I highly recommend. In July, just before I sent my editor the latest revision on SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS, I decided to give it a try.

You start the process by doing whatever is necessary to shrink your manuscript to about 30 pages: reduce the font size, eliminate all white space, narrow all margins. Then you decide what concerns you--in my case, whether everybody's sitting around talking too much, as my characters tend to do. You assign a color to each aspect of your novel that interests you, and mark up the manuscript with highlighters in the appropriate colors. In my case, I had colors for dialogue, description, exposition, action, and suspense. You can also stick colorful stickers at any place that you like a lot, although I found that less helpful because it was too subjective.

As I recall, dialogue was pink. Notice the decided pink tinge to the manuscript.

The end of the process is supposed to be spreading out your manuscript and stepping back to figure out if there are places where one color predominates more than you want it to, or if the colors aren't spread around the way you want them. (Sort of a visual composition exercise.) I found that I had my answers long before that point--it was informative enough just going through and marking up the manuscript.

Then it was just a matter of breaking up all the excessively pink places by cutting out their tiny individual bejesuses or interjecting a bit of green or purple or blue. Easy-peasy, right? HAhahahahahahahahaha.....

IN OTHER NEWS: Life has improved since the last post. Rob is on his feet, although he's still got a swollen eardrum and is having to take antihistamine pills, which he hates. The Work in Progress is humming along, 180 pages of excruciatingly rough draft so far and beginning to wind down toward the end. The nasty little voice does keep asking me if it's all Old Hat and poorly written beyond salvation and in general a Humongous Great Big Bore. I loftily ignore this voice until 3 a.m., when it borrows a megaphone.

Otherwise, there's practically nothing going on. I've been varnishing window sashes, because years of wintertime condensation have undermined the original varnish and the wood gets moldy. Rob is doing a marvelous job of holding himself back when every physical and spiritual inch of him is dying to grab the brush and do it right. Such is the torment of the Handy Person living with one who is constantly at war with the inanimate world.

So far I have managed not to tip over the can of varnish when it's poised over carpet or upholstery. In fact, I haven't tipped it over at all. (I suspect I just jinxed myself. *knocks on wood*)

I bribe myself into doing this project by listening to things, most recently an audio of MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH by Ariana Franklin. (The link is to the hardcover, because the audio book page doesn't have a cover photo for some reason.) I also have been listening to MISTRESS to bribe myself into exercising, except on the stationary bike where I'm reading Diana Wynne Jones' HOUSE OF MANY WAYS. Before I go to bed I'm immersed in Neal Stephenson's THE DIAMOND AGE. I suppose this could get confusing after a while, but it helps that they're hugely different from each other and each is excellent in its own way.

And not a preponderance of pink in any one of them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In Which the Author Employs Sarcasm

It's been an inspiring couple of weeks at Castle Ne'er-do-Well.

*Cue sarcasm soundtrack.*

I hit the doldrums with The Gloucester Ghost, about three-quarters of the way through an increasingly rough draft. Kept applying the seat of my pants to the seat of the chair, and did grind out 1,000 words a day, the bare minimum for self-respect, but then gratefully ran off to do other things. And the very last bit I did needs to be redone, I realised the minute I finished it, because we're finding something out that we shouldn't know for a chapter or two. *Cue tragedy soundtrack.*

Among the distractions was preparing for a trip to Montreal, where I would meet my cousin Abigail for three days of frolic. I also planned to visit my on-line friend Lyny and her family, which includes a one-year-old and a three-year-old and seeing them would have been a real hoot.

"Would have been" because Rob got woefully sick last Friday, and has been on a fever rollercoaster ever since. We thought it was the flu, but it turns out to be an ear infection caused by who knows what, maybe a cold, maybe seasonal allergies. His temperature was below normal this morning, so he leapt out of bed declaring that he was going down to his studio to work. I threw a hissy which, surprisingly, had an effect. He sat and read this morning, then his temperature went up again and he went back to bed. He'll be like this all week, if his previous experiences with fever are any indication. He gets them about once or twice a decade, thank heaven.

The upshot is that tonight's the night I would have been with Lyny and Patrick and kids, and I'm home instead. Poor Abigail is all by herself in Montreal, although she's traveled alone before and is perfectly capable of entertaining herself.

Fortunately, I took a few days off from The Gloucester Ghost through all this, and when I got back to it today I had a much better time. Knock on wood.

The One Really Good Thing: On Monday, I went to the Belfast Free Library to talk to a teen book group, which was so much fun it almost made up for the ear-infected weekend. They'd all read The Unnameables and had astute questions and comments. They even said they wanted a sequel, mostly because they want to see what Mainland is like and how the Islanders would cope with seeing more of it. I want to see all that too, as I told them, although I've got a couple of pressing ideas that have to be dealt with first.

Anyway, many thanks to Jane Thompson, the youth services director, for choosing my book and inviting me over. Additional thanks and admiration to the lovely, intelligent kids in the group!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

All Manner of This and That

The Bar Harbor Book Festival rocked, although not exactly the way some might have expected. As is typical of first-year ventures, it didn't draw much of a crowd, so we ran workshops for ourselves. But since there were 25 of us, it turned into the world's most intimate and helpful writers' conference.

Nothing beats hearing someone else describe the level of self-hatred they sink to while drafting. Not to mention the amount of obsessive email-checking.

I got to meet other Maine kidlit writers, always a plus. The lady at left with the great t-shirt is Deva Fagan, whose MG fantasy Fortune's Folly now has a place of honor on my To Be Read pile. Deva's a fellow blogger at The Enchanted Inkpot. I had a great time chatting with Megan Frazer, Erin Dionne, Robin MacCready, Kekla Magoon, and Bethany Hegedus, whose works also grace the now-tottering TBR pile.

Kudos to Carrie Jones for organizing this. And watch for it next year!

Wafting off into the wild world of book marketing, the estimable Kirkus Reviews authored a very sweet tweet on August 31: "The most tragically overlooked book of 2008: THE UNNAMEABLES, by Ellen Booraem. Reviewed 9/1/08:" I'm not sure who overlooked ol' Medford, but whoever it is should consider themselves tweaked. Or tweeted, anyway. Kirkus has been a good friend to the The Unnameables, having starred it and highlighted it every chance it got. I'm very grateful.

They get results, too. I learned about the tweet from a comment on GoodReads, and then in a blog review on Librarilly Blonde.

The Horn Book, meanwhile, included The Unnameables on its list of "talented newcomers," which was sweet of them, too.

I think I win the "links per line of type" prize, if there is one. There should be, don't you think?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Bone Marrow

Watch out...I'm going to gripe for absolutely no good reason.

The weather is gorgeous--blue skies, sweet zephyrs, crisp air...and yet I am unsatisfied. The summer simply wasn't warm enough for long enough, and I don't have the resistance to cold that I usually do. The heat just didn't make it into my bone marrow. I'm wandering around in turtleneck, sweater, and fleece vest when it's 65 out...yesterday, almost 70.

I blame the Republicans.

Just kidding. (Although that's what the political climate feels like these days, isn't it?)

For the record, I thought Obama's health care speech rocked. I'm sorry he's hedging about the public option, and don't for a minute think he's going to stand up for it, which I wish he would. But I'll be OK with regional cooperatives, I guess. I'd even go for the trigger option if I were sure the trigger would set the standards of practice high enough to ever be, pulled. (That "trigger" metaphor is a hard one to work with.)

We had a very nice Labor Day weekend, including a reprise of our neighborhood picnic from last year. Same measley attempt at game-playing, otherwise five delightful hours of talk, food, and drink. The weather was perfect except, as I may have mentioned, too friggin' cold.

This coming weekend I'm going to the Bar Harbor Book Festival, a new event author Carrie Jones has organized with an eye to encouraging literacy. I'm all for that. My bio didn't make it onto the web site for some reason, but I'm on the author list and schedule so that's what counts. I'll be reading at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, and doing a world-building workshop at 2:30. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

September Book Review

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As usual, it's like a curtain dropped here. The last hurricane sucked all the warm air and humidity out to sea, and now even a steady sun has trouble raising the temperature out of the sixties. Although I'm sad that summer's over, and wishing it had been a better one weatherwise, I'm ready to hunker down, work, and read. If you're in the same mood, a thriller by Stieg Larsson is a good way to acclimate to the new reality. And don't forget to click on the icon for more bloggy book reviews!

The Girl Who Played with Fire
By Stieg Larsson
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009

God, I wish Stieg Larsson were still alive and writing.

Larsson, editor-in-chief of the Swedish magazine Expo and an expert on right-wing extremism, died of a heart attack in 2004, leaving behind the manuscripts for three of a planned ten-book series of thrillers. The first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was a huge hit when it came out in Europe a year after his death, and the English translation met similar acclaim in 2008.

Now the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, is out in English, following the career of Lisbeth Salander, a bizarre but thoroughly engaging character from the first book.

Expect to stay up late.

Dragon Tattoo introduced us to Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist who has been convicted of libeling a billionaire industrialist. While waiting to serve his short prison sentence, he’s hired to write a memoir and investigate the disappearance of his subject’s niece forty years earlier. He brings in Salander, a private investigator, computer whiz, and pierced and tattooed misfit, to help him out. The two endanger themselves to uncover the hideously seamy circumstances behind the niece’s fate.

The politics and intrigue in these books ring true for very good reason: Larsson’s real life was not far different from Mikael Blomkvist’s. He was noted internationally as a tireless foe of rightist organizations, and reportedly was subject to death threats as a result.

His Blomkvist is a fine, compelling character, although nothing unique for a thriller. Salander is something else again, Larsson’s vision of what Pippi Longstocking would be like as an adult. Longstocking, the beloved pigtailed character in Astrid Lindgren’s series of children’s books, is exceptionally strong, smart, and self-reliant but exceptionally anti-social if you cross her.

That’s Salander to a tee, and she may be my favorite character in contemporary literature. She’s a scary-smart, a kick-ass heroine, yet as confused and vulnerable as it’s possible to be without spending life in a fetal position. It all fits together in one wonderful mass of human complexity.

In Played with Fire, Salander takes her turn as main character, with Blomkvist riding shotgun. We learn much, much more about “All the Evil,” the terrible childhood events that sent Salander into the Swedish mental health system and, eventually, into the hands of the sadistic guardian we met in the previous book.

All is not what it seems in Salander’s past, as the Stockholm police discover when she becomes prime suspect in a triple murder. The girl depicted in social service records hardly resembles the real girl at all. Why is that? You’ll find out, probably at 2 a.m.

Both of these books have their oddities, mostly in structure. Dragon Tattoo’s libeled industrialist plotline, although interesting and necessary to the series, slows things in the beginning and still has loose ends to be tidied up when the main event is over. That’s a disadvantage in a book that’s otherwise as tight as a drum.

The first half of Played with Fire is a more compelling read than the early pages of Dragon Tattoo, which has to fill us in on the libel suit before it gets moving. The second half, although still a blazing page-turner, goes overboard on Salander’s grievances against the world, and risks turning into a polemic. What happens to her at the end is just a tad too far-fetched, almost played for humor but not quite.

Nevertheless, I’d bring Stieg Larsson back from the dead any day. And I’m holding my breath for The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the next and—sadly—the final book in the series.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Foggy Blogging

I'm back, and ready to blog.

But you've heard that before, haven't you?

It's been a crazy summer here at Castle Ne'er-do-well. Like everyone on the East Coast, we froze in a fog through most of July. The weather broke in a big, impressive way on August 1 for the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta--a sparkling day, which we and our neighbors enjoyed by kayaking out to Hog Island to watch the fleet go by. I think that was my second time in a kayak all summer--the barometer of a bad season.

But I wasn't worried, even when the weather started a rollercoaster ride of freezing and fair after the sailboats went home. I knew our friends Linda and Michael were coming up from Rhode Island on the 15th, with their 24-year record of bringing us stupendous weather. Sure enough, the skies cleared as they drove up last Saturday, and we were hot and happy all week until the fog enveloped us Friday, when we wanted to do indoor stuff anyway. I kayaked three times in that one week. My friend Shelly and her son Graham are coming up from Connecticut today and Hurricane Bill is expected to suck the fog out to sea with him, so I anticipate further kayak adventures tomorrow and maybe Wednesday. That could be about it, because my kayaking buddies Lisa and Peg, who live down the road in the summer, head home to Minnesota Thursday.

Fortunately, the bad weather made it a pleasure to sit inside and work--often a conflict this time of year in Maine. I feel I have to spend as much time as possible outside listening to the wind in the leaves--the world's most relaxing and renewing sound--because the leaves dry up and change tone around mid-September, beginning the long slog to June. This time, I had no trouble staying inside at the keyboard, and finished revising THE FILIOLIi (now called SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS) around the end of July. My editor Kathy Dawson liked the changes, calloo-callay, although I suspect she's going to want more.

Just now it's foggy and muggy and I'm sitting at the dining room table with Brionna Blodgett, a member of my writers group at the school who, remarkably, wanted to keep going on her story this summer. She's pounding away on a school laptop as I write this, periodically raising her head to discuss some conundrum or other. She also was working full time with the Brooklin Youth Corps, going to basketball camp, babysitting, and heaven knows what--when do these kids have time to lie in the grass and watch the clouds?

Or, this summer, the fog.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July Book Review

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One nice thing about incessant rain--lots of time for reading! Here's this month's installment of the Book Review Club, a blog round-up organized by Barrie Summy. Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews. (The icon may not work until a it's a decent hour of the morning in California, where Barrie lives.)

Number the Stars
By Lois Lowry
Yearling, Random House Children’s Books, 1990

I’m reading The Book Thief right now, Marcus Zusak’s remarkable young-adult novel about a German girl caught up in the Holocaust. It’s narrated by Death, the one with the most to gain. I’m not quite half-way through it and am absorbed.

Last week in Bangor, though, I overtaxed my new bionic knee on a shopping spree at Staples, and had no choice but to go across to Borders for a cup of coffee and a pretzel. You can’t just sit there, so I bought a book to read; Number the Stars, the 1990 Newbery Award-winner by Lois Lowry.

This is a slim book physically, especially in a Yearling paperback. It is far from slim in spirit, however. I’ve read other slim books by Lowry—the lovely Gossamer, and her slim-ish second Newbery winner, The Giver. I don’t know how she packs so much information, insight, and food for thought into so few words.

Much as I’m loving The Book Thief, I expect that Number the Stars will stay with me longer. Lowry’s characters aren’t as conflicted and dramatic as Zusak’s—they are pleasant, everyday Danes, painted in restful colors, who react to horror with courage they kept stored in their bones. They could be you and me—their bravery is approachable, within our reach.

The protagonist is Annemarie Johansen, a ten-year-old who lives in Copenhagen. Her best friend, Ellen Rosen, lives down the hall, and their mothers are best friends, too. The Rosens are Jewish; the Johansens are not.

The book’s first scene shows Annemarie and Ellen racing down the sidewalk, two kids with nothing more on their minds than whose legs are longer. They’re stopped and questioned by the Nazi soldiers on the corner. We feel a twinge of dread. Thirty-four pages later, it’s midnight, the Rosens have disappeared, Ellen is pretending to be Annemarie’s sister, and Nazis are banging on the Johansens’ door. The stakes creep higher and higher until one night Annemarie finds herself running through the Danish woods, risking her life to save the Rosens and others.

This is not a tumultuous, edge-of-the-chair kind of book. It gently draws you in and pulls you along. You feel you have had Annemarie’s experience, not just read about it. That’s what a novel’s supposed to do, and few of them do it this well.

Thanks, stupid knee.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Additional information

I forgot several important facts in the new post below.

1. Rob found tadpoles in the path between the raised beds in the veggie garden, where the water is an inch or two deep.

2. The Unnameables is on's summer reading list for middle school kids, and in the June Hall of Fame at teensreadtoo. As reported on The Enchanted Inkpot, it's on the American Booksellers Association Spring/Summer 2009 Indie Next List for Reading Groups and, closer to home, the 2009 Cream of the Crop list compiled by the Southern Maine Library District. Sorry about all the links.

3. It's raining again.

The Rain in Maine

I know that somewhere in the world people are suffering from drought. And yet I feel the urge to whine. Maine has had roughly five dry days this month, and the coast is the worst. Yesterday, the temperature never got above 55 degrees F. Our corn isn't planted. The spinach has rotted. My zinnias, cosmos and dahlias are outgrowing their pots because we haven't had a chance to fertilize and turn over their sites.

And here, on the left, is our front hall. The laundry's been out there for three days and is dampish. Whine, whine, whine.

In other news, my next-door neighbor Cope (neighborhood hostess at Christmas and Labor Day) had her hip replaced and several days later nearly died of anemia. Friends and neighbors have been cooking things and sitting with her in the hospital to give her husband, Greg, as much of a break as possible. (He stayed on a cot in her room in the ICU, good heart that he is.) Greg designed my web site.

I'm happy to report that Cope is home now, exhausted but, in her words, "the queen." Greg's working from home for a couple of days. One neighbor took them lentil soup last night. I'm cooking Thursday. Not sure what's happening tonight and tomorrow, but The Neighborhood will provide.

In still other news, the Brooklin Youth Corps season started yesterday, spirit undampened. We have somewhere between eleven and thirteen kids, depending on who's coming and going for which family responsibility or music camp. Rent a Wreck in Hampden kindly gave us a whoppingly cut rate on two rental vans, one bright red and one burgundy. They have a group picture of last year's Youth Corps on their wall.

I do love Maine. Even when it rains.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Kids Today. Honestly.

I just went to the annual yard sale in the school gym, and came home with...more books! Rob is thrilled! Maybe this means he gets to build a new bookcase! Instead of painting! And meeting his deadline! (Actually, a new bookcase is so unlikely that I'm saying this just to get my muscles primed for writing fantasy.)

But the big amazement was running into the parents of one of my former writing pals at the school, now completing her freshman year in high school. I ran into her, too, but she prated along about a sign she'd made for the school playground. Very nice, of course, but her parents told me the far more interesting news that she'd written a book, gone to ComicCon, and submitted synopses to a bunch of publishers. She got nice letters back telling her she had to get an agent.

This is not the first kid I've run into who's hell-bent on publication. Even the third-grader I'm mentoring talks about it. I am woefully impressed, by which I mean delightfully envious. Getting a book published wasn't in my sights until my early 50s. Where do these kids get the chutzpah?

I suppose some of it is Christopher Paolini. But also, I think schools today, for all their failings, have a practical approach to education that is enlightening and enlivening. They don't just tell kids to write fairy stories because it's good for them. They make the everyday connections and encourage them to see things through to the logical conclusion.

Can't remember if I've told this story on the blog before (I know I have on the forum I belong to). When Rob and I were building this house, he was figuring out the span of something or other, scribbling in pencil on a spare 2x4. I peeked, goggled, and said, "That's algebra!" He said, "Well, yeah, how else would you do this?" I said, "There's a use for algebra?"

The more I thought about this afterwards, the more pissed off I got. I hated algebra. It seemed like some exercise Miss Whatsername was making me do just because she was a nutcase. (Which she actually was...she left school in the middle of winter and then we had a sub the rest of the year.) Why, oh why, did no one ever tell the college prep kids that there was a practical use for all those formulas? (I'm sure the kids in the wood shop learned about it.)

My mother had the obvious response, saying tartly: "Another child would have asked." Rob seems to have figured it out, after all. And the same is probably true of the publication thing. I mean, Stephen King caught on when he was a kid, and he's even older than I am, I think.

But still. Wouldn't it have been OK to just tell me? I mean, what was this, a quiz show?

Whatever. Kudos to Kids Today. May their dreams see reality sooner than my new bookcase.

PS I just had a wonderful thought. I can put the books where the TV used to be!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bye-bye Broadcast

For the moment, we are a television-less household. We'll see how long this lasts.

It's not that we were ill-prepared for the switch to digital. We got our converter boxes months ago, and used them this winter after our local public television and ABC stations went digital on the original deadline in February.

But then the troubles started. We discovered that we only got digital signals when the skies were crystal clear. Then the trees sprouted leaves, and we lost all digital entirely.

We have an antenna in the attic, which we always liked a lot because we didn't have to worry about northeasters and ice storms. Now we have to spend $200 or so for a ginormous rooftop antenna, and possibly still more than that for a signal booster. And even then we're wondering if we'll get a signal.

It was very nice of the feds to help us out with converter box coupons. But the boxes are turning out to be the least of our needs.

We don't get cable in our little town--not that I'd want it, being easily distracted from my daily round. God help me if I had a bazillion channels to choose from, plus the guilty feeling that I'd better be watching them because I paid money for them. (New Englander? Me?) And even if I wanted to be channel-enhanced, I wouldn't get a satellite dish for the great pleasure of losing tv and internet every time the sky got cloudy.

There's just about no entertainment worth watching on the regular networks, but we definitely will miss the news shows. Here's the plan: We'll watch the news on the internet, either later at night than usual, or the next day. We already read newspapers in the flesh and on line...we'll just do a little more of the latter and add a little more radio. We already watch Olbermann, Stewart, and Colbert on line, the evening after. For entertainment, DVDs or Netflix or Hulu.

And, of course, books, although there are times when the eyes just need a rest.

We may discover we're fine without TV. Except for one nagging feeling: Aren't the airways supposed to be ours for free? So how come we have to fork over $300 or so to get access to them?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

JUNE Book Review? Already?

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Heh-heh. I guess this means it's a month since my last post. But, hey, I can sit at the computer without whimpering now, and my brain seems to be my own for the first time in two months. Plus I'm getting out more. Plus my computer's fixed.

So no excuse for NOT turning over a new leaf, right?

Tune in soon for more scintillating posts. And right's the June edition of the Book Review Club. Click on the widget (above) to find other reviews. (The widget won't work until our esteemed founder, Barrie Summy, posts her review. She's in California so there may be a brief delay for us Easterners.)

By Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins, 2008

Thank you, Nation, for finally bringing me to Terry Pratchett.

For years my soul has struggled. I felt that Terry Pratchett was out there, waiting for me to come to my senses and adore him. Time after time, I picked up one of the Discworld novels, found the writing delightful, laughed out loud at least once a page…and threw the book across the room about halfway through, never to return.

Clearly, there was something wrong with me. This is the funniest writer since P.G. Wodehouse, my friends adore him—why was I incapable of finishing his books? I tried Good Omens, which Pratchett team-wrote with Neal Gaiman, and loved it. Tried a Discworld book again. Threw it across the room.

So I approached his young-adult novel Nation with trepidation, reluctant to be toyed with yet again. But it sounded so good, so completely up my alley. I had to try, just one more time.

And, praise Pratchett, I saw the light. Or at least a glimmer of an inkling of why I was having so much trouble with such a marvelous writer.

I then read The Wee Free Men, supposedly a Discworld book (I don’t know how you’d tell) written for kids. Loved it. I retrieved The Colour of Magic, the first adult Discworld book, from an obscure quarter of my bookshelf and tried it again. I finished it, praise Pratchett, but found it tough going in places.

The glimmer became a radiance. I knew what my problem was. Same old problem I always have: character.

Based on four and a half books (I tried to read Monstrous Regiment a couple of years ago but didn’t finish it), it appears to me that Pratchett believes books for younger readers must have real characters, with full histories and known desires and prejudices, while books for adults can be pure farce with characters we know only superficially. That’s why I—unlike, I admit, most reasonable adults— lose interest halfway through…I just don’t know these people well enough to care what happens to them.

In The Wee Free Men, we know all about fledgling witch Tiffany Aching’s childhood, her heritage, her feelings for her grandmother and baby brother, her love for cheese-making…and where she gets her courage. We’re rooting for her from the minute she clangs a water demon over the head with a frying pan. In The Colour of Magic, all we know about Rincewind is that he got kicked out of wizard school and has a big bad spell lodged in his brain. He’s a coward who learns that his survivor skills sometimes could be mistaken for ethics—which is growth, which is good, but not enough. Nobody else in the book learns much of anything.

Which brings us to Nation, where everyone learns and grows, even entire cultures. The writing is funny, because Pratchett can’t help it. (Description of a main character’s Victorian grandmother: “…a mixture of the warrior queen Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de Medici without the poisoned rings, and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun.”) But there’s a serious tale to be told here, of two young people learning that other cultures are just the same old people, sometimes venal and silly but mostly deserving of respect.

The story is simple: A nineteenth century tidal wave washes two kids onto a depopulated tropical island, one a Victorian miss in pantaloons, the other a naked islander. Neither of them knows enough about the other’s culture to be anything but suspicious, but they must suspend their doubts and collaborate in order to survive.

Over time, as other refugees wash ashore, they create an island nation that combines the best parts of several cultures. The Victorian miss, who calls herself Daphne because she (justifiably) hates her respectable given name, Ermintrude, discovers that she has a soul and an affinity with island mysticism. She who had never before seen a naked table leg now is capable of birthing babies. Mau, the islander, grows from a grief-stricken, befuddled boy into the thoughtful, flexible leader of a multicultural society. Add a British succession crisis and earth-shaking revelations of an archeological and mystical nature, and the effects of their teamwork become global.

This could have been a preachy novel, but it isn’t. The fact that it isn’t is what makes it such a work of art. Daphne and Mau are just so achingly, humorously, recognizably human—this is unquestionably their love story as well as a coming of age story for them and the human race. And even the secondary characters are fully rounded—we know as much about Daphne’s father’s character in two chapters as we learn about Rincewind in an entire book.

Reading Nation has given me a better sense of Pratchett, which I think will carry me though a few more of his adult novels. I’m revisiting Monstrous Regiment first. If I bog down, I understand there are a couple more Wee Free Men novels to revive me. Praise Pratchett.

PS: This morning, I found out Nation had won the Horn Book/Boston Globe Award for fiction, on top of many other awards. Richly, richly deserved.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May Book Review

Another month, another book review! (Click on the Book Review Club logo for links to this month's other reviews.)

Our little town has been the Bermuda Triangle of technology this week. My desktop computer and DSL connection both pooched last Friday, leaving me to schlep the laptop to the library when I want to go on line or check email. I am alternately encouraged and disheartened to know that several of my fellow townfolk also have mysteriously crashed their computers at the very same time, some of them more than one. (I put my hands over my laptop’s little ears when I typed that.) ( I love you, little laptop. Love you. You’re the best little laptop. The Best. In the world. ) (Don’t crash.)

Anyway, here’s this month’s review. I’ll check back in when possible.

The Mysterious Benedict Society
By Trenton Lee Stewart
Little, Brown & Co., 2007

Four kids are plucked from orphanages or families that don’t understand them, and trained to save the world by using their unrecognized talents.

They’re in a boarding school setting, with the full complement of baddies and their victims. They face dangers, some physical and others deeply, horrifyingly psychological.

The plot hangs together beautifully. The tone is one of delightful deadpan goofiness, permeating characters and action and setting.

Wow. This novel has it all.

So why did I have to keep forcing myself to read it?

I’d saved this book for a period of convalescence, so perhaps that’s the problem. I was fogged up on painkillers while reading it, only slightly less so when I wrote this review. Bear that in mind, by all means.

But still. I can’t help thinking that at least part of the problem is that I really didn’t care whether the good guys won.

For me, that’s the danger of goofiness. There’s a level of comedy (“level” may not be the right word— maybe I just mean “type”) that isolates me from characters, makes them and their plot and their actions seem less real, less important. This is why I tend not to enjoy slapstick—even, I’m embarrassed to say, the Marx Brothers. The minute I sense that the author cares more about laughs than understanding a character, I lose interest.

MBS sacrifices character for action, message, and humor…and the sacrifice almost works. The fact that the four main characters represent “types” is actually part of the fun. They are brought together by the mysterious Mr. Benedict, head of a very select and very secret group that is trying to prevent the villain from destroying the world in a particularly dreadful way. (I won’t tell you anything about the villain, because finding out about him also is part of the fun.)

Benedict chose the four for their important attributes: There’s eleven-year-old Reynie, a genius and born leader; Stickie, another genius who retains everything he ever reads; the redoubtable Kate, who is uncommonly brave and resourceful ; and the intensely annoying Constance, a very young child whose important attribute remains hidden until the end.

Benedict trains his team , then dispatches them to an island school where all the evil stuff is taking place. The foursome accomplishes remarkable feats of puzzle-solving, intrigue, insight, and derring-do while facing down soul-chilling dangers.

It’s boarding school novel, spy thriller, dystopian warning, and Kids-Against-Authority comic whirlwind rolled up in one. It has a lot in common with the Harry Potter books.

Except for one important factor. In Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, the moment when Harry learns he’s a wizard, destined to leave his despicable foster family and go to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is a moment of giddy triumph for the reader as much as for Harry. It’s the moment you dreamt of when your parents had just grounded you—somebody showing up out of the blue to announce that these dull and unworthy people weren’t really your parents, you were really the lost queen of Anatolia. We already know enough about Harry, faults and all, to imagine ourselves in his situation.

In MBS, Reynie is our point of view character. We’re told he’s smarter than everyone at the orphanage and is made fun of, but what we actually experience of his life seems pretty good. He has a tutor who loves him and acknowledges his genius, he has a full stomach and clothes that fit. He doesn’t yearn for his lost parents, or for anything much. We’re intensely interested in what it takes for him to pass Mr. Benedict’s qualifying tests, but otherwise there’s nothing at stake. We don’t identify with Reynie or his situation, we can’t see ourselves in his shoes¬—we want to know what happens next but not necessarily what happens to him.

Worst of all, we don’t know him any better at the end of the novel than at the beginning. He has none of Harry’s flaws or humanity. He’s a figure on a chess board—no matter how thrilling the match, in the end he just gets packed up and put back in the box. Nothing of him stays with you when you close the book.

The Mysterious Benedict Society has a lot going for it—recommended reading, certainly, for anyone who likes puzzles and figuring things out. If you’re looking to populate your brain with a new set of characters, though, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

OK, So Maybe a Bit Longer Than a Week

Howdy. I am not dead, although I play one on TV.

Turns out I was a tad optimistic about my recuperative powers. I don't know where I got the idea that, two weeks after total knee replacement surgery, I would be off painkillers and a fully functioning member of society (such as I ever was).

We are closing in on six weeks and I still needs me my Vicoden. I tried making it through Monday and Tuesday on Tylenol, and re-confirmed my belief that Tylenol is what they use for a placebo in drug trials. By Tuesday night, I was in that achy state in which you can't sit still because you keep thinking the Perfect Painfree Position is out there somewhere waiting for you if you just squirm enough. So, back to Vicoden.

Percocet, which was My Drug for two weeks, is probably mentioned in those torture memos Obama just released. It works great on pain, less great on the entire rest of one's physical being. I lost a week of my life (Week Three, in fact) lying in a nauseated heap a/ because I had been taking Percocet for two weeks or b/ because I was not taking so much of it anymore. Or some lethal combination of a and b. On the plus side, I lost 15 pounds. On the minus side, my clothes hang on me and I don't have the time or the money to replace my entire wardrobe, so now I'm trying to regain 8-10 pounds but not the whole 15, ha ha ha ha. This requires just exactly the right ratio of chocolate chips to yoghurt.

As a result of all this, I did not get to attend the lovely party for the Maine Literary Awards, in which I was a runner-up. My childhood friend Amy MacDonald, who writes books for young kids, did go to the party and said it rocked. Oh well. Back when I thought I was a demigod who could have her knee cut off without particularly noticing, Amy and I were planning to turn the party into a Brookwood (elementary) School reunion, and Pammy Winsor Brindamour, one of my three absolute best friends from childhood, was going to come up from Rockport. No dice, but at least we got to exchange a lot of email.

Rescuing me from my bed of pain was the news that The Unnameables made VOYA's list of Best Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, 2008. (That link is a pdf.) (Along with Carrie Jones' Need, which means two of the 33 books on the list were written in Hancock County, Maine. Heh.) Plus, Medford and friends have been nominated for YALSA's 2010 Best Books for Young Adults list, the final version of which comes out next January. This is very cool indeed, although my editor is preparing me for disappointment in the end because lots of readers will think my book is anything but young adult. Still, much better than Tylenol. (Carrie's on that one, too. Go Hancock County.)

Possibly the biggest surprise about this whole publishing gig has been the number of times my name has been spelled right in print. I never expected fact, I reserved domain names for my web site in the most common misspellings, because I've lived with this name all my life and I know what it does to people's brains. As it turns out, VOYA and YALSA are the first to get befuddled by all the vowels and things. The VOYA misspelling is one of the common ones, the YALSA one not so much. Guess I'll have to reserve another domain name.

The other thing that happened during my Perambulations in Pergatory was the launch of The Enchanted Inkpot, a group blog I helped to organize and will participate in once I have a brain. The members all write fantasy novels for kids and they know about a million times more about the field than I do, so I'm thrilled to be involved. Check it out, and you'll see what I mean.

I got my editorial letter for revisions on The Filioli a week or so ago, so am trying to figure out a way to sit at the computer with my leg up without twisting myself into a pretzel. Tried the Laptop in Bed routine, and think I prefer Snakes on a Plane. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Off to Be Bionic

I thought I'd get a chance for a nice, newsy post before I went off for knee replacement, but no such luck. Thanks to everyone for the good wishes, and send some extra potent vibes to St. Joseph's Hospital, Bangor, Maine, tomorrow (Monday) at 7:30 a.m. EDT.

Tata for now... back in about a week, I imagine.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Lemon Tree Very Smelly

Sorry about the silence. But preparing to get your leg cut off at the knee turns out to be time consuming. (Don't worry...they'll reattach it. With a sparkly new titanium knee. Ooooo....shiny.) The big day is March 23. The surgery is at 7:30 in Bangor, and I'll have to get up at 3 to do all the stuff they want you to do beforehand and then drive for an hour. Yish.

My doctor says the two weeks after surgery will be "uncomfortable" -- that's doctorspeak for painful and depressing. Ooooo...damn well better be shiny.

Plus, I've come up against a major logical inconsistency in The Filioli (thanks to my friend Shelly) and a matching one in the sequel, which for the moment is called The Gloucester Ghost. Solutions have come to me in the middle of the night (duly written down and, miraculously, understandable the next day), but not enough of them.

For example, there's a character in GG who has drunk an elixir that enables her to see through enchantments. So there she sits, right next to an enchantment, and does she see through it? No indeed, so far she does not. Why is that? You tell me. Someone tell me. Please?

And then there was the Brooklin Cat Pee Disaster of 2009. Not quite as monumental as the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919.

We have a potted lemon tree in the front hall, sometimes lovely, sometimes sad, depending on how many caterpillars landed on it when it spent the summer outside under the maple. This year it's marginal. Anyway, I'd been noticing dirt sprayed on the floor and, like an idiot, thought nothing of it. "Oh, how cute, the cat's been playing in the plant," I thought.

I've had cats all my life. But denial dies hard.

Ignorance reigned until I watered the tree. Lots of water, which spilled out into the saucer under the pot. And within minutes the entire front hall smelled like an untended litter box.

"How could you do this?" I asked the cat, who was contentedly tormenting the dog with the "is this a paw or a claw?" game, which ends only when the dog, shaken, cedes her spot in front of the woodstove.

"Do what?" the cat asked.

"You don't smell it?"

"I don't smell. I create." (I don't think that's true but that's what she said.)

I solved most of the problem by hauling the saucer under the pot outside and dumping it out. Rob suggests that I don't water the tree again until summer, when we can put it outside and flush it out. At which point it will, conveniently, be dead. Since Rob hates the tree even when it doesn't stink, I'm beginning to wonder exactly who peed in it.

If it was the cat, I've foiled her for the moment by sticking a miniature stonehenge of chopsticks into the soil around the tree. If it's Rob, I hope it gets on his shoes.

The latest news: The Unnameables was a runner-up for the Maine Literary Award for kidlit. The winner was Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress by Maria Padian of Brunswick, which I haven't read but it sounds wonderful. There have been some more nice reviews, too, but I'll have to write about them later. This time I spent too much time writing about cat pee. There are priorities in this life.