Friday, December 31, 2010

Exhausted But Happy

My first New Year's resolution is to stay home tonight. I (and sometimes we) have been out about every other night for the past couple of weeks, or at least that's how it feels. Driving to Ellsworth for a birthday party last night was fun but also the last straw...I am now officially Over the holidays.

It has been a blast.

First, can I have an "awwwww"? The two young men in red are shown practicing their violins before the annual carol sing at the Rockbound Chapel in West Brooklin. Then (lower photo) they joined other young-uns to accompany "Jingle Bells." That's our neighbor Win Pusey at the piano.

Now, can I have "brrrr." You have to imagine total silence except for the moaning of wind and the distant baaahing of sheep. This is what it looked like for several minutes when I arrived to pick up my Christmas turkey and couldn't find anyone. I knew the farmers had gone out of town, and attempts to reach the farm-sitter's cell phone had failed. When I took this picture, I was envisioning sixteen friends and neighbors sitting down to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Fortunately, Brian the farm-sitter rescued me, and I made it home with 23 pounds of holiday bliss. Here's Rob, ministering to the beast.

He also made a pumpkin pie. Can I pick 'em or what?

Here's the table before. (I suppose that should be "tables," since we stuck together two fire department tables and one from our neighbor Ken's shop, and covered the whole shebang with three of my sainted grandmothers' tablecloths. ) (Meaning three tablecloths, not three grandmothers. There were only two. And they were more than enough.) (More than enough in a GOOD way, of course.)

And here's after, when everyone was stuffed with two kinds of pie plus chocolate truffle cake, and looking self-conscious because I was taking their picture.

And here's yesterday, when I spent valuable work time out skiing with my friends Lisa and Kim. (You can sort of see Kim behind me. Lisa's taking the picture.) It was gorgeous, and today the temperature went into the 40s so I'm glad we caught it while it existed.

And here's a guessing game, courtesy of Lisa, the snow, the wind, and a Mystery Guest. What do you think made this?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Nose Knows

The neighborhood dog walk has been spectacular the past couple of days, thanks to yesterday's new snow. I sometimes fight the urge to rub my face in it. (Rob has been known to oblige, although we haven't had a good snow fight in years.) Fortunately, I can live vacariously through my dog, who reminds us that snow hides many treasures, from questing voles to frosty bear poop. All you need is a questing and frost-resistant nose. (The photo's by my friend Lisa, who gets extra points for remembering her camera, which I never, never do.)

The Christmas season is upon us with a vengeance. Last night, I attended the second annual one-man performance of A Christmas Carol by Tim Pugliese and the New Surry Theatre. It was, if anything, even better than last year, mostly because of new lighting and sound effects. The arrival of Marley's ghost was actually scary. (Amazing what green light and clanking chains will do to your nerve endings.)

Tonight there's a Messiah sing-along in Blue Hill, during which I will pretend to sing soprano even though I stopped being an actual soprano years ago. (Thank you, tobacco. Which, I quickly note, I stopped smoking about twenty years ago. Still, the gratitude lingers.) Tomorrow afternoon there's the annual carol sing at the Rockbound Chapel here in Brooklin. Tomorrow night, Alice and John's annual do, which usually features 150,000 varieties of appetizers and cookies. Tuesday, solstice party at Kim and Tom's, which will feature a bonfire.

And Monday I trek to Happytown Farm in Orland to pick up a 23-pound turkey. Christmas dinner will be for sixteen this year. And may I just say, ohmuhgod.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Marketing Ploy

Discerning cats agree: SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS is a head-scratcher.

I have no idea what the attraction is, other than my blood, sweat, and tears all over it. But there is glitter on the title and the fairies, so maybe something about the glue? Or the glitter's a little scratchy?

Whatever. My cat loves my book. (One minute after the last picture, though, the book was on the floor. Tough love.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I got my first copy of SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS this week, in a sumptuous package from my editor that also included chocolate. I have not been waving the chocolate around whenever anyone comes into the house. To be fair, I also haven't been eating the book.

In other news:
· It bucketed down rain and washed away the snow, then last night it snowed again, not enough to ski but enough to be pretty. Also enough to slick up the roads, so the morning neighborhood dog walk was conducted on a side road for fear that we would all slide out under the wheels of a fisherman. If the dogs only knew, they could buy their freedom just by taking off at a run when we're on an icy patch. But they never figure that out, which I guess is the secret to our long and friendly relationship.
· Our friend Lisa is here from Minnesota (she has a house in the neighborhood, usually inhabited only in summer), bringing with her a DVD of Toy Story 3, which Rob didn't see when the rest of us saw it last summer. My favorite part continues to be Mr. Tortilla Head. I am possibly influenced by the fact that, many, many years ago, I wrote an employee newsletter for Hasbro Toys, inventor of Mr. Potato Head, and I am the proud owner of two commemorative coasters, one devoted to Mr. PH and one to GI Joe. There was a rumor that Mr. PH was modeled after one of the brothers who founded the company, back when it made pencil cases. This rumor was hotly denied by all in authority, and yet it persisted. Much like Mr. Tortilla Head.
· As my frumious friend Bander noted in comments to the post below, the Kirkus review of SPWW is up online now. It's here .

Monday, December 6, 2010

Snow! Lights!

We're getting a bit of snow today. I am ecstatic, although skeptical that it will stay around for long. We may have eight inches or maybe even a foot by the time this ends. I clattered down cellar and dragged up my skis and poles, and have them chilling on the porch. (For non-skiing readers, warm skis turn the cold snow into an icy mound under your foot. It's a lot like those ancient Chinese platform shoes. And just about as easy to maneuver in. ) I plan to ski around the yard tonight (when I should be reading about ancient Celtic homelife, but who's watching?) to get my legs under me, and hope to head off into the woods tomorrow.

Here's what the house looked like after the first round of shoveling. (Probably more to come tomorrow morning, at which point maybe I'll be a little less enthusiastic.)

You will note that I got the lights up on the maple tree without the drama of procrastination and near death I went through last year.

And here are my skis. Thoroughly chilled. Waiting. *Looks furtively around for ancient Celts.* Guess I'll head out now.

P.S. I suppose I should mention that Publishers Weekly gave SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS a starred review. (Not sure the link will work, so I'll just say the reviewer called SPWW "wistful, humorous, and clever.") And we just heard that Kirkus Reviews did, too, although I don't think the review will be up on the web until the 15th. Yay team!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

If you're reading this, you spend time on the Internet. Like me, you might even be an addict. Ever wonder about consequences, other than carpal tunnel syndrome and eye strain? Read on...

Oh, and click the icon for more reviews. If your brain can handle it.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
W.W. Norton & Co, 2010

In a waiting room last week, I happened on a National Geographic story about how much market gardeners in Iceland are enjoying global warming. I didn’t get to finish the story, so I don’t know whether they saw any downside to their warmer climate. But what I did read sounded familiar—I’ve heard others in the chilly zones tout the advantages of climate change, ignoring the droughts and floods and weird weather systems elsewhere.

Is Internet use the new global warming? Could be, if this book by Nicholas Carr is any indication.
Carr’s thesis is that extensive browsing, tweeting, and link-clicking is changing our brains both functionally and physically, reawakening our earliest talents as hunter-gatherers but killing off the gains we’ve made as deep thinkers. He quotes some analysts—the “yay, it’s getting warmer” crowd—who think this is just another step in our evolution. That point of view gains support from the tale of Socrates, who decried the advent of writing as a blow against our ability to remember without taking notes. It’s hard to argue that writing and reading have been anything but good for us, so maybe this is another case where we should just relax and see where evolution takes us.

Carr doesn’t think so. “We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self,” he writes.

Whichever side you’re on, this book is fascinating. Starting with the 1964 publication of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Carr traces the past half century’s astonishing explosion of electronic communication, dwelling particularly on the advent of Google. We’ve heard much of this before, of course, but not always coupled with current research on the ways our brain adapts to new tasks.

If we repeat a task often enough, apparently, our brains not only adjust the behavior of our existing synapses but actually build new architecture, abandoning the old digs for the new.

London cab drivers studied in the late 1990s had larger than normal posterior hippocampuses (hippocampi?). That part of the brain “plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial representations of a person’s surroundings,” Carr tells us—in other words, knowing the fastest route from Bloomsbury to the City enhances part of your brain. The cabbies’ anterior hippocampuses had shrunk to accommodate the neighboring expansion, reducing their abilities in other memorization tasks.

The biggest difference between reading a book and reading on line is probably the hyperlinks. The act of deciding whether to click that link, and then the process of following it, reading what it offers, and making our way back to our original document, changes the act of reading into something else. We are problem-solving, using hand-to-eye coordination, sharpening our reflexes, processing visual cues, increasing the capacity of our short-term memory. But we’re not “deep reading,” a process that makes us calmly deliberative and helps to build our long-term memory.

The social implications, Carr says, could be massive. For example, becoming less deliberative may make us more likely to go with the status quo rather than engaging in original lines of thought. Shallower, shorter-term thoughts may even hamper our higher emotions, such as empathy and compassion.

Engagingly, Carr does not set himself up as our model. He starts out by describing his own evolution into a truly impressive Internet user, on here constantly for research, blogging, even drivers’ license renewal. Worried about his inability to concentrate, he moved to Colorado and cut most of his Net use in order to write this book. When the book was almost done, he started reconnecting again and even discovered new stuff he could do on line. “I have to confess: It’s cool. I’m not sure I could live without it.”

Reluctantly, I have to agree. The past couple of evenings I read a book instead of watching a movie or TV show on line. As I write this, the modem’s turned off. But I found that I missed the conviviality of spending my evening with my partner rather than alone in a book. And of course I’m about to turn the modem on to post this review.

Plus, I’d like to finish that story in National Geographic. The issue’s probably at the library, but it’s December and it’s chilly out. What do you bet it’s on line somewhere?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Let's try this again

I posted this yesterday, but apparently it wasn't an authorized version and YouTube took it down. The actual creators seem to have posted this one, so here's hoping. Enjoy!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The blogger plays catch-up

Hello. Remember me? I am Ellen the Freelance Ne’er-do-well, but other than monthly book reviews a more accurate description lately would be Ne’er-blog-well. Herewith, the harrowing yet somehow tedious history of the past four months or so.

I'll do it backwards. Not, however, in high heels. (If you're under, oh, say, 45--and therefore perfectly capable of reading tiny type--this is a reference to the dancer Ginger Rogers, who "did everything Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels.")

First, SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS has a new cover. I say “new” because this is the third one I’ve seen, and I understand there was yet another that I never saw. This is, fortunately, the best of the bunch. See?

Gorgeous, right? Plus, I’m told there will be glitter. I’ve never been a glitter sort of person—more denim and fleece. But clearly fleece fairies weren’t going to cut it.

The book comes out January 20, so it’s a fair bet that it’s gone to press now. If I bolt upright at midnight and realize that something makes absolutely no sense, I’ll just have to live with it.

Working backward through the ages, we reach the cider-pressing at the John household. We all brought apples—I stole some from our summertime neighbors’ tree—which got dumped into a grinder and then squished so the juice ran into a bucket and the apples were a juiceless pulp. If you’ve never tasted minutes-old cider, I’d suggest you try putting yourself into that position next fall.

What you see below is Rob and Nathan John running around and around to wind down the squisher.*

Let’s see. Still earlier, there’s Labor Day Weekend's Blue Hill Fair, which we attended en mass with friends. What I always like best is the juxtaposition of large animals, kids (the one in the middle is trimming her goat's toenails*), tractors, and honky-tonk. Oh, and french fries.

In the “no fool like an old fool” division, Rob and our friend Michael spent all their free time last spring building radio-controlled model sailboats. They sailed the boats, fending off interested canines, when Michael and his wife Linda visited in August.

And, for truly heart-rending nostalgia in deepest, darkest November, here's Rob and our friend Lisa watching the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta the first Saturday in August—all wooden boats, many of them vintage. Every year we kayak out to an island to eat lunch and watch the boats go by. This year the wind was so good we actually watched the boats come back, too, which is what’s going on here.

And now it’s 4 p.m., cold and dark as a witch’s armpit. But I’m going to see the new Harry Potter film tomorrow night (speaking of witches), and Thursday we hobnob and eat and drink. So who’s complaining?

*Technical term.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

November Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

We got our first killing frost last night at Castle Ne'er-do-well, so it's definitely time to hunker down. If you're already sick of the blip-bleet-blip of video games, try this one on your reluctant reader. Or grab it yourself for a laugh.

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid
By Jeff Kinney
Amulet Books, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-8109-9313-6

The Wimpy Kid series spawned a movie last spring that’s out on DVD now, but that’s not why I chose it for this month’s review book. I chose it because of Arthur (not his real name).

A student at our local elementary school, Arthur’s an imaginative, potentially talented kid who doesn’t like to read—not the first I’ve run into, I’m sorry to say. In Arthur’s case, the chief competition is video games, surprise, surprise. He and I worked together on a short story last year, and I tried like hell to get him to read a book that was kind of the same genre as the story he was writing. He politely took the book home and just as politely ignored it. He told me he’d never read a book outside of school. Not once.

This year, he said he’d like to write something funny. So we went to the library and found DIARY OF A WIMPY KID, the first book of what will be a five-book series as of November 9. I got my hands on a copy of my own, and we agreed we’d read a chapter a week and discuss it briefly when we met.

Last week, he announced that he’d finished the book ahead of schedule and wanted to start the second. He’d gotten bored on a Saturday and picked it up, he said, and all of a sudden he’d finished it. He suggested he might finish the second one by the time he saw me today. He’s not a fan of the movie.

Author Jeff Kinney was at the Boston Book Festival a couple of weekends ago, which I attended. I went to another panel instead of his, but now I wish I’d sought him out and kissed his feet. It’s not for nothing that this book has a “Maine Student Book Award Winner” sticker on the front—that award is voted by Maine school kids, and this is obviously a kid-friendly book.

I mean, just look at it. The typeface is fun but readable, and the cartoons are hysterical. I often managed to read through a scene without inhaling my hot beverage, only to choke half to death when I saw the drawing that accompanied the action.

This first book is the sad tale of narrator Greg Heffley’s first year in middle school, which he describes as “the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven’t hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day.”

In middle school, someone like Greg is acted upon more than acting. Parents, older brother, teachers, bigger or more popular kids—they’re the ones with the power. We share Greg’s abortive attempts to control his own destiny, whether by running for class treasurer (in a smear campaign involving head lice) or by joining the safety patrol in order to get hot chocolate and miss some pre-algebra.

The great thing about his odyssey is that Kinney allows us to see where Greg’s going wrong without one single word of preachiness.

At one point, Greg allows his dopey best friend Rowley to take the fall when one Mrs. Irvine reports a Safety Patrol member terrorizing the kindergarteners in his charge. He admits to Rowley that he was the culprit, having borrowed Rowley’s coat.

“Then I told him there were lessons we could both learn from this. I told him I learned to be more careful about what I do in front of Mrs. Irvine’s house, and that he learned a valuable lesson, too, which is this: Be careful about who you lend your coat to.”

To Greg’s indignation, Rowley turns him in. He loses Rowley’s friendship for a while, eventually gaining it back. We know he’s being punished for being evil, but Greg never admits to the connection. He’s a modern-day Tom Sawyer.

My friend Arthur thinks he’s awesome.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

October Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

We had a spectacular summer here in New England, but now reality is closing in. The leaves are changing, the days are shorter, and there's a small evening fire in the wood stove. It's a funny time of year--we're sad that summer's over, a little worried about the darkness and the cold, but also looking forward to hunkering down by the fire and taking a break from the good times. No wonder Banned Book Week is in October--anybody who tries to take a book away from me right now gets whopped with an over-sized zucchini.

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The Catcher in the Rye
By JD Salinger
Little, Brown & Co, 1951

Last week was Banned Books Week, in which we pay particular attention to what seems to be a particularly American pastime: Trying to prevent other people’s children from reading books you don’t want your own kids to read. We spend a lot of time in this country arguing about “government interference in our lives.” Fairly often, it seems that those who argue against Big Government are the very same ones trying to control other people’s reading. Go figure.

Anyway, in honor of the season, last week I re-read JD Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE in the battered 1961 Signet paperback I last opened in high school. (Book hoarder? Me?) CATCHER is number two on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned classics, right after THE GREAT GATSBY. I’m baffled why GATSBY is so frequently targeted, but I certainly understand why CATCHER strikes terror into the ultra-conservative breast. Along with John Updike and John Cheever and a few others, Salinger helped to terrify me away from the buttoned-down, suburban, 2.5-kids lifestyle my parents would have preferred for me. They did the same for most of a generation.

To understand why, you have to understand the uneasy world we Baby Boomers shared with protagonist Holden Caulfield—no more terrifying than this one, but maybe a bit weirder because everybody was so intent on creating an illusion of regularity and safety. Our parents had kept Hitler and Emperor Hirohito from our shores, but now The Bomb defied armies and oceans. Our country was in what seemed like an endless war to contain the Communist Menace; meanwhile, unpleasant men with five-o’clock shadow tried to root the Reds out of our own society. It was important to keep reality at bay: Body odor of any kind was our enemy, euphemism was king, bellies were girdled, and heaven forbid that women’s breasts should sag or wobble or look anything like actual breasts.

Then along came Holden, a kindly, befuddled teenager trying desperately not to become a “phony” like the adults and most of the other adolescents in his world. He swears, drinks, and thinks a lot about sex—and of course real kids never did any of that. About to be kicked out of his umpty-umpth prep school, he sets out for a picaresque couple of days in New York City, its wet, cold streets teeming with pimps and whores and barflies and would-be pederasts.

The story’s told first person, from the mental hospital where Holden ends up. You don’t know what will happen to him—maybe he’ll avoid phonyhood, but maybe he won’t. The reason we care so much is Holden’s voice, because he’s us. Nowadays, we’re used to a narrator talking the way we do, with all the halts and repetitions and verbal ticks of real life. Back in the Sixties, when I first met Holden, his voice was a revelation. It was like reading somebody’s actual diary, except the writer was brilliant at story-telling.

I knew Holden was me and I was Holden. I suspect that at least three-quarters of the audience at Woodstock had exactly the same experience.

I’m not saying there would have been no hippies or back-to-the-landers or lifelong Democrats without Holden—there were plenty of other factors at work. All I’m saying is that I’m grateful Holden was there when I needed him, grateful my parents bought that book (and Updike and Cheever) even though it contributed to their daughter’s headlong flight from their lifestyle—and even though the climate of the times was such that my town’s school board banned THE SCARLET LETTER. (As Holden would say: Really. They really did.)

I’m grateful no one prevented my parents from letting me read whatever I wanted. Happy belated Banned Book Week, Holden.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

August was such pandemonium that I didn't even post a review. But I did manage to read, because otherwise what is life? And now it's September, and our world begins to creep back toward normal. An excellent time for a good book, right?

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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
By Stieg Larsson
Translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland
Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2010

This review will be short, because I am TERRIFIED that I’m going to spoil the book for someone. And it’s idiotic that I’m reviewing this at all, considering that I did the first two books a year ago.

On the other hand, the third book of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is the best of the lot, and that’s saying something.

It’s significant that my partner Rob, an avid but normally disciplined reader, totally lost it on this one. Usually he reads for an hour before going to sleep, and it takes him ages to get through a book. I think he finished this one in three days. I arrived home from a day out Sunday to find Mr. Workaholic Painter hunched over the dining room table in the twilight, having been frozen in exactly that place and position since lunchtime. Dinner had consisted of a cheese sandwich. He was 20 pages from the end, and if I had anything to tell him about my day he didn’t want to hear it.

Since you’re obviously a person who reads book reviews, you already know that Larsson is the Swedish investigative reporter, magazine editor, and anti-fascist who died shortly after handing his publisher these three manuscripts. The three were supposed to be the start of a ten-book series, but I’m happy to report that HORNET’S NEST does come to a reasonable conclusion and is not a cliff-hanger. (That was my biggest fear.)

To answer the other question I’ve been hearing, yes, you do have to read the first two first, otherwise this one will make no sense whatsoever. I even had to go back and read the end of the second book just to get my head in the right place. (Maybe that’s a criticism of Larsson’s recapping techniques, or maybe I was just impatient.)

In a Swedish-English translation by Reg Keeland, whose name is on the flyleaf but not the cover, the book is a pleasure to read for the careful language as well--slightly Swedish in flavor (at least to American eyes) but colloquial and unobtrusive.

The weird thing is that this is by no means your typical suspense thriller. Unlike the first two books, which involve the usual amount of people tiptoeing around, getting caught, getting beat up and killed, racing around in mechanized vehicles, and all the rest, this one consists almost entirely of people talking to one another, standing in the shadows watching one another walk around, and using technology to snoop on each other. And yet it’s every bit as exciting as the car chase in “The French Connection.” (Yeah, that’s right, I’m dating myself. Wanna make something out of it?)

Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist return as targets and collaborators, although I don’t think they’re physically in the same room at any time during the action. He is the investigative journalist whose poking around got things moving two books ago. She is the deeply damaged, anti-social, gorgeously goth professional computer hacker Blomkvist brought in to help him in the first book. Over the course of the second, her mysterious past began to take over the story. In this book, it IS the story.

I won’t go into detail, but we find out in this book that every scrap of the abuse Lisbeth suffered in childhood happened for a reason. That reason has national implications in Sweden, and its unraveling is a terrifying example of how fragile democracy can be. Watching how it unravels—who works together, what Mikael and Lisbeth accomplish together and separately—is the most literary satisfaction I’ve experienced since I watched Frodo and friends retake the Shire back in high school.

If this book has a flaw, it’s the same as the first book’s: The main plot concludes with loose ends dangling, and for that reason the book goes on for forty pages beyond what feels like finis. On the other hand, you’re reluctant to let go of Lisbeth, and you know this is the last you’ll see of her. So you’re really not inclined to complain.

Rest in peace, Stieg Larsson. But not for too long—I’m hoping for reincarnation.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Series of Vapid Excuses

So, I haven't been blogging. Again. This is because I am a very busy woman.

I have been:

Growing flowers. And then looking at them, which is even more time consuming.

Taking pictures of other people's flowers so I can look at them later.

Taking pictures of other people taking pictures of other people's flowers to look at them later.
(That's my friend Larry, visiting in June.)

WHAAAT? How did that get in there? How dare you imply that I just...

Now, wait just a gol-durned ... *Hits blog upside the head.*

Okay, that's better.

Actually, that's a picture of one of the summer's early triumphs: My 20-month-old Sears Kenmore vacuum cleaner, whose motor pooched this spring. Since my last Kenmore lasted 18 years, I wanted Sears to fix this one for free; Sears's best offer, after considerable to-ing and fro-ing with various customer service reps, was to pay half.

Then I found out that Maine has a consumer protection law that imposes a four-year "implied warranty" in cases like this. The last of the reps told me he wasn't equipped to deal with that news and I'd have to contact the corporate offices in Illinois. He declined to suggest any particular person or department, just gave me the overall mailing address and said,"anyone there can help you."

So I chose the CEO.

And this turned out to be a good choice, because I got a personal letter of apology from Interim CEO W. Bruce Johnson and a call from the executive offices arranging to fix the vaccuum cleaner for free. I have it back now, and it works like a charm. And I have to say I'm glad, because it's the best designed of all I checked out while I was waiting to hear from Mr. Johnson.

Now, what else have I been doing? Writing every day. Dealing with the Brooklin Youth Corps and its usual summertime ups and downs. Going through the last phases of production on SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS (out January 20) and developing a proposal for a next book. Preparing for a panel discussion July 25 at Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, NH.

And feeling guilty about not blogging, which mostly means wondering why anyone would want to read a blog by me anyway.

Really, I've been working very, very hard.


I hate it when a blog goes rogue.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

July Book Review

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@Barrie Summy

Hear that crinkling sound? That’s me, turning over yet another New Leaf. From now on, instead of waiting for the Perfect Blog Post to wander in and crawl up my leg, I will simply Post. Oh, the excitement.

I bet you don’t believe me. Such a skeptical world this has become.

Anyway, what better time to start than with the monthly Book Review Club? (Which, oddly, appears exactly one month after my last post—thank you, Barrie Summy, for making sure I at least do this much.) Don’t forget to click on the icon to find this month’s other reviews.

A Murderous Procession
By Ariana Franklin
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010

Sicilian pathologist Adelia Aquilar is an anomaly in 1176 England—a college-educated feminist, and a practicing doctor schooled in the forbidden art of autopsy. She is, therefore, utterly unbelievable. And I don’t care.

A MURDEROUS PROCESSION is the fourth book in Ariana Franklin’s “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, which follows Adelia from her arrival in England to help Henry II find out who’s murdering Cambridge’s children and blaming it on the Jews. She’s always homesick for Salerno, where her foster father is a Jewish doctor who has no objection to his wife and daughter following the same profession. In England, the role of women is such that she can only escape a witchcraft accusation if her Arab servant/mentor/friend, Mansur, pretends to be an Arabic-speaking doctor while she “interprets.” But she’s a talented forensic pathologist, and Henry won’t let her go home. By the second book she has tied herself to England further by acquiring a lover and a daughter.

This fourth book sends Adelia, Mansur, and the lover (I won’t say who he is in case you want to start the series at the beginning) traipsing through Europe as part of a royal procession accompanying Henry II’s eleven-year-old daughter, Joanna, to her wedding with the King of Sicily. Along the way, it becomes apparent that an old enemy of Adelia’s is also part of the procession and is plotting a gruesome revenge.

I adore these books, despite the odds. Okay, it’s a stretch that a twelfth-century woman would be quite as enlightened and accomplished as Adelia. (Although Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s queen, would have kicked butt in any era.) Yeah, her lover is too consistently open-minded. And yes, it’s weird that a woman as smart as Adelia would be quite so stupid about religion, politics, and her own safety—the factors that keep getting her into trouble. It’s even a little hard to believe that Henry II would have so much work to offer a Sicilian woman doctor, no matter how talented.

But, oh, the medieval world! The details about food, clothing, daily life, travel, religion, politics, world view, and on and on! Franklin knows this era inside and out, and paints it in rich colors that seem true to life. Even Adelia and friends ring true, with suspension of disbelief.

The medieval world was equal parts erudition and ignorance, sophistication and credulity, restriction and freedom, comfort and misery, religious certainty and fear of damnation. Franklin weaves it all into a living, moving tapestry, as real as your foot. And she does it with humor—Henry’s a hoot (as he always is, especially when he’s Peter O’Toole), as are most of the characters burdened with testosterone. Adelia is exasperatingly, comedically befuddled when her status as a woman interferes with her medical practice. Supporting characters add deadpan humor without a modern author’s usual condescension toward “the Dark Ages.”

And there’s more than a touch of terror, appropriate to a time of hellfire and gargoyles. Franklin is capable of truly horrifying villains and means of murder. For sheer gruesomeness, there’s little to top the fate of Henry II’s Fair Rosamund in THE SERPENT’S TALE, a couple of books back.
In the current episode, we are privy to the villain’s thoughts, and therefore see devastation on the horizon when no one else does. You know a book has you by the gizzard when your brain screams, “No! No! Get out of there!”

It’s summertime. You don’t have much disbelief on hand right now anyway. So suspend it and enjoy.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

June Book Review

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@Barrie Summy

I was tempted to post something called "Check in here for all your bad-blogger excuses." But it's Book Review Club time, so I won't bore you with my tales of woe. Just as a hint: They involve spider mites, organic fertilizer, and Sears Roebuck & Co.

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Just Kids
By Patti Smith
HarperCollins, 2010

They were kids, sure, but there was no “just” about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

“Why can’t I write something that would awaken the dead?” Smith asks at the end of this absorbing, gut-wrenching memoir. She can’t do it for herself—all she has left of her friend and soul mate is a lock of his hair, mementoes, and photographs. But for us she has re-awakened both Mapplethorpe and the time he inhabited.

Smith is most famous as a punk-rock star, but she also has published five books of poetry and shown drawings, silk screens and photographs. In 2005, the French Republic named her Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. Mapplethorpe’s beautiful, raw photographs were among the work targeted for indecency by Sen. Jesse Helms and others out to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts. That was in 1989, the year Mapplethorpe died of AIDS.

More than half of Smith’s book is devoted to five years when she and Mapplethorpe were a couple and barely scraping together enough money for art supplies. Those were dogged, creative, reckless, brave years, described with tenderness and essential honesty, although probably artistic license too.

Smith and Mapplethorpe met on the streets of New York in 1967, the Summer of Love. Smith was twenty, a middle-class, Rimbaud-loving Jersey girl who’d gotten pregnant, given the child up for adoption, and dropped out of teachers’ college to head for Manhattan and the world. (“Nobody expected me. Everything awaited me.”) Mapplethorpe, also twenty, had grown up on Long Island, loved making necklaces, and was determined to be famous, most likely for his art.

Their meeting and first years together embody both the innocence and the decadence of the Sixties, as well as the crazy courage of youth. Smith landed in New York with not a penny to her name, and survived her first days there by learning to dumpster-dive and sleep on somebody’s front stoop. She landed a cashier’s job at Brentano’s, and while she waited for her first paycheck she slept on her coat in the store and trolled other employees’ coat pockets for change. Mapplethorpe was hardly better off, although cannier.

They became a couple the night they met, and stayed that way, more or less, even after he’d discovered, wrenchingly for a Catholic boy, that he was gay. Together, they survived increasingly dire living circumstances and poverty so intense that a day’s single meal sometimes consisted of day-old cookies from a friendly bakery. Over time, Smith became the chief wage-earner, adept at peddling flea-market finds on the rare-book circuit in addition to her bookstore work. Mapplethorpe worked odd jobs but also turned tricks, as much for self-immolation as for wages.

All the while, they were making art in a vibrant city, surrounded by other artists. One time, when a local automat raised the price of a sandwich by a dime Smith didn’t have, the poet Allen Ginsburg bought it for her and shared her table, thinking she was an exceptionally pretty boy. Eventually, Smith and Mapplethorpe landed at the Chelsea Hotel, rubbing elbows with the up-and-coming artists, writers and musicians of the day. Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and Jimi Hendrix frequented the bar off the lobby.

Mapplethorpe found his medium, photography. Smith, to her astonishment, began to transform her poems into songs. They drifted apart as a couple, and both found other mates. But they always remained touchstones, muses, and alter-egos.

Others have written of those times and similar journeys. What makes the difference here is the unembellished rhythm of Smith’s prose, her deadpan sense of humor, her erudition, and her unflinching sense of truth—all the more endearing when she mixes in a certain amount of myth. (Was she really the first to call Janis Joplin “Pearl”? Who cares?) She may be more honest than she wanted to be—Mapplethorpe, her “youth cloaked in light,” comes across as a self-obsessed hustler as well as an artistic genius.

“Nobody sees as we do, Patti,” Mapplethorpe tells Smith during the Chelsea years. Self-aggrandizing, sure, especially in that environment. But probably not far from the truth.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

May Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

For some reason, I've been thinking about the summers of my youth this week, possibly because spring is so early that it sets me apart from time. Anyway, I was remembering the utter joy of wandering to the bookstore at the end of the street, babysitting money jingling in my pocket, to find that they'd gotten in a Georgette Heyer paperback I'd never read. So I decided that this month's Book Review Club entry would be one of those blissful, now dog-eared early paperbacks.

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The Grand Sophy
By Georgette Heyer

For a long time, many of us who were Georgette Heyer fans kept quiet about it. Her books are, after all, romance novels, even though they rival David McCullough for historical accuracy.

For whatever reason, we’re coming out of the closet in droves these days. Reprints abound, most of them with classy-looking art on the covers that’s a far cry from the cheesy bodice-ripper covers of my youth.

Georgette Heyer wrote more than 50 novels between 1921 and her death in 1974. Some of them were mysteries or historical novels about other eras—her accounts of the battles of Hastings and Waterloo are universally respected. But it was her Regency England novels that won the hearts of generations.

Like Jane Austen’s books about the same era, the plots acknowledge one central truth: In the early 1800s, upper- class women (and men, for that matter) had little choice but to marry well. Sometimes Heyer’s heroines are forthright about their goals, setting out for the London season determined to find a husband who can mend the fortunes of an impecunious family. Sometimes other concerns are paramount: saving a sister’s honor or solving a mystery. But the need for a good match is always at least an undercurrent, and the happy ending always unites man, woman, and bank balance, with a title thrown in sometimes just for kicks.

Some Heyer heroines have beauty on their side, but many don’t. What they all have is intelligence, wit, and heart, and it’s those qualities that win the day for them.

THE GRAND SOPHY was written in 1950, and was my first Heyer novel. (That’s its raggedy self in the photo at right.) I think I bought my paperback edition in high school through the Scholastic book club. Since it was the 1960s, the cover copy describes Sophy as “beautiful, gay, impulsive, [and] shockingly direct,” which is at least one-third horse-pucky. Here’s how Heyer describes her: Sophy would never be a beauty. She was by far too tall: nose and mouth were both too large; and a pair of expressive gray eyes could hardly be held to atone entirely for these defects.

Sophy Stanton-Lacy is an anomaly: Her mother is dead and her father, a British diplomat in the Napoleonic era, has hauled her around Europe all her life, sometimes in the thick of war. She’s been his hostess for years, so she knows her way around a glittering dinner table, but she also rides like a trooper, drives to an inch, and carries a tiny but serviceable pistol in her reticule.

Her father is off to South America, and it’s time for Sophy to make a good match. So she lands at her aunt's house in stuffy London with a Paris wardrobe, a stunning horse, a parrot, a monkey, a wicked sense of humor, and a ruthless talent for meddling in other people’s lives. Watching her set her unwitting relatives’ affairs to rights—while coming to identify the desires of her own heart—is a pleasure unmatched in English literature.

Like Austen, Heyer finds her humor chiefly in secondary characters, a roster of pompous society idiots whom Anne Elliot would recognize in a heartbeat. In THE GRAND SOPHY, there’s a high-bred society prude, a handsome but vapid poet, and a hypochondriacal mama’s boy who drones on and on about his one adventure, a trip to Jamaica.

“Another interesting tree to be found in Jamaica,” said his lordship, “is the balata. We have also the rosewood, the ebony, the lignum vitae—“

“The northern parts of Spain,” said Sophy defiantly, “are more remarkable for the many variety of shrubs which grow there, including what we call the jarales, and the ladanum bush, and—and— Oh, there is Lord Francis! I shall have to put you down, Lord Bromford!”
[She’s driving him in the park.]

Heading up the plus side of the ledger are Sophy’s dashing but ill-tempered cousin, Charles, who’s engaged to the prude; his gorgeous and good-hearted sister, Cecelia, who’s engaged to the poet; and the quiet, intelligent gentleman whose marriage offer Cecelia had been ordered to accept before she met the poet.

You pretty much know how all the matches are going to work out well in advance, but you can’t for the life of you imagine how Heyer’s going to make that happen. Never fear: She’d been writing these things for a quarter of a century at this point, and probably came up with intricate plot solutions in her sleep.

Whether it’s for escapism or the thrill of watching a pro at work, try this Georgette Heyer or any of them. Quick, while we’re out of the closet.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Yes. Well. Another month, another set of blogging excuses. Turning over a new leaf I am, that I am, yup.

Speaking of leaves...after several years of hemming and hawing (and not sawing), we have finally committed mass-arbicide. The spruce trees around here are all dying a slow death, partly from age but also because the warmer winters aren't killing off fungi and other pests the way they used to. After the Death of the Green Monster, we revisited our concerns about the two clusters of spruces on the two north corners of the house. Actually, we were less concerned about them falling--a hazard mainly to shingles and windows--and more concerned about them catching fire if the weather got dry (a hazard to pretty much everything).

And so it was that the talented Jon Ellsworth came by with chainsaw and orange wedges, and showed us how it's done. I lost count of how many trees he cut down--fifteen or sixteen, anyway--and all but one of them fell precisely where he intended. The one that got away had been half broken off in the Green Monster Death Storm, and therefore was weighted funny. And even it fell almost where intended.

Here's the before and after:

Sad, huh? On the more positive side, the garden in the back thinks it's achieved sunshine nirvana.

Having sweated through many tree-cutting adventures on our own, Rob and I were fascinated to see how precision logging works--especially on the trees closest to the house, which had disturbed even Jon's sleep the night before. (The process might not be quite so fascinating if you haven't come this close to offing your deck and smashing a kitchen window. Bear with me here, OK?)

First, the familiar: Jon (left) and Rob set up a safety rope with a come-along to coax the tree in the right direction in case of emergency. We've done this before on big trees, and it does relax the nerves.

Jon makes the first cut, facing where he wants the tree to drop. I was taking this picture standing on the deck, to give you an idea of the stakes here.

Then he makes another cut on the opposite side and hammers in wedges. Sometimes, hammering in the wedges was enough to force the tree over.

The final cut ...

... and, seconds later, TIMBERRRR--away from the house, and right between the garden and the baby pine we were hoping to save. (Which would have gotten flattened if we'd done this ourselves, I guarantee.)

It was a pretty slick operation. Jon would drop a tree, the wade in and slice off all the branches. Rob and I would haul the brush out of the way on one side of the house while Jon got busy cutting down another tree on the other side. Jon was on hand for a total of six hours, which I think works out to dropping a tree every 22 minutes. You should see how long it takes us to do one on our own.

We are now the proud owners of many piles of logs and a brush pile the size of a school bus. Rob, being certifiable, has decided to use some of the logs to build an Adirondack shelter that will function as a tool shed. That meant peeling the bark off the logs, a chore we've managed to avoid in the 25 years since we abandoned our initial plan of moving to Maine and building a log cabin. (We were going to live in a tent while building. And may I just say... hah. Hah-hah. Hah-hah-hah. Thank you.)

Turns out if the tree is old and newly felled, peeling the bark is a piece of cake. (I speak as one who in childhood always peeled off chocolate frosting and ate it first.) Here's Rob at work: Starting the peel with a draw-knife at left, then peeling.

You will note that my participation in this phase was limited to taking pictures. I've learned something in 25 years.