Thursday, May 31, 2007

May Reads

I know I don't have enough data points to make any sweeping statements about averages, but it seems like six books a month is a reasonable estimate. On a good weekend, I can read a book in a day. So that's a minimum of four books a month. Certainly seems that I can find the time to read two more in a month.

This month, I stuck to mysteries. It just worked out that way. Writer-me is interested in learning more about plotting and you can't beat mysteries for that.

"The Power of Three" - Laura Lippman

Summary: Josie, Perri, and Kat were best friends from third grade until their senior year in high school, when Perri became withdrawn and moody. On the final day of school, one of them brings a gun and after a confrontation in the bathroom, one girl is dead and two are wounded, one seriously. How did it all go so wrong.

Grade: A+

Reason: Yes, my love affair with Laura Lippman continues. I think I've exhausted her supply of stand-alone books and I'm wary of blundering into the middle of her Tess Monaghan series. I love Lippman's style, which is very visual and compelling. She creates vivid characters and puts them in interesting situations.

"The Survivors Club" - Lisa Gardiner

Summary: The three women came together for support as victims of the same rapist. When that rapist is killed walking into the courthouse for his trial, they quickly become the main suspects in his murder.

Grade: A

Reason: Strong characters in a well-written plot with enough twists to keep you guessing for a good while.

"Dead Past"- Beverly Connor

Summary: Diane Fallon, head of the crime lab in a small southern town, must tackle her most difficult case yet. A meth lab explodes in a house, killing 30 college kids who were there for a party. Diane and her team must sift through the evidence to try to determine who was involved. As they work, their suspects start to get murdered.

Grade: D

Reason: I bought this book as part of a 3 for 2 deal at the airport bookstore. I don't think it was even my scroungy third choice - the summary, first page, and the fact that this is the woman's fourth book suckered me in. The writing was stiff and stilted with too many irrelevant details stuffed in for good measure. The characters don't even rise to the level of cardboard cutouts. I know - why did I keep reading? Because it's her fourth book, I kept expecting it to get better. I was so wrong.

"The Caller" - Alex Barclay

Summary: Detective Joe Lucchesi is back in NYC, where he and his family are trying to put their lives back together after a distressing year in Ireland in which they were stalked by a killer. In NY, things aren't much better as Joe becomes the lead investigator on a vicious murder case.

Grade: A

Summary: The first 30 pages or so were rough to read. The writing and the story seemed a bit jerky, like they weren't quite oiled yet. But then the story hits its stride and I didn't want to put the book down. The characters are what make this book - the plot seems like it might have a few holes, but I wo uld have to re-read it to be sure. It might have just been that I was rushing to find out what was going to happen.

"Alone" - Lisa Gardiner

Summary: Police sniper Bobby Dodge is involved in what looks like a righteous shooting - a domestic disturbance in which a husband was about to shoot his wife. But were things really as they seemed? The father of the dead husband, a powerful judge, believes that the shooting was staged by his son's vindictive wife and he will stop at nothing to prove his case.

Grade: A

Reason: In a way, this book could have been ruined for me. I inadvertantly read "Hide" first, which also features Bobby Dodge and a few other characters from "Alone." Unfortunately, "Hide" also reveals all of the plot twists in the previous book. But the writing was so good and the story so compelling, I was able to put aside what I knew and just enjoy the ride.

"Sunstroke" - Jesse Kellerman

Summary: Gloria Mendez, a 36 year old woman, has nutured a crush on her boss Carl, a soft-spoken man 20 years her senior. When Carl vanishes on a trip to Mexico, Gloria feels that she must unravel the mystery.

Grade: A+

Reason: I resisted reading this book for at least a year because I was suspicious, as Jesse's parents are Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, both bestselling authors. (I've read pretty much every Jonathan Kellerman book out there - Faye's stuff is not really my thing.) I'm so glad I stumbled across the book in the library. I can't say enough good things about the book - the imagery and the character development are especially fantastic. The plot has a lot of momentum and I really want to read the book again to figure out how the author manages to maintain momentum when his character is just thinking.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sound Memories

The sense of smell is able to evoke such vivid memories, there is even a name for it - the Proustian Phenomena. If I get even half a whiff of mothballs, I remember being in Nana Dogs' dark basement, rummaging through a barrel filled with my dad's old toys and sports equipment, looking for treasures (like the ventriloquist's dummy or the floppy rubber dog hand puppet).

I've been thinking lately that certain music has a nearly overwhelming turbo-charged memory effect. I'm not talking about remembering obscure things, like hearing Van Morrison's “Gloria”and remembering watching The Outsiders or hearing Bowie's “Rebel, Rebel”and expecting to hear Eamon Dunphy's gravelly voice giving a preview of the Newstalk's morning show. I'm also not talking about memories of general activities or incidents, like “Sister Christian” reminding me of dancing with the Gerbil Eater or “It's the End of the World as We Know It” reminding me of the hot summer night that my brother and I had a contest to see who could write down all the words first. (I won. And no, Shane, it's not because you're dumb. It's because I'm a freak.)

I'm talking about how a song can transport me to a specific time and place. It's as though I'd just been dropped into the middle of a photograph. The feeling is so vivid, I expect my surroundings to morph to match my memory.

Here are my best songs for this time-traveling trick. I hope my words do the memories justice.

Modest Mouse – "Ocean Breathes Salty"
I'm walking down Farnham Lane, a beautiful street in Wheaton. It's lined with trees, the canopy of branches meeting in the middle of the road. In the summer, you can walk the length of the road and never step into sunlight. It's winter and everything is blanketed with heavy snow that clings to the trees. The sun comes out and the whole street sparkles. This is a happy memory – I'm walking home from the horse barn, tired but contented after spending a morning working with the horses.

Interpol – "Evil"
I'm sitting on the top deck of the #7 Dublin Bus. It's a dark, damp, winter morning and condensation is forming on the bus window, blurring the view. I'm doing contract work and I'm dreading going in to struggle with obtuse software. I dread just walking into the building because its lobby holds three blotchy art photographs that make me feel like I am drowning. Just sitting on the bus, thinking about going into that building and seeing those photographs makes me feel like I am drowning. I went through this every morning, but Interpol songs, especially this one, makes me remember and relive it.

Simon and Garfunkel – "The Boxer"
When I used to run 5-K and 10-K races regularly, I had a ritual of making a mix tape to use for pacing during the race. The making of the mix tape was art and science – designed to get me through the race. For a 10-K, I needed Start songs (happy pop songs for the first three miles), Build-Up songs (longer and slower but still inspiring for miles four through five and a half), and Big Finish songs (the hardest, fastest, angriest songs I could find for the last mile).

"The Boxer" was one of my favourite Build-Up songs and it always lands me in the middle of my first 10-K – the Lincoln Park Run for the Zoo. It's an early morning in June and I've been having a tough race – I didn't know if I could do the distance and a cramp in the first two miles made me want to drop out. I kept going, putting one foot in front of the other, sweat pouring off me, the humidity like a damp wool blanket on my shoulders. "The Boxer" comes on and I perk up, knowing it's the last Build-Up song and it will prepare me for the Big Finish.

The song does not disappoint. My runner's high kicks in around my favourite part of the song:

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders of every glove that laid him down or cut him
til he cried out in his anger and his shame
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains

The Arcade Fire – "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)"
I'm unpacking the kitchen of our house in the Middle of Nowhere, West Cork. Peter is still up in Dublin and we don't have Toby yet. I listen to The Arcade Fire obsessively throughout this period because it perfectly suits my mood – alone but only slightly lonely, not exactly depressed but a bit unmoored. I'm excited about my new opportunities, but I'm uncertain about how to live in this new world. When I hear this song, I can feel the rough packing paper giving way to the smooth ceramic of our good dinner plates. My mood can best be described as pensive in the Merriam Webster's second definition sense.

Thin Lizzy – "Whiskey in the Jar"
When I was on my solo tour of Ireland in 1995, my big luxury purchase was a Walkman and two tapes – Thin Lizzy's “Dedication”and the soundtrack for In the Name of the Father. This song was on both tapes, so I heard it a lot for a month. The memory it evokes is standing on the beach on Inish Oirr, folding up my jeans and wading into the water. The tide is coming in and the sun is shining. It's unusually warm for Ireland. I haven't talked to anyone all day – it's that kind of place – and I feel like I'm on the edge of the world. I'm happy though – I feel free and unburdened and I enjoy the sun and the water. The Bob Marley song “Is This Love”has the same effect on me.

Led Zepplin – "D'Yer Maker"
When I was a junior and senior in high school, my first real boyfriend, the first boy I ever kissed, lived on the East Side (Capital-E, Capital-S) . He was super-cute, but annoyingly lazy, and wasn't pushed about getting a driver's license. My parents would only let me drive on the highway in the daylight, so we had a lot of Saturday or Sunday afternoon dates.

I had a mix tape I used to listen to when I was driving over to his house and it included "D'Yer Maker", a song my brother got me listening to. I couldn't tell you what else was on that tape. But when I hear this song, I think of being in the Pontiac Bonneville, a big old boat of a car that I called Clifford the Big Red car. I'm a little bit nervous about merging from I-480 onto I-271, but other than that, this ride is all about freedom. The song only reminds me of driving there. I don't have any recollections of driving home.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Mother of All Melt-Downs

Happy Mother's Day, to those of you in the States who are mothers. The "holiday" is celebrated over here in March, so the day totally snuck up on me. I am completely unmoored from the calendar that I grew up with - Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving. It's like I can forget they ever existed.

As I get older, Mother's Day becomes an emotional minefield. I don't have any children and I vacillate over that predicament like a weather vane in a tornado - swinging rapidly from wistful and yearning to happy and accepting. Most days, I am quite happy with the way things are, but some days are tough. Last year, watching my niece celebrate her sixth birthday with 15 giggling, screechy little girls, I thought my heart might burst from the longing.

But a few weeks later, while babysitting the same niece and explaining that I needed 10 minutes to just relax before playing the next bizarrely complicated and overly regulated pretending game, I was relieved that I didn't have to deal with children on a daily basis. Days like that make me wonder if I have it in me. I am actually a bit frightened of infants. If one could give birth to a five-year old, I might be willing to give it a go, but the thought of going through night-feedings, then teething, then the Roman-Emperor phase of toddlerhood makes me think that maybe we should just stick to raising dogs.

Last year, to celebrate Mother's Day, Peter's parents, brother and sister-in-law, and the two of us went out to lunch at a really swish hotel in Dublin. It was the sort of place where the tables are blanketed with silverware and the menu is full of terrine of this and confit of that. In short, it was the sort of place that makes me break out in a cold sweat because as soon as the waiter comes by, everyone will know that I am an unsophisticated rube who doesn't drink wine, is afraid of mushrooms, won't eat anything that swims, and will only eat meat that has been processed entirely out of all recognition.

An Taoiseach and his family were dining a few tables away. There was also a woman at the next table who had to be an Irish model, but, since I am not a reader of the Sunday Independent, I couldn't tell you which one. (Nor would I want to be able to.) Her baby daughter was with her, dressed in an immaculate cute dress, and I had to wonder how the woman kept the child so clean while managing to find the time to dress herself up and slather on several coats of make-up. I'm sure there were other Irish-famous people there (Irish-famous being completely different than regular famous) but I was too busy reminding myself "Silverware: Start from the outside and work your way in" to celebrity search.

For whatever bizarre quirk of biology and emotion, I was feeling horribly wistful and yearning for a child. Ordinarily, I try to keep these thoughts and feelings to myself. In the 12 years we have been together, Peter's feeling on parenthood has gone from completely oppossed to being willing to discuss it at some long-distant point when we have ourselves established in what we want to do. Usually, I am quite happy to defer thinking about or discussing this touchy topic. But on this day, the emotional bit of me overwhelmed the logical bit and in the car on the way to lunch, I had blurted out a difficult and awkward question - will I ever be someone's mother?

Understandably, Peter was not eager to open that particular can of worms, not in the car, not on the way to a family lunch, not now. (I am very bad at choosing my moments, probably because I don't talk about things when they bother me so it all builds up and the top pops off at inopportune times.) He gently tabled the matter for later discussion and I'd managed to put the thoughts out of my head. Which was pretty easy to do, given how intimidated I was by the restaurant. Every ounce of concentration I had was being marshalled to allow me to make polite comversation whilst eating in a way that wouldn't make people wonder if I had been raised by wolves.

Near the end of the meal, one of the waiters came around and gave a lily to each woman at our table. I politely told the man that I wasn't a mother, so no thanks, but he was not to be fobbed off. His mission was to distribute the flowers and he insisted I take it. Feeling monumentally stupid, I did take it. But sitting there, it rapidly became clear that this was going to be the lily that broke the camel's back. I could feel the tears taking up the ready position and I didn't want to hang around for them to get the set....go command. I excused myself and headed for the bathroom where I locked myself in a cubicle and had a good long cry. Then I had to pull myself together and go out to smile my way through the rest of coffee and dessert.

I don't know why the day affected me so badly. I don't know why I didn't want that stupid flower. I just know that I had never felt so bad about the whole damn topic and, at least so far, I've not felt that bad since. I know exactly how old I am and I know about the risks and difficulties of having children as you get older. The thing is, I would have been a complete disaster as a mother if we'd had children when I was in my 20s. And how can I want something so badly one day and fear and dread the exact same thing a few days later? Until that feeling stabilises one way or the other, it seems best to err on the side of caution and try not to even think about children for now.

I made it through the rest of the lunch without incident. In the parking garage, I looked for the oldest, most beat up car I could find and then tucked the lily on its windscreen. I hoped that the owner of the car was a single woman with a pile of kids who was having to work on Mother's Day. Someone who deserved a token of the day.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Seven Things

I've always wanted to be tagged for something, so, thanks, Laurie, for giving me a reason to do a post. (In point of fact, I do have a post scribbled on a piece of scrap paper that I wrote last week at work while waiting for something to download on a very slow connection, but I've not yet managed to type it up yet.)

Thinking up seven interesting things that you don't know about me is pretty difficult, partly because I'm not really that interesting and partly because I'm fairly open about sharing online the neuroses that make for good answers to these sorts of challenges. we go.

1. I started cello lessons in fourth grade on a dare. The instrument was bigger than I was and the tallest boy in the class dared me to play it.

2. I love boats and swimming but I am terrified of the ocean. Wading into waves on the beach is fine. Being on a boat in the open water gives me the heebies.

3. I broke up with my first "boyfriend" after he told me, during a phone conversation, that he ate gerbils and worshipped the devil. I was in eighth grade at the time and the word boyfriend has to be used fairly loosely, as neither of us drove, we went to different schools, lived about 10 miles apart, and our only date was at a "Welcome Incoming Freshman Dance" at my high school.

4. The Gerbil Eater, as he came to be known, was not the first boy I ever kissed. That didn't happen until I was 16 and a half and a junior in high school.

5. My favourite sandwich is cheese and crisps on brown bread. You just can't beat the crunch.

6. Because of extensive orthodontia, I am missing 4 molars, all 4 wisdom teeth, and a small bone in the roof of my mouth.

7. My special talent is being able to find bathrooms. I can walk into a pub or hotel and locate the toilet instinctively.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Truer Words Were Never Spoken

So, Peter's started a new photography endeavour - two-day digital photography workshops in his studio in the Middle of Nowhere. On the first day of a workshop, Peter collects the student from a rental cottage about 2 miles away and then they go out for a photo shoot. After the photo shoot, it's back to our house for breakfast and then intensive work on the computer to process the images.

Yesterday, he had a student who was new to her camera and I think, to some extent, newish to computers. I guess Peter had used our regular (i.e. non-colour) printer to show her how to print from Lightbox. Thinking he'd try to fool me that evening (after the student was back at the cottage), he picked up the print out and showed it to me. It was just 4 images on a single A4 sheet.

"I'm going to start printing like this. I think there's a great opportunity for sales of these," said Peter.

I looked dubiously at the single flimsy sheet with its drab images. "You mean like sell at art fairs? I don't get it."

Peter smiled. "I was joking. I would have been really disappointed if you'd believed me."

"Well, they're images your student took. I was thinking maybe you meant you'd put together a brochure or something showing what students were able to produce after a morning spent in your brilliant class."

"Oh yeah," he said. "I'm definitely going to do that. I want people to look at the students' work and think 'hey, I could do that too.' "

"Well, sure. Anyone can take a photograph," I teased. This is a common art-snob reaction. Some people don't recognise photography as an art form because anyone can take pictures. People recognise their limitations when the artisic tool is a paint brush, but not when it's a camera.

"If they take a class with me, they can take a great photograph."

"Then how come I've never been able to take a decent photograph?"

"Because you don't listen."

I laughed for about two mintues straight, causing Peter to remark "We laugh because it's true." Indeed it is true. My dirty little secret is that for someone who spends 8 hours a day writing instructions, I am woeful at actually following them.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

April Reads

My reading, much like my blogging, slacked off a bit during April. I shudder to think what the May Reads post will look like next month - although I am guaranteed of having at least one book on it. (I love Bank Holiday weekends!)

"Turning Angel" by Greg Iles
Summary: After a beautiful and popular student from the local high school is found murdered in a creek, suspicion falls on her married boyfriend, the middle-aged town doctor. His childhood friend, feeling both shock at the circumstances and an overriding need to help his friend, struggles to find the truth.

Grade: B-

Reason: Solid and enjoyable for the first 60%, the book fell apart in the last 40%, taking bizarre turns down blind alleys in what I can only imagine was a struggle to find a satisfying but unexpected ending. Set in Natchez, MS, the book does have some interesting things to say about race and the South, but that social commentary was sometimes overblown and distracting.

"Death Dance" by Linda Fairstein
Summary: When a prima ballarina goes missing during a performance, only to be discovered dead within the building, DA Alex Cooper and her trusty detective friends Mercer and Wallace must try to unravel the mystery.

Grade: C-

Reason: I always really want to enjoy Fairstein's books, but I never do. (I know, I know - why do I keep reading them then?) I saw her speak when I was in law school (and she was still a prosecutor in NYC). She was an amazing, inspiring, dynamic woman - a modern-day sort of superhero almost. The trouble with her books is that they are overburdened with all of her insider knowledge. Even as an author, she can't stop pushing her cases. These stories would be fantastic in a memoir, but the slowdown the pace of her detective novels.

"Prior Bad Acts" by Tammi Hoag
Summary: The brutal torture and murders of Marlene Haas and her two foster children were the most brutal and horrific ever to hit the Twin Cities. The case left a string of broken people behind it - the Haas husband and son, the detective on the case, and the prosecutor. Judge Carey's ruling on the inadmissability of the defendant's prior bad acts starts a spiral of violence and retribution.

Grade: B

Reason: Good book - the B grade is only because the first few chapters were quite rocky and nearly put me off the book.

"What the Dead Know" by Laura Lippman
Summary: Two sisters disappeared from a mall in 1975. Not a trace or suspect were ever found. Then, 30 years later, a woman involved in a hit-and-run claims to be the younger sister. The book alternates between the past and present as the detectives attempt to figure out who exactly this woman is and what happened 30 years earlier.

Grade: A+

Reason: Fantastic. I am quite taken with Lippman's writing style. Although I had a good idea where the book was going, the details and resolution still managed to be surprising and satisfying.

"Dark Matter" by Greg Iles
Summary: Trinity was a secret government project to create the world's most advanced AI computer through reverse engineering. Using scans from a SuperMRI machine, the engineers were hoping to create a computer capable of personification. When the lead physicist dies under suspicious circumstances, the doctor assigned to monitor the project from an ethics standpoint must unravel the mystery, solve the problem of his hallucinations, and keep himself and his psychologist safe from NSA operatives who will go to any length to protect the project.

Grade: C+

Reason: A solid thriller, the book was slowed down by the interspersion of about 100 pages of boggy metaphysical musings.

"Hide" by Lisa Gardener
Summary: A woman who has spent her life on the run from her father's near-paranoia of a nebulous evil is drawn into a present day murder investigation.

Grade: A

Reason: Good, solidly written and thoroughly readable book. It alternates between first person (the woman) and third person limited (the investigator). The more crime ficiton I read, the more convinced I become that third person is really the way to tell those stories.

And now, my single non-mystery read of the month:

"Remind Me Again Why I Need a Man" by Claudia Carroll
Summary: Amelia is an attractive, intelligent woman with a great career and terrific friends. But, at 37 and still single, she would like to settle down with a good, decent man. When she finds an ad for an evening course that promises to have students walking down the aisle within 12 months, all by using the tried and true principles of Harvard's Business School, incuding "exit" interviews with ex-boyfriends to find out where things went wrong.

Grade: A-

Reason: I nearly gave up on this book in the first few chapters as there was a lot of information dumping going on. However, the character was compelling and spirited, so I stuck with it and felt greatly rewarded in the end. (Endings in chick lit that involve a woman looking for a man are notoriously difficult and emotionally laden - Carroll navigated this one with tremendous poise and character.)