Thursday, June 28, 2007

Well I'll be darned!

While everybody else in the kidlitosphere is bemoaning the fact that they've been received NC-17 and R ratings from the latest blog analysis system, for using terms like death, lesbian, gay, sex, I was deeply disturbed to find that my site earns a only G rating.

Online Dating

Mingle2 - Online Dating

Apparently I was only cited for one cautionary word, suck.

That sucks, doesn't it. I was tempted to throw in a whole lot of other gratuitous words just to bump up my rating, at least to PG-13 for God's sake (hey, did that earn me anything?).


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Cat Empire: Two Shoes are not enough

Those poor Genevians who witnessed me practicing musical phonetic punctuation the other day may have seen me dancing down the street the other day with a huge smile on my face. It's not my fault; I just downloaded an album by an Australian band called The Cat Empire, and if they don't make you want to move then you're dead.

This album, called Two Shoes, recorded in Cuba, is a blend of hip-hop, jazz with fantastic and occasional (but no less terrific) keyboards, Latin, and reggae--with smart lyrics sung in an endearing Australian accent.

Here's an excerpt from one of their songs, "Party Started,"

"Chillin in the sun
With tea and milk and honey
Tea and lamingtons
That’s my idea of fun
But I do enjoy the odd occasional bottle of rum
As we learnt in the songs that I have previously sung
When its done with fruit juice at a barbecue in the sun
If the afternoon is begun with kangaroo and capsicum."

Well anybody who can find a rhyme for "capsicum" is worth a listen, don't you think?

Even my newly-turned 14 year old son and his friend liked it! I'm telling you, these guys are great. It's not writing music, but it's music to celebrate by when you've finished writing a tough passage and you want to dance around your office. It's guaranteed to make you feel happy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Charity Girl

I just finished reading the terrific historical novel Charity Girl, by Michael Lowenthal. During World War I, thirty thousand women were rounded up on suspicion of transmitting venereal diseases to soldiers. More than fifteen thousand, found to have sexually transmitted diseases, were detained for months at a time. Some of these women were prostitutes, although many were arrested for the "crime" of dressing too provocatively or being in the wrong neighborhood without an escort. They were sent to dozens of detention homes (many of them former brothels) across the country where they were subjected to hard labor, terrible humiliations, and forced medical treatment.

Lowenthal imagines a 17 year old Jewish girl from Boston, Frieda Mintz, who escapes her emotionally abusive mother and the prospect of an arranged marriage with a man twice her age to work as a bundle wrapper in a Boston department store. She falls in love and spends an impulsive night with Felix Morse, a U.S. Army private. Unfortunately, he give her more than love; when he tests positive for syphilis, he names Frieda. She is fired from her job and sent to a rural detention center.

On his website, Lowenthal writes that he spent a year researching this book, and it shows. He marries his extraordinary writing abilities with historical detail to create a story that really pops off the page. Here's a section from the scene where Felix takes Frieda to a baseball game:
Frieda munched nut after nut, cracking the next before she'd downed the last, for their flavor and because she hadn't eaten since her gumdrop snack at noon. As she gorged she read the advertisements that covered the park's far wall. Whiskey, razor blades, gasoline. Every homer wins a Delano hat! This was clearly a venue in which to persuade men to buy things. A place where men went weak and could be swayed. She was just one of just half a dozen girls in the whole section. On all sides, row after row of derby hats, like the keys of a huge Underwood typewriter. (Charity Girl, p. 53)
See what I mean? Read it for yourself. It's an adult novel, although it features a teenage character and I would recommend it to any high school reader.

Oh, and did I mention that Michael Lowenthal is one of the writing instructors in Lesley's MFA program (as well as at Boston College) and that he's a real mensch?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Going digital

A while back, I wrote about doing a phone interview on Skype, using a program called Audio Hijack Pro to record the conversation. It worked beautifully; the sound quality was much better than I've ever gotten with a cassette recorder, and very easy to transcribe. Before, I transcribed my cassette tapes using one of those foot-operated transcribers, and I'm telling you it was no fun at all. Audio Hijack makes it easy to set up your computer to record and then, later, to transcribe. So when I was preparing for Naples, I wanted to avoid that dreaded tape recorder (and transcriber) if at all possible. So I broke down and bought an XtremeMac MicroMemo so that I could use my iPod to record the interview.

On the plus side: the recording quality was great. The surprise was that, starting with a nearly fully charge, I found that I was running on a very slim red line of power after only about 1.5 hours. I hadn't anticipated that recording an interview would suck so much power. Fortunately, we were just finishing up, so I didn't miss anything.

After the interview, all I had to do was download the voice memo to iTunes. From there, it will be easy to transcribe using my headphones. So long, cassette tapes and transcriber!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A rare moment of transcendence

Some of you may have noticed that this is the second shivasana-related post I have written lately. Not to worry. I had, for me anyway, an extraordinary experience at my yoga class today. After spending the initial minutes thinking about shaving my legs, and revising my manuscript, and whether someone at the yoga center might know where to find tofu in Geneva because we have a vegetarian visiting, and my sister and her family moving to Chicago, I was finally able to clear my head and This is hard for me to do.

I focused on my third eye and my breathing, and magically, something like a dark flower appeared in the middle of my forehead. It expanded to full bloom as I inhaled, and contracted to a bud as I exhaled. It may seem a small thing, but to me, it seemed like a real breakthrough. I can't pray anymore, at least not in any meaningful kind of way, and I miss that feeling of being connected with something greater. Not to get all New-Agey or anything, but this approaches the way I used to feel when I prayed. So.

The adorable picture, is from the all-too-addictive website I Can Has Cheezburger?. I can't really explain it, except to say that the invented grammar and language is part of the whole extended joke.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Volcano scientists update

I was fortunate to be able to interview Lucia Pappalardo and Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, of the Naples Vesuvius Observatory, for my upcoming volcano scientists book. They took me to visit a recently discovered bronze-age archaeological site discovered in Nola, a town near Naples. The village was buried nearly 4,000 years ago in an eruption of much greater magnitude than the one that buried Pompeii in 79 A.D.

They say that it should serve as a warning that a similarly catastrophic eruption could happen again. In fact, Giuseppe said that the chances of another eruption occurring in the coming year is around 50%. It would not necessarily be as big as the Bronze Age Avellinian catastrophe, but he did note that the most recent large eruptions have occurred in 2,000 year cycles.

They have criticized the civil authorities for not coming up with a plan to evacuate the 3 million people living in the area in the event of a similar eruption. This has obviously not endeared them to the developers, politicians, and civil authorities who have reasons (none of them scientific) for downplaying the risk of such a catastrophe.

Their paper was published in 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; you can read it online.

Anyway, it was a great interview; they were both charming and generous with their time. I wish I could meet all of my profile subjects in person. (Not to mention visit all of the volcano sites!)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Her heart's in the right place

Caitlin and her young charges gave themselves tattoos the other day. See how much she loves her mother? Awww...

See Naples and die

Vedi Napoli e poi Muori.

"See Naples and die" was coined during the reign of the Bourbons of Naples, according to the first link that came up when I googled the phrase. It means that before you die you must experience the beauty and magnificence of Naples. Having recently returned from Naples, I guess I can die now, although I'm not eager to do so. Perhaps I should have postponed my trip a little longer. But I loved, loved Naples, in all of its run-down, grimy, chaotic glory. In many ways it is Geneva's opposite. If Geneva is the clean, law-abiding, orderly, and somewhat boring child, Naples is its naughty but infinitely more charming sibling.

Mark Twain had something to say about Naples, of course, in The Innocents Abroad (1869).

"See Naples and die." Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently...The streets are generally about wide enough for one wagon, and how they do swarm with people! It is Broadway repeated in every street, in every court, in every alley! Such masses, such throngs, such multitudes of hurrying, bustling, struggling humanity! We never saw the like of it, hardly even in New York, I think. There are seldom any sidewalks, and when there are, they are not often wide enough to pass a man on without caroming on him. So everybody walks in the street--and where the street is wide enough, carriages are forever dashing along. Why a thousand people are not run over and crippled every day is a mystery that no man can solve. But if there is an eighth wonder in the world, it must be the dwelling-houses of Naples. I honestly believe a good majority of them are a hundred feet high! And the solid brick walls are seven feet through. You go up nine flights of stairs before you get to the "first" floor. No, not nine, but there or thereabouts. There is a little bird-cage of an iron railing in front of every window clear away up, up, up, among the eternal clouds, where the roof is, and there is always somebody looking out of every window--people of ordinary size looking out from the first floor, people a shade smaller from the second, people that look a little smaller yet from the third--and from thence upward they grow smaller and smaller by a regularly graduated diminution, till the folks in the topmost windows seem more like birds in an uncommonly tall martin- box than any thing else. The perspective of one of these narrow cracks of streets, with its rows of tall houses stretching away till they come together in the distance like railway tracks; its clothes-lines crossing over at all altitudes and waving their bannered raggedness over the swarms of people below; and the white-dressed women perched in balcony railings all the way from the pavement up to the heavens--a perspective like that is really worth going into Neapolitan details to see.

If you replace the references to wagons with cars and Vespas carrying two or three people (including babies too young to hold on by themselves), you have a pretty good idea of what Naples is like today. Folks were celebrating because their football team, the Mastiffs, had regained their Level A status; the streets near my hotel were festooned with sky-blue banners and balloons.

On the evening I arrived, there was a celebration just down the street from my hotel (Hotel Neopolis; highly recommended BTW). A crowd gathered on via dei Tribunali, one of the three original east-west thoroughfares of the Greek city of Neapolis. On one side of the street, people set off fireworks from the high stone steps of a late sixteenth-century church adorned with pillars from a Greek temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux. On the other side of the street, in the courtyard outside San Lorenzo Maggiore (a 13th century church) a band played rousing music, young boys paraded red banners, and in the middle was a saint standing on a bed of flowers atop a car. (There's a photo above. It's not very good, because it was fairly dark outside.) I later learned that this celebration was in honor of St. Anthony of Padua, who died on that date in 1231.

How could you not love this city?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Images inspiring fiction

My MFA thesis manuscript and now novel manuscript making its rounds was inspired by a photograph from the book Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America. If you go to the website, the specific photograph is #49 under the "photograph" link, but please be aware that the pictures are very powerful and disturbing. They're not for everyone.

Not to put myself on a level with Robert Olen Butler by any means, but he's been doing some really interesting work lately juxtaposing images with words, and I'm learning a lot from him. You can imagine how much I enjoyed the short stories in Had a Good Time: Stories From American Postcards.. He actually documents writing what I think is the title story for the collection on his website (linked to his name above.)

So I was really interested to run across a collection of short short stories by ROB in Narrative Magazine (you have to log in but the subscription is FREE! And it's amazing and well worth the few clicks, I promise.), called "Weegee Stories." (Red alert Cara! Red alert!) The stories and pictures posted are from a book that's coming out in 2008, I think. Hazel Crum is particularly good, I think. It's not YA or MG, but I think it's a very instructive example of spinning a story from a photograph.

I might start collecting old photographs...

Friday, June 8, 2007

Poetry Friday

It's Poetry Friday, and so I thought I'd post one of the microbe poems I wrote while working on The Good, the Bad, the Slimy: The Secret Life of Microbes. (We ended up using just a fragment of one of the poems in the book. When you read the poem perhaps you'll understand why.) Thanks to HipWriterMama for hosting this week's Poetry Roundup!

Helicobacter pylori

Listen up friends, and I’ll tell you the story
Of a strange bacterium, Helicobacter pylori. *

With a corkscrew-like body and four swell flagella,
It lives in the stomach—an uncommon fella!

For most living things, it’s out of the question
To dwell in a place designed for digestion.

Where blistering acids make life transitory
For microbes, save one, Helicobacter pylori.

These sturdy bacteria burrow under the slime
Lining the stomach, where they stay, a long time.

Patrolling immune cells don’t like these strange guys,
They attack them, intending to cause their demise.

The unhappy result is mild inflammation,
Sometimes even ulcers, to our consternation.

*Helicobacter pylori (HEEL-ih-ko-BAK-ter pye-LOR-ee) lives in the stomach lining of about half of all adults.

Writers who whine

A lot of writers like to whine about how hard it is to write, the most recent example of which is in this article from the New York Observer: My Book Deal Ruined My Life.

One writer is quoted as saying,

At one point...the writing was so miserable, “I thought about getting into painting houses or digging ditches, doing anything other than writing—making watches or something like that.”

Oh, please. Try bagging groceries or baling hay or emptying bedpans every day and then tell me that writers have a hard life. Yeah, I struggle with getting the right words on the page, and I complain to my husband, and sometimes things conspire to make it impossible to meet deadlines, and it can be a lonely life. But I can't think of anything else I'd rather do.

They should all go read Garrison Keillor's Salon article, "Writers, quit whining." And then take a deep breath, and thank their lucky stars. Or find another profession.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Traveling while reading

One of the pleasures of traveling is seeking out and reading books set in your destination. This also applies to reading books set in a city you're well acquainted with. One of the pleasures of reading Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshowsky mysteries is her descriptions of familiar Chicago neighborhoods. (A little known fact: her father, David Paretsky, taught one of my introductory microbiology courses at KU--a wonderful man who died not too long ago from Alzheimer's-related complications--and her brother, Jonathon Paretsky, taught one of my German classes at KU. Plus, she's married to a U.C physicist; I met them both briefly at a cocktail party one time, long ago.)

So on my European travels, I've tried to seek out some books that said something about the place I was visiting. I wasn't always able to read the book as I was actually visiting the place, but it seems I'm always playing catchup in my reading anyway.

What I'm reading now: Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. Mary Shelley conceived of the idea and began writing the book while spending a rainy and rather dreary summer near Geneva with Percy Shelly and Lord Byron. I ran by Lord Byron's house in Cologny, so it was fun to imagine them sitting around, talking about ghost stories. For some reason I never read Frankenstein, so this is the perfect time to do it.

In that spirit, I bought The Bastard of Istanbul (by Elif Shafak, who was tried for the crime of "insulting Turkishness") before we left for Istanbul and T. snapped it up before I could get to it. I read it after we got back, and we both enjoyed it, but we differed in our assessments. Tony felt that it was too heavy-handed, but I argued that it was in the storytelling tradition that she was using, so it was OK. It's basically an allegory about the relationship between the Turks, the Armenians, and the Western world. I highly recommend it, although it's not one of those books that will make you walk around Istanbul saying, "Oh, yes, I remember this street!" But it is one of those books that will help you understand a deeper level of Istanbul than you can ever get through a short visit.

When we were in Venice I read Ian McEwan's dark and haunting Comfort of Strangers, at Tony's recommendation. Colin and Mary are disaffected lovers on vacation in Venice. Although McEwan never once mentions the name of the city, it is clear from his descriptions (both dreamlike and vivid, if that's possible) of the canals and maze-like streets that it's Venice. It's short, too, so it was easy to put in my bag and read if I had a few spare minutes here and there. It made me think twice about getting lost in Venice!

Does anybody else have favorite "travel" books? Naples is my next destination. I've already listened to the audio version of Robert Harris' Pompeii (a great listen!) so that's out. Leonardo Sciascia is supposed to have written some good literary mysteries set in Sicily. Close enough, maybe.