something useful, something useful and funny, and general moaning

First, I know I have nothing to complain about, but I hope you’ll forgive me a little whine. I cannot imagine how the people who were displaced by Katrina — many of whom still can’t go home — have coped. I sit here in a nice motel room, I’ll be going back to my own house tomorrow, and I’m completely discombobulated. Which brings me to a website that Charlotte brought to my attention:

The Little Rock Friends Meeting (Quakers, in other words) is busy building bunkbeds for those who are trying to get reestablished after the hurricane. You can contribute by sponsoring a whole bunkbed with bedding, or some smaller part of a whole. Or you can send linens, blankets, pillows. Any way you do it, this is the kind of practical help that people really need.

edited to add this note from Charlotte:

Thanks for mentioning the project! Here’s a little more info from the Friends’ mailing list…Why bunk beds? They provide a semi-private space for a kid (even one who is sharing a room with several other people). Remember from your childhood the reassuring feeling of retreating to your own little “fort”? That’s what we want the kids to have. Beds are also designed to be easily taken apart and reassembled if the family has to relocate again.

If you feel moved to donate, any amount is welcome, and receipts for taxes are available from the Meeting. A complete bed with bedding costs $200. Volunteers are also needed, singly or in groups, to come help build beds. For info about volunteering, contact Marianne Lockard: MariQuaker AT

Another way to participate: have your kids send drawings, messages, or books to put in each child’s pillowcase.

Onto something else that has nothing to do with writing fiction or my books. I saw a television commercial last night that made me laugh out loud with glee. The American Council on Education has launched an ad compaign (print and television) to remind people that higher education has a practical and highly necessary output. There’s an article about the ad agency who has donated the time to put the campaign together.

Also, here’s the website of Solutions for our Future, a consortium of institutions who got together to launch this whole project.

The dialog for the screen cap (you can find videos of all the commercials to download here):

“Still broken. Take six more pints.”

And the voice over: “Less support for higher education means fewer medical breakthroughs. Open-heart surgery and other advancements came from colleges and universities.”

The next time somebody tells me they won’t support taxes for education because they have no kids or their kids are out of school, I’ll have something to show them.

booknerd contemplation

It is probably no surprise that I am somebody who thinks a olot about books — and not just what’s inside them. The story is my main interest, but it doesn’t stop there.

Just about everything about books intrigues me. Book and cover design, typesetting and typefaces, publishing history in general and editorial history in particular. So for example I have more than one edition of Pride and Prejudice, some of them quite odd and old picked up at flea markets.

I was in college before I started to think much about different editions of the same book. Tom Sawyer was Tom Sawyer, whether he appeared on pulp paper or in a hideously expensive leather bound volume. It made no difference to me which edition I read, as long as it wasn’t abridged. Then I started taking literature courses and my outlook changed. I remember when I was told for the first time that I could only use the critical edition to write a paper, and the idea caught my attention right off. A critical edition is one that has been put together by a scholar who specializes in the work of the author in question. A good critical edition is true to the original, earliest editions, and will include notes on the original manuscript as well. For example, if the author kept changing one sentence back and forth from edition to edition. There will also be cultural and contextual notes — what was going on in the world when the book was being written, how it was received, how it fit into the author’s career and life.

All that and more belongs in a good critical edition. And after so many years of higher education, I am a footnote junkie. I do love me a big overstuffed detail ridden critical edition.

Some fifteen years ago or so I started noticing how big bookstores and publishers in general put out new editions of the classics on a regular basis. I remember once being in a store where a table was stacked with copies of Dickens, Austen, Cooper, and every other big name you can think of. Three bucks each or six for fifteen dollars. Printed on the worst kind of paper, shoddily put together. When my daughter was a little younger she used to pick up these books and ask for them, and she was always surprised when I refused.

I don’t buy used books — if the book is in print, and the author is alive, I buy it new. that’s a solidarity thing and also just plain common sense. If we are to survive as scribblers, we’ve got to support each other. On the other hand, I feel no obligation to buy new when it comes to authors who are dead for hundreds of years (unless it’s a critical edition, in which case the editor deserves to earn something). So when the Girl wanted a copy of the Odyssey, I went to a good used book store and looked until I found an edition from 1950, solidly put together, good quality paper, no obvious short cuts in production or editing.

Now publishers will tell you that they put out the classics in cheap form to make them available to a greater audience, but I don’t believe that. I think it’s an attempt to boost the bottom line, and in this day and age when publishers struggle, I can see why they’d try this. I still don’t think it’s right, but I can see it as a business decision. So if the Girl needs a copy of Jane Eyre or Adam Bede or the complete works of Voltaire, I will go find her a critical edition, often used. Which critical edition depends on the circumstances, but if you’re really interested have a look at Bookworm’s post on this question. She looked at four paperback critical editions of Jane Eyre: Penguin Classics, Modern Library Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and Norton Critical Edition.

true story

Our good friends Thor and Penny are a little unorthodox, each of them in a distinct way. Thor has a road kill license because he’s a paleontologist. Rotting animals are his thing. Their house is full of partial and whole skeletons, and their freezer offers up such goodies as dead badger, zebra head (the nearest zoo calls him when something dies) and other, less identifiable bits and pieces. The other thing about Thor is, he lives so much inside his head that you’re never sure if he’s heard you.

Penny is a wonderful, kind, generous person with a passion for education and the complete inability to understand any concept of time. We always tell Penny things are going to start a half hour before they do, and she’s still always wandering in after everybody else, usually with a wonderful story and oh, am I late?

About five years ago Penny decided she wanted to give Thor a suprise birthday party. At our house, which was fine. I shook the details out of her and went ahead with things, and then on his birthday we put together an elaborate scheme to get him to our house at exactly six, no earlier. It really was a good plan, but we forgot to reckon with Thor. ‘Elaborate plan’ and Thor = trouble.

At 5:30 somebody yelled, Thor’s here! And we all went nuts, running around, nowhere near ready. So Thor comes in and everybody yells SURPRISE and he’s so touched and happy and pleased, except:

his birthday isn’t until tomorrow.

I turned to Penny. Penny shrugged. Oh, said Penny. Did I get the date wrong again?

I tell you this story because today is the mathematician’s birthday. It is stories like this one that horrify him. The mathematician would rather stick a fork in his eye than have to show up at a surprise party in his honor. So instead of a party we’re going out to dinner, and I’ll be back here to tell you some other completely irrelevant story tomorrow.

Ain’t She Sweet — Susan Elizabeth Phillips

[asa book]0066211247] First: I listened to this as an audiobook, and I’m going to evaluate the book separately from the reading.

The book is, for my money, probably going to be my favorite Susan Elizabeth Phillips. It’s funny and sweet, but it’s also quite thoughtful. It’s a twist on Cinderella and her stepsister — because you don’t know which one is which, and by the end, you’re still debating. In a good way. Can they both be Cinderella, with dashes of stepsister? Pretty much, because the main female characters (Sugar Beth, the former high school beauty queen of Parrish, Mississippi, now down on her luck) and Winifred (her half sister by her father’s open relationship to another woman) are complex in the way they see themselves, each other, and the world. In the end I liked Sugar Beth the best, because she comes a long way, learns a lot, but doesn’t lose her edge.

The novel is very atmospheric, full of southern smells and sights and sounds (I’ll get to more about this in a minute) and does a great job of capturing the good and bad of small town life. I highly recommend it for anybody who likes a well done love story. Unless you’ve got a lot of biased, preconceived notions about romance, you should read this book.

Now about the audio. The reader is Kate Flemming, and she knows her way around a variety of southern accents. Flemming reads Sugar Beth with just the right amount of vinegar; I don’t think I would have liked Sugar Beth quite so much if I had been reading rather than listening. Really.

The problem is Flemming’s reading of Colin Byrne, the main male character. A successful author, once Sugar Beth’s reviled high school English teacher — she got him fired by telling a lie after he proved that a man could be immune to her charms. Colin is supposed to be the son of an Irish mason, a boy with ambition who managed to get an education beyond his social standing and pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps. I don’t believe there’s ever a mention of where he went to university, but it’s clear that he worked for what he’s got, and re-cast himself. And then Kate Flemming goes and reads him with an outdated posh upper class accent.

There are lots of examples of current day upper-class English accents out there. Colin Firth in What a Girl Wants jumps to mind, along with a dozen other examples from modern movies. But this Colin Byrne talks like an overdone Basil Rathbone circa 1930, all glottal creak (which is, in fact, a technical term) and plummy vowels. I kept thinking it was a joke, that there would be some explanation in the story of why he affected such an outlandish accent, but nope. It was so overdone it almost stopped me from listening to the book, but the story pulled me along and I learned to ignore it. I think I would have liked the character Colin Byrne a lot more if he hadn’t sounded like such a dweeb of a throwback.

Please note that I do have some grounds for making such judgments — my husband is a Brit with the kind of educational background that Colin Byrne is supposed to have. I played a bit of the audiobook for him so he could hear the character, and he burst into laughter.

But. In the end Flemming does such a great job with the other characters, I have to give the audiobook a pass.