Monday, January 31, 2011


These days authors not only have to take up more and more of the tasks publishers used to handle -- mostly publicity and promotion -- but they're also being asked to provide ideas for jacket art. And if they self-publish their books, they either have to hire artists to create jackets or design the covers themselves.

My fourth Steve Martinez novel, Hang Fire, is still making the rounds in New York, but it seems increasingly likely that I'll have to self-publish it later this year as an e-book with, Barnes & Noble and Apple.

Even e-books need covers, not only at the head of the text but also in promotional materials. So I've started fooling around with ideas.

Hmmm. For a first try with Photoshop Elements, let's keep it simple.

The most salient visual characteristic of the story is muzzle-loading arms, especially the British Army "Brown Bess" musket of the eras of the Revolutionary War and of Lewis and Clark (1800-1840). (I wrote about handling a genuine Bess on January 11.)

There are lots of free online photographs, many of them uncopyrighted, of the Brown Bess. And there are lots of free online "colonial" fonts such as Caslon Antique.

Combine a Bess with Caslon Antique and three colors, and we get the cover at upper right.

Not bad. But could it be improved? Probably.

You got any ideas? If so, let's hear them. I'm thinking, for instance, that that yellow background should be paler, almost pastel.

I'm also thinking that "A Steve Martinez Mystery" or "A Porcupine County Mystery" ought to go under the author's name.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tripadvisor reports

Earlier this week Tripadvisor, the Internet travel forum, published a report on "Ten Dirtiest Hotels -- United States 2011." Each hotel's low rating was a compendium of individual reports by disgusted travelers, and I have no doubt that in general each hotel deserved its dismal standing.

Still, I've spent some time looking over the individual Tripadvisor reports on hotels in places I plan to visit, and have come to the conclusion that these reports are extremely subjective and personal. People do bring different demands and expectations to a hotel stay.

One traveler gave a hotel 1 out of 5 stars just because he found mouseturds next to the bathtub. Think about it. The place otherwise might have been lovely, and cleaned carefully, by a maid five minutes before an itinerant mouse passed through the room and hung up his hat for a couple of minutes.

(My aging eyes probably never would have spotted the calling cards.)

I've heard people complain about the cleanliness of hotels because the toilet seat wasn't wrapped and the toilet paper foldy-pointed, small touches that they were used to in the hostelries that they most often frequented.

Some people judge hotels and motels by the quality of their free breakfasts, never mind the other amenities.

Some people think a hotel without a swimming pool isn't worth a stay. Likewise a fitness center.

Probably the best way to approach Tripadvisor hotel reports is to compare each individual report about a hotel with the others. If enough people complain about the same things, that probably gives an accurate picture of the state of a hotel. But if the subjects of the complaints are wildly different, then maybe they should be taken with a grain of salt.

Maybe each of us should think about our own needs and expectations and bring those to a reading of Tripadvisor reports.

My needs are simple: a clean room, a clean bed, a decent desk and chair, a sufficiently bright lamp, a reasonably healthful breakfast. Most Super 8s do me fine.

But the Lady Friend prefers higher standards when we are on vacation, so when we travel together I look for more upscale hostelries.

But if I have to pay for Internet access, I automatically knock one star off the hotel rating. Charging for the Internet is cheesy beyond belief and I cannot understand why so many five star hotels do that. One New Orleans hotel charged me twice for a day's Internet access, once for my laptop and once for my iPod Touch. I protested and the hotel yielded one of its goddam 12 bucks-per-day charges.

If the upscale hostelry delivers only McPaper to the room in the morning, it loses a star. If it also delivers the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Washington Post or even the local daily, it gains a star.

What are your expectations and wishes of a hotel/motel? Bet they're considerably different from mine.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


The hammer fell yesterday: The publisher of my three Upper Michigan mysteries announced apologetically that it couldn't take the fourth, Hang Fire, which I'd submitted away back in October, and was cutting me loose.

This was hardly unexpected.

My mysteries have been widely and well reviewed -- they've earned favorable notices in Marilyn Stasio's New York Times Book Review column on crime fiction -- but they are regional whodunits. They take place in the rural setting of a part of the country not many people visit. They do bring in thousands of readers -- but not enough thousands. Not in this economic climate. The bulk of mystery readers live in big cities, and most of those want their fiction set in urban jungles, not wilderness thickets.

Also, these days publishers are hurting. So are bricks-and-mortar bookstores. Hardcover book sales are down, way down.

As a result, midlist writers -- those whose books earn only modest profits for their publishers -- are being let go everywhere. And so I've joined that melancholy crowd.

My agent tells me that moving a commercial fiction series from one publisher to another is very difficult. But she's going to try a small house that has been known to adopt orphaned series, and see what happens.

I'm hoping good things will. But if they don't, I've got a Plan B: Self-publishing.

Not of printed books. All too many authors spend thousands of dollars to have their work published by a subsidy house, but even with sweaty self-promotion, their boxes and boxes of books almost always languish on skids in the garage. I'm a retiree and don't have that kind of money to waste.

But there is a solution: publishing the novel as an e-book with Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Apple. The overhead is minuscule, so the initial layout of dollars is small.

The tough part will be getting the news about a new e-book out to all my old readers. I've got some experience -- not a lot -- in book promotion. I'm a veteran of the bookstore and library circuit, but without tangible goods for the bookstores to sell and the libraries to lend, those may no longer be workable venues. (How do you autograph an e-book, anyway?)

Still there are ways, and in the coming months I'll tell you what they are.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ulysses S. Grant on the living Constitution

I have been reading on my Kindle The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, downloaded from, that magnificent online repository of classical texts converted to e-books. This morning I came across the following passage:

The framers were wise in their generation and wanted to do the very best possible to secure their own liberty and independence, and that also of their descendants to the latest days. It is preposterous to suppose that the people of one generation can lay down the best and only rules of government for all who are to come after them, and under unforeseen contingencies. At the time of the framing of our constitution the only physical forces that had been subdued and made to serve man and his labor, were the currents in the streams and in the air we breathe. Rude machinery, propelled by water power, had been invented, sails to propel ships upon the waters had been set to catch the passing breeze -- but the application of steam to propel vessels against both wind and current, and the machinery to do all manner of work had not been thought of. The instantaneous transmission of messages around the world by means of electricity would probably at that day have been attributed to witchcraft or a league with the Devil. Immaterial circumstances have changed as greatly as material ones. We could not and ought not to be rigidly bound by the rules laid down under circumstances so different for emergencies so utterly unanticipated. The fathers themselves would have been the first to declare that their prerogatives were not irrevocable. They would surely have resisted secession could they have lived to see the shape it assumed.

Grant wrote that piece of wisdom before 1885, when his Memoirs were published. It shows that for at least 125 years, the ablest Americans have been advocating a "living Constitution," interpreting the document in light of the realities of the day rather than embracing the rigid and unimaginative "originalist" viewpoint (currently espoused by the Tea Party and its hero Antonin Scalia) that the meanings of its phrases and clauses are graven in stone and immutable.

Our greatest general was not only perceptive and farsighted, but also wrote beautifully. His modest "plain style" of prose is still remarkably readable, and becomes the man as well as the book. I am enjoying his Memoirs immensely.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remembering the men in gray and butternut

The Stars and Stripes, not Stars and Bars, flies at Confederate Memorial Hall.
One of New Orleans' lesser-known treasures (to visitors from the North, at any rate) is the little Civil War Museum at Confederate Memorial Hall on 929 Camp Street in the Warehouse District a block south of the St. Charles streetcar line.

It sits in the shadow of the huge National World War II Museum down the block. The Lady Friend and I having just one full day in New Orleans on this visit, we decided to skip the big place -- it reportedly takes a full day to explore -- and try the Civil War Museum instead.

The sign outside says "Civil War Museum," but inside it's really the Confederate Museum it has been since 1891. The place was renamed after Katrina shattered tourism to New Orleans in 2005, in the hope that visitors from the North would be less apt to turn away from symbols of the South's slave history. "You're not offended?" the lady at the door asked when we inquired about the name change.

No, we weren't, for we're not unreconstructed rebels with disdain for political correctness. Besides, the little brick building turned out to be a somber, even melancholy repository of human memories, not a vainglorious display of defiance. Whatever one might say about their cause, these soldiers, the museum seems to say, fought and died for what they believed in, and even if they lost the war, their courage should not go unnoticed. There's nothing celebratory about this museum, as there too often is in national shrines to victory.

Though it's the second largest Southern war museum in the country (the biggest is the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond), It's fairly small as such institutions go, with one large room and a corridor full of display cases of artifacts from 1861-1865. Some five thousand objects are on display, with 95,000 others stored for research at Tulane University.

Among the items on view: The personal belongings of Confederate President Jefferson Davis; the uniforms, sword and saddle of Gen. Braxton Bragg; the uniform of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard; various swords, cannons and arms, and personal relics such as musette bags and letters home. There are bloodstained regimental battle flags, notably one carried at First Manassas (Bull Run) in 1861. The letters and documents humanize the people who wrote and carried them.

One particular item of interest is a tattered blue Confederate infantryman's uniform worn at First Manassas. Because there was confusion over who was whom in the heat of battle, the Confederates switched to gray-and-butternut uniforms for the rest of the war.

The museum takes only an hour to visit thoroughly, and you'll come away with respect for the human beings -- fellow Americans -- who mostly by accident of birthplace fought and died on the wrong side of history.

This is the last blogpost about our visit last week to New Orleans, but we'll continue to post photos of the trip on the other blog.

Interior of the museum. Despite the No Photography sign, long shots are OK.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cheap eats in the Big Easy

The unprepossessing Camellia Grill in the French Quarter.

Interior of the Camellia Grill: Standard American Diner decor.

A Camellia grillman works on an enormous omelet.

Before taking a train trip anywhere, I consult the habitues of TrainWeb's Amtrak forum, an invaluable repository of information about hotels and restaurants as well as rail travel. This time I wanted to know where to eat in New Orleans that wasn't either touristy or budget-busting, and the collective wisdom came through again.

Go where the locals go, they said, not the pricey establishments of the famous TV chefs, and they came up with a number of suggestions.

On our first evening in New Orleans, the Lady Friend and I dined at a highly recommended Cajun bistro called Cafe Maspero at 601 Decatur Street, cattycorner from the old Jax Brewery, on the edge of the French Quarter.

We weren't disappointed by either the prices (low) or the portions (huge). Or by the house merlot, remarkably good for $4.50 a glass. I passed up the much-praised muffaletta and jambalaya for a dish I've always loved, redbeans and andouille sausage over rice with a side of French bread. First-rate, and so large I couldn't clean the plate. (In the interest of full disclosure: the Lady Friend said hers was OK, only OK.)

The next morning we did the touristy thing and, after a few minutes photographing the sights at Jackson Square, broke our fast at Cafe du Monde, the historic coffeehouse in the French Market on the waterfront. As always, the beignets and cafe au lait were delicate and warming. The weather being unusually cold for New Orleans, just above freezing, the cafe's famous outdoor tables were closed, but there was room inside, where French Quarter workers grabbed take-outs for the office.

After two hours of camera work in the Quarter, we stopped at another highly recommended restaurant, the Camellia Grill on the corner of Toulouse and Chartres. (There's another on St. Charles Street near Tulane University, and branches in Baton Rouge and Destin, Florida.) Now this is where you find the locals on a workday morning.

This Camellia is an unprepossessing place in classic American Diner Style, with two large U-shaped counters flanked by fixed stools. On one side lie two grills and half a dozen workers.

On the Trainweb forum I was warned that the Camellia Grill omelets were hubcap-sized, way too big to finish. So the Lady Friend and I shared a ham-and-cheeser that was cut and served on separate plates, with separate piles of hash browns -- and still was way too big to finish.

I considered the omelet excellent, and the Lady Friend thought hers nonpareil. But the real attraction of the place turned out to be the chattering camaraderie among countermen, grillmen and customers. Amusing conversation ebbs and flows and surges all day, and the staff seemed as friendly to the two lone tourists as they were to the locals, telling stories of deep freezes of past years in the Big Easy.

And the prices are standard for diner fare -- inexpensive, but not dirt cheap.

After haring with our cameras all over frozen New Orleans all day, we returned to our hotel tired and cold, and both my back and knees were bothering me from the unaccustomed activity. At dinnertime we looked at each other and decided not to hobble out in the frigid wind again, but to remain snug and warm at the Omni Royal Orleans and dine in its Rib Room, no matter what it cost.

The Rib Room is definitely pricey -- two entrees, two glasses of wine and a shared chocolate mousse set us back more than a C-note, with tip. But this is New Orleans, and even the hotel dining rooms -- so often disappointing elsewhere -- live up to the city's high standards. The Lady Friend still swoons over her blackened salmon over stone-ground grits, drizzled with tabasco butter sauce. I was not in the least bit disappointed by my grilled black drum, fresh from the Gulf.

On this trip, life was finger-lickin' good, if you'll excuse the expression.

Inside the Cafe du Monde on an unseasonably cold January morning.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Aboard the City of New Orleans

Our train trip to New Orleans last week was the same as every other Amtrak ride we've taken in the last year: Fine, with a couple of niggles.

The niggles first.

The sleeping cars on the City of New Orleans both ways were reasonably comfortable, but they are showing their age. They were from the original two-story Superliner order of 1979-81, and were rebuilt some time in the 1990s. Now the refurbishing has lost its shine. The interior looks OK for the most part, but seams -- especially in the bathrooms -- are gaping and no amount of caulking can bridge them.

What's more, the in-room electrical outlets in our roomettes in both northbound and southbound sleepers were not working. Fortunately this was not a writing trip laboring over a laptop, or I would have been upset. I was able to recharge my iPod Touch in the "Cross Country Cafe" dining car, which has outlets at every seat.

The closet door of the southbound roomette wouldn't latch shut. This is why veteran Amtrak travelers bring along a roll of duct tape, the world's greatest rattle-dampener.

During the night on the southbound trip, one of the two footlatches that hold down the roomette seats to form a lower bunk slipped open, causing one seat to slide partially back and giving me the sensation of trying to sleep on the edge of a ski jump. This happened at 3 a.m. and I decided not to awaken the Lady Friend in the berth above me by calling the attendant for a fix. So I got up and read in an empty roomette until breakfast at 6:30 a.m. (Later I learned that it would have taken the attendant 20 seconds to push the bed back down and pull up on the footlatch to secure it.)

These sleeping cars clearly are due for another rebuild, but the refurbished dining and lounge cars were nearly spanking fresh -- no complaints there.

I did venture into one of the three coaches behind the lounge car to use a downstairs bathroom, and was horrified. All four bathrooms in the tattered old coach were damp, filthy and bedecked with tendrils and scraps of toilet paper. Either the riders had no manners or the attendant was too lazy or overwhelmed to police the place.

Otherwise I found no fault with the service crews in both directions. Our southbound sleeper attendant seemed to spend a lot of time chatting with other crew in the dining car, but he was always present when we wanted him. The northbound attendant was quite solicitous, checking with us often to see if we needed anything. And the dining-car waitstaffs were both efficient and friendly.

The cuisine? Acceptable American Road Food, nothing more -- and nothing less. I did not try the special New Orleans dishes. At lunch on the southbound, there was no salad to go with the gumbo, and at dinner on the northbound I decided the New York strip steak was likely to be the most reliable item on the menu. (Amtrak steak dinners are consistently superior to the other dishes.)

One does not ride the City of New Orleans for the scenery. Southbound in January, first light does not come until after Memphis, and the trackside views of Tennessee and Mississippi are unremarkable, unless one has a soft spot for derelict industrial buildings and auto graveyards.

Only in the last hour (or first, northbound) of the ride does the scenery become interesting as the train speeds through Louisiana bayou country and past Lake Pontchartrain. Hundreds and hundreds of egrets and pelicans nest in cypress swamps along the tracks. Getting good photos from the train is not easy, because the City of New Orleans pounds along seemingly at better than 70 miles an hour on the straight stretches. The scenery just zips by too fast.

There was a brief item of interest on the northbound train: three security dogs (two German shepherds and a black Lab) handled by a four-person team of Amtrak cops. They all watched the passengers passing through the portal at New Orleans Union Terminal, the dogs' noses close by. The two shepherds rode in the lounge car, their handlers telling passersby gently but firmly not to pet them because they were working. The Lab rode in the crew car behind the locomotive.

All three dogs debarked (excuse me) at the first stop, Hammond in central Louisiana, and did their sniffy thing in the hold of the baggage-coach behind the lounge car as we watched. It made sense. If drug smugglers or terrorists manage to slip through the Port of New Orleans, they might think loading their contraband or bombs at a station down the line would fool the cops. I suspect the dog teams inspect the trains at random, dividing their time among three runs that begin in the Big Easy -- the City of New Orleans, the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles and the Crescent to Washington and New York.

Or maybe it's all for show. When we asked a conductor in the lounge car if the dogs were hunting drugs or explosives, he rolled his eyes, waggled his eyebrows and said with a wry smile, "Sorry, I can't say."

The timekeeping? Both trains ran 20 to 30 minutes late most of the way, but thanks to schedule padding arrived in New Orleans and Chicago on time -- or close to it.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Streetcars of New Orleans

A classic St. Charles Ave. streetcar turns around on New Orleans' Canal Street.
For the tourist who is an unreconstructed rail buff, the streetcars of New Orleans are a powerful attraction, and of course I just had to ride them during my recent two-day visit to the Big Easy.

Actually, I had time to patronize just one of the three lines -- the oldest, the 7 1/2-mile-long St. Charles Avenue line, which has existed since 1835. One morning I rode it for several miles west from Canal Street along the Garden District all the way to Tulane University, and was struck by the fact that native New Orleanians, not just tourists, ride the line heavily. That should not be surprising, for each ride costs just $1.25, and seniors and PWDs get a discount. (In Chicago, the regular fare is $2.25.)

The St. Charles line has an interesting history. Originally steam locomotives pulled the cars, but when those who lived along the street finally had their fill of smoke and cinders, horses and mules were employed as motive power. That's backwards. Usually early streetcar lines began with horses and later moved to steam.

In 1893 the line was electrified.

Rail buffs notice instantly that the distance between rails is 5 feet 2 1/2 inches, not the conventional 4 feet 8 1/2 inches of American railroading. Supposedly broad-gauge tracks give a better, stabler ride with less rocking.  One of the other two lines, the Riverfront line, was originally built in 1988 to the 4 feet 8 1/2 inch standard, but was regauged in 1997 to broad gauge so that its cars could run on the other two lines to the storage barns.

The colorful red cars on the Canal St. and Riverfront lines are fairly new or recent rebuilds, but the classic green Perley Thomas streetcars on the St. Charles run date back to 1923 and 1924.

When Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city in 2005, all the lines were badly damaged and the red cars were ruined by floodwaters. The green cars, however, had been stored on high ground and escaped damage. Not until late 2008 were all three lines fully restored to service.

New Orleans clearly loves its streetcars. The Lady Friend and I noticed that the motormen and motorwomen, like service people everywhere in the city, are unfailingly kind to everyone, locals and tourists, and are quick to give directions when asked. That, in our experience, rarely happens in Chicago or New York.

That shouldn't be surprising. New Orleans still has not completely recovered from Katrina, and its people know that the best way to attract tourists again is to make them feel welcome and perhaps valued for something more than their money.

They sure did me.

FEBRUARY 7: The New York Times' transit blog reports that New Orleans plans to expand its streetcar lines in a big way.

The motorman's view down St. Charles Street in the Garden District.

Friday, January 14, 2011


"One morning last month," begins a casual in the New Yorker this week, "Lady Antonia Fraser was stuck in a security line at the Toronto Airport and missed her plane. She didn't mind, because she had a Kindle and spent the time reading a novel."

And just last week Roger Ebert wrote, in one of his blogs, that he had bought a Kindle because his repeated surgeries had weakened his shoulder muscles so much that reading a book in bed had become difficult. Reading with a lightweight Kindle solved that problem.

If one of the world's most distinguished historical biographers (Mary, Queen of Scots, Cromwell and Charles II are among Lady Antonia's books) can adopt e-reading in her 80th year, and if one of the nation's most celebrated film critics and bibliophiles can use an e-reader to deal with an infirmity, it is fair to say that the Kindle and Nook and their ilk are not only here to stay but also are going to eclipse the tree-book before long. Maybe they already have.

Not that e-readers are without annoying idiosyncrasies, but for one seems to have prepared for at least two of them.

Last Sunday I opened my three-month-old Kindle 3 shortly after boarding the City of New Orleans for a train journey south, and discovered that it was dead. It would not start. It would not recharge. The little yellow light that signals recharging would not go on. Damn.

But I had thought to bring along my iPod Touch, the little machine with which I first began reading e-books, and used its Kindle app to read a couple of whodunits stored inside just in case.

I was not worried overmuch. Last month my Kindle had been behaving oddly -- randomly restarting itself and losing my bookmarks -- because the leather cover that protected the machine was intermittently shorting out its innards. I contacted and was immediately told that it was a known problem with the leather cover, and to send it back. would not only give me full credit for the return but also a new leather cover with a built-in book light, no charge.

Even though I had to pay the small shipping cost both ways, I was delighted with this customer service. And so I was confident Amazon would fix or replace my ailing Kindle under warranty, no questions asked.

"RTFM, Henry, RTFM!" a small voice insisted as I sat down yesterday to e-mail about the problem. I rd TFM, and am glad I did. In the manual's appendix, a chapter about troubleshooting suggested holding the Kindle's on/off spring switch open for at least 15 seconds, then trying a recharge.

It worked. As soon as I plugged in the charger cord, the little yellow light came on and the machine reset itself. Half an hour later I unplugged the charger cord and tried the on/off switch.

The green light came on, and the Kindle awakened at the place in Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra where I had last closed the cover.

All is well in the world. Mine, anyway.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Brown Bess

NEW ORLEANS --"Unless I miss my guess," I told the Lady Friend as we looked in the window of James H. Cohen & Sons, an antique firearms, swords, currency and coins establishment at 437 Royal Street in the Vieux Carre, "that's a genuine Brown Bess."

I was captivated because a Brown Bess -- the flintlock muzzle-loading musket that was the standard British infantry long arm from 1722 to 1838 -- is an important furnishing in my fourth Steve Martinez novel. I'd seen replicas, but never the real thing.

So in the interest of research we entered the shop. Upon being told that I was a novelist and had written about the weapon, the saleslady took the Bess down from its honored place in a long rack of scores upon scores of antique muzzle-loaders, and handed it to me while the Lady Friend captured the event with her camera. It was like grasping a piece of history.

The .75 caliber Bess was to both Redcoats and Continental soldiers in the Revolutionary War what the tommy gun was to Al Capone and the M-1 to the GIs of World War II. Like those weapons, the Bess was more than a tool; it was also a symbol -- in this case a symbol of Empire.

This particular Brown Bess was dated 1805, and it did not take much of a leap of imagination to think the weapon might have served on either side at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.

The musket even has figured in literary history. Rudyard Kipling dedicated a long poem, "Brown Bess," to it. Here are the first three stanzas:

In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise--
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes--
At Blenheim and Ramillies fops would confess
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.

Though her sight was not long and her weight was not small,
Yet her actions were winning, her language was clear;
And everyone bowed as she opened the ball
On the arm of some high-gaitered, grim grenadier.
Half Europe admitted the striking success
Of the dances and routs that were given by Brown Bess.

When ruffles were turned into stiff leather stocks,
And people wore pigtails instead of perukes,
Brown Bess never altered her iron-grey locks.
She knew she was valued for more than her looks.
"Oh, powder and patches was always my dress,
And I think I am killing enough," said Brown Bess . . .

For a long moment I considered adding this Bess to my arsenal of whodunit artifacts, but one look at the price tag -- $8,650 -- squelched that thought.

It was enough just to caress the patina of the 206-year-old brown steel.

There are some closeup views of the Cohens' Bess here.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Guest appearance

Today's blogpost, on how a mystery writer employs a camera as well as a laptop, appears on the Crime Writers' Chronicle, a forum maintained by four fellow whodunit writers.

They are Robert Knightly, Robin Hathaway, Annamaria Alfieri (Patricia King) and Kate Gallison (Irene Fleming).

Go have a look.

Monday, January 3, 2011

What's this?

This visitor to my backyard bird feeder today looks like some kind of warbler to me, but I can't find an exact match in my bird book. Possibly it's a pine warbler, but the yellow patch is considerably smaller than the bird book suggests. The bird's about the size of a chickadee, maybe a tad larger, but noticeably smaller than a sparrow. Can any of you eagle-eyed birdwatchers identify it? Click on the photos for larger versions.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

An excellent sentence

"Write with your ear," my literary mentors told me again and again. "Prose that sounds good to the ear reads well to the mind."

Today I came across a snippet of writing that beautifully drives home the point. It is by the novelist and journalist Katie Roiphe in today's New York Times Book Review:

"... the critic has one important function: to write well.

"By this I mean that critics must strive to write stylishly, to concentrate on the excellent sentence."

Now that is in itself a hell of an excellent sentence . (Note the internal triple rhymes of "strive to write stylishly" and "excellent sentence.") It sings.

Bravo, Ms. Roiphe. Lead the way.