Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dehydration

This week I wound up in the emergency room of Saint Joseph's Hospital. I won't go through the whole story of how I got there, but I'd been feeling tired and sluggish and weak for a couple of weeks. I was also feeling fuzzy-headed, which was probably the part that bothered me the most. After all, my brain is probably my favorite organ. (Unlike Woody Allen in "Sleeper".)

After all the usual ER stuff (EKG, blood work, urinalysis), the ER doc came back and said, "You're dehydrated." It's a pretty easy diagnosis in Tucson, but it was something I hadn't thought of. You see, I drink a lot of fluids. I have coffee in the morning, often orange juice as well, and always drink a quart bottle of water in the afternoon. Evenings are hit and miss. I don't have a routine there. Fluid was going in and coming out.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tucson Museum of Art

Julia Cameron, playwright, filmmaker, poet, is probably most well known for her book "The Artist's Way". I took a class based on this book many years ago and incorporated Morning Pages into my daily routine. The idea of Morning Pages is to write three pages of stream of consciousness prose when you first get up, before your logical self wakes up and starts editing and censoring the part of yourself that gets to live in dreams. You don't worry about spelling or grammar mistakes or whether anything makes sense or not. You just write, keeping the pen on the page.

The other key tool of "The Artist's Way" is the Artist Date. The idea here is that once a week you should do something to feed your muse. You're not supposed to do this with anyone else because that tends to be distracting. It's just you and your muse filling the well of creativity.

While Morning Pages are pretty easy to do once you get in the habit, the Artist Date tends to fall by the wayside. We have jobs, we have errands, we have writing to do. Taking one day a week or even just a few hours is hard, so fitting this in becomes more of a chore than a delight. But it really is an important tool of "The Artist's Way". When several of us in the Guppies Goals Group were complaining about being in the doldrums with our writing, one of our members suggested that we all try to do one Artist Date this month and report back to the group. I decided it was time for a trip to the museum.

I've lived in Tucson for five years and had never been to the Tucson Museum of Art. I'd never noticed any ads for an exhibit I wanted to see, nothing like the Monet exhibit that came to Phoenix a few years back, and the thought of negotiating downtown intimidated me. Although smaller than most, downtown Tucson has the same challenges. Many of the streets are one-way, there are twists and turns, and side streets tend to dead end unexpectedly. Throw in the usual ongoing construction, and it often seems like the trouble is more than it's worth. But making this an assignment, if you will, gave me the motivation to try it.

The city of Tucson began as a presidio, or garrison, under the Spanish in 1775. This is the "official" founding, although people have lived in the Tucson Valley since 10,000 BC. The Museum of Art is in several buildings, including the modern main building, as well as several old adobe buildings from the original presidio days. The photo at left is of the rear entrance to the modern facility, which houses several permanent collections. Unfortunately, since this is the off-season for tourism, the staff was taking this opportunity to change out exhibits. The main exhibit hall was under construction or whatever you call it to set up the biennial exhibit to go on display later this year. I decided to explore some of the other buildings first and come back here if I had time.

Another initial disappointment was that most of the Western Collection was not on display because the space in the Edward Nye Fish House was currently home to a special exhibit. I like to do things that are uniquely Tucson, that celebrate its Western heritage, and the thought that I was missing that part of the museum's collection dismayed me. I was wondering if I'd made a mistake in my choice for an Artist's Date.

The answer was "no".  Bill Schenck is definitely a western artist. The exhibit is a display of serigraphs, or silk screenings, largely based on movie stills and photographs he took. This is a picture from a book I bought at the museum. I thought I'd gotten a picture of the one that really grabbed my attention, but apparently not. I'll try to do that later and update this page.

The one that made me stop and give these serigraphs a closer look was one of a cowgirl leaning on the grill of a Rolls Royce, cigarette dangling from her mouth and a champagne glass in her hand. This was a cowgirl with attitude.

The building impressed me as much as the art itself. The Fish House was built in 1878 and has the traditional foot-thick adobe walls used in that time period. The walls keep out the hot summer sun, while fireplaces built into the corners of many rooms in the house warmed it in winter. You could still see spots on the floor where hot embers had burned the wood. Overhead you could see the rough-hewn timbers holding up the roof. There were places where the walls bulged at the bottom, weighted down by the years. If I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the voices of the people who had lived in this house so many years ago.

I did a quick pass through the main building, but I've seen Chinese artifacts before, visited the Philebaum Gallery, and am not terribly into Mexican masks. The collections from Central and South America were more interesting. I discovered something I hadn't known before. Most museum exhibits of this culture show stone balls while talking about the ball courts that are almost universal in the Americas. I'd often wondered how they played games with stone balls. The answer, of course, was they didn't. The stone balls are funerary objects, buried with the dead so they can continue to play in the afterlife. The actual balls were made of latex rubber and didn't survive the years. Obvious when you know about it. Early explorers brought the latex rubber balls back to Europe, giving rise to a whole new series of games.

I didn't get to see all of the museum. The Corbett House wasn't open. I did take a few pictures out in the Plaza of the Pioneers. Being a Tucsonan now, the fountain was a big draw. We don't see much water here.

And the restful bench among the greenery was attractive, too. It was much too hot to really enjoy the outdoors (it reached 105 degrees during the afternoon), but it was a pleasant city oasis.

I'm not sure if my well was filled or not. I'll have to see if these images inform my writing this week. I do know that it was a very pleasant day at the museum.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Review: 61 Hours by Lee Child

Jack Reacher is an iconic character in the mystery/thriller genre. And Lee Child is a charming, warm human being. I saw him at a writers conference several years ago and was impressed that he was not only good-looking and intelligent, but friendly as well.

So I was disappointed when I read my first Jack Reacher novel. I don't even remember the title, but I wasn't impressed. Now, I'm a firm believer in different strokes for different folks and I don't always like popular and/or critically acclaimed authors. Elmore Leonard is one of those. I've tried several times to read one of his books and I just don't care for him. But, having had a somewhat personal connection with Lee Child (I think we exchanged five or six words outside the hotel), I was really hoping to like his writing.

Several years later, "61 Hours" was offered as a free nookbook. Since I had nothing to lose, I downloaded it to my nook and stuck it on my TBR (To Be Read) bookshelf. It's been there for several months and for some reason I decided to start reading it last week.

This is a case where offering an ebook as a freebie worked. Or will work. I was immediately drawn into the story, entranced by the setup, and fully intend to buy more of Lee Child's work in the future.

For those unfamiliar with this series, Jack Reacher is a former Army agent, skilled in all those special talents that turn mere mortals into superheroes. But he's damaged. He's constantly on the move, traveling the country, not owning so much as a spare change of underwear. He buys clothes, wears them for a few days, then throws them away. No laundry, no baggage, no address. Of course, he runs into situations where he must employ his special talents to solve a mystery or a crime.

In this novel, Jack has wangled a ride through snowy South Dakota on a tour bus. An oncoming car leads the bus driver to twitch and the bus slides off the icy road, damaged, in a snowstorm. Reacher and his fellow travelers, a group of senior citizens, are forced to wait out the storm in a small town while a new bus is sent to retrieve them.

There's something odd about this town. As a condition of having a lucrative prison complex built, supplying badly needed jobs and income from visitors and lawyers, the police department has agreed that in case of an emergency at the prison, ALL officers, including the Chief of Police, will abandon their stations and form a perimeter around the town.

The complication is that there's a band of bikers living at an abandoned military installation just outside of town. The townspeople fear the bikers and are looking for an excuse to kick them out, but they have no reason to. Until an elderly woman witnesses one of them selling a brick of meth in the parking lot outside a restaurant. She believes in doing the right thing and wants to testify in court to what she saw.

But the police know that her life is at risk. There's something going on at that military installation and the police are pretty sure it's a meth lab, but they can't just descend on the bikers without reasonable cause. The bikers certainly don't want the old lady to testify at the trial of one of them.

Jack has been put up at the home of the Assistant Chief of Police. The police figure out pretty quickly that he's not part of the tour group and, after doing some checking, decide they want to keep an eye on him and use his skills and connections to figure out what's going on at that abandoned military installation that no one seems to know the purpose of.

Things get more interesting when a lawyer is found in his car with a bullet through the middle of his forehead. Now they have concrete proof that there's someone out there who will kill to keep the case from coming to trial.

And even the Air Force seems to have forgotten the fact that they ever had a facility in South Dakota.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There was a point about sixty pages from the end where I was positive who the killer was. I'd briefly considered this person before, but there wasn't enough to be sure yet. I was afraid I was going to be disappointed again. Sixty pages is an awful lot for the hero not to figure out whodunnit when the clues are clear to the reader. But Lee Child wasn't done yet. The tension didn't let up and the ending was taught and powerful. And left a question hanging that makes me want to buy the next book RIGHT NOW.

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I've decided that "Book Impression" sounds stupid, so I'm going back to calling these posts "Book Reviews." I don't care that they're non-standard. As far as I'm concerned, I'm reviewing books I've read.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ebook Pricing

I'm in love with my nook. When ereaders first appeared, I thought they would be the solution to the Not Enough Shelves problem. Every avid reader tends to collect more books than will fit on the bookshelves they own. You wind up putting two rows of paperbacks on a single shelf, then stacking books on top of the bookcases, then debating if you have room for another bookcase. Some readers I know have stacks of books on the floor.

I remember going to look at an early model Sony ereader years ago. It sounded wonderful to be able to have hundreds of books that would only take up the physical space of one. But the technology wasn't there yet. The screen wasn't easy on the eyes and I couldn't imagine giving up holding a physical book in my hands.

Then came along e-ink technology, which is used in the screens of both the nook and Kindle. Finally there was a screen that was easy to read at a price that was acceptable. When Barnes and Noble lowered the price on the nook, I bought one as soon as I was able to get to the store.

One of the reasons I chose the nook is the fact that it uses the standard ebook format, unlike the Kindle, which has its own proprietary format. I could read ebooks downloaded from the library, something that isn't supported on the Kindle. (Although there are ways to work around that.) I also didn't like the fact that not once, but twice Amazon had removed ebooks in a snit without warning to customers, both from its website and even from the Kindles themselves. I didn't like their high-handedness and the way they were trying to monopolize the ebook market.

When Apple decided to get into the ebook market with the iPad, I was happy. The more the merrier, I thought. More competition would mean better ebook pricing, more options. Except Apple also introduced the agency model of ebook pricing.

Before Apple got into the game, ebook sales were handled in the same way as regular book sales. The retailer, in this case Amazon and Barnes and Noble, would buy the books from the publisher and set the retail price. Because of competition, retail prices were low, with Amazon often taking a loss on an ebook in order to build sales and customer loyalty to the Kindle. Barnes and Noble would match the price.

In the agency model, the publisher sets the price and the retailer acts as an agency for the sale. They get to keep a percentage of the retail price, but have no control over how much an ebook will cost. I remember in the beginning lots of articles that proved that even though the publisher now controlled the retail price, they would be making less money than they would under the old model.

Publishers decided they knew a way to fix that. They'd just up the price of ebooks! So, where before the price of an ebook was often a bargain for the consumer, now there's absolutely no financial incentive to buy most ebooks.

Publishers somehow equate the ebook to the hardcover edition of a book. So, while the hardcover edition of James Franzen's "Freedom" has a suggested retail of $28.00 and is discounted by Amazon to $15.93, the Kindle edition of the same book is $12.99. The hardcover edition John Sanford's "Buried Prey" is $15.37 and the Kindle edition is $12.99. "Dreams of Joy" by Lisa See (this week's number one on the NYT hardcover list) is $13.97 in hardcover and $12.99 for the Kindle edition. "Dead Reckoning" by Charlaine Harris is $16.77 in hardcover, $7.99 in paperback, and $12.99 for Kindle.

You get the idea. While the maximum price for an ebook under the old system was somewhere around $9.99, $12.99 seems to have become the new standard. And the infuriating thing is that the price for the ebook doesn't seem to come down once the paperback comes out. I refuse to pay more for an ebook than a paperback! Especially since I can't loan the ebook to a friend (the LendMe feature is a joke - one time for 2 weeks to a fellow nook owner), donate it to the Friends of the Library to sell, or have the author sign it.

But someone must be paying the high prices. Otherwise the law of supply and demand would tend to make the prices come down. And I haven't seen that lately. Personally, I can't afford that. So I'll download the freebies (B&N has free book Fridays with one title offered for free), watch for the sales (you can get "Water for Elephants" on both Kindle and nook this week for around $4.00), and borrow regular books from the library or buy the paperback until the prices become reasonable.

Like I said, I love my nook. I love that I'm not killing more trees to feed my reading habit. But I'm not going to support the idea that an ebook should cost more than a paperback.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Book Review: One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

And back to a mystery! This most recent book in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series was delayed almost a year from its original publishing date. The publishing industry has long lead times and it takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r for a book to go from acceptance to bookstore shelves. There are only so many slots open each year with a publisher. So, when Julia Spencer-Fleming missed the deadline to turn in the manuscript for this book, she also missed her publication slot and it had to wait until there was an opening.

(I often wonder what lucky author got chosen to fill that slot. Was it a new author who thought her first book would have to wait over a year to be published? Just think how exciting it would be to be told that your publication date had been moved up!)

The book was well worth the wait. At least, it was for those of us who have read every book in the series, starting with "In the Bleak Midwinter." I'm not sure about those who might start with this book. One of the "rules" of mystery writing is that a body should appear in the first chapter. It's better if it's on the first page. Unpublished writers are drilled in this rule. Established writers are told it had better be somewhere in the first three chapters. They already have a reader base that trusts them and wants to keep reading, even if the murder isn't on page one.

Julia Spencer-Fleming doesn't have the first murder happen until almost the mid-point of the book. And even then, it's not a sure thing that it was a murder. But there's plenty of other things happening to keep you interested.

Clare has returned from Iraq after leaving at the end of the last book, most likely as a way of running away from the intensifying relationship with Russ. But she hasn't returned alone. She's brought back some problems in the form of horrifying nightmares and a dependence on pills and booze. There are other characters who have recently returned from combat, several of whom we'd met in previous books. One is a double-amputee. One has a traumatic brain injury that keeps him from functioning normally. One has uncontrollable rages.

These people come together in a therapy group for returned veterans. We follow their problems in adjusting to civilian life. We wonder how the relationship between Clare and Russ will develop over the course of this book. And there's the mysterious MP who shows up with an unusual interest in a married returnee.

One thing I like about this series is that Clare is an Episcopal priest (Russ is the chief of police), but she doesn't live in the ideal world of Christian fiction. The people in Millers Kill are real people, not perfect cardboard cutouts. This includes Clare. But this book ramps up the sex and profanity to a level I don't remember being in the earlier books. It was a bit disturbing to see the number of times the Lord's name was taken in vain. I'm not a prude and I understand that OMG has become a text message with no thought as to what the meaning is. I just found the language a bit much.

And the fact that Clare didn't express any conflict over her behavior as far as her faith was concerned. In earlier books, her faith was central to who she was. Here it just seemed an afterthought. She might as well have been a librarian or a schoolteacher.

With that one caveat, I highly recommend this book. I literally could not put it down Sunday afternoon until I had gotten to the end. It's been a while since I felt that way about a book. Now to find another one that will keep me just as involved.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Fire Season

Most of the year we in Tucson look at reports from the rest of the nation and shake our heads, wondering why anyone would live anywhere else.

In the winter, we look at pictures of blizzards and nor'easters and hundred car pile-ups and give thanks we no longer live there.

In the spring, we watch reports of tornadoes like the one in Joplin, Missouri and even Springfield, Massachusetts and feel sorry for the poor people who have suffered when one of those monstrous storms passes through.

In summer, we look at places on the Gulf Coast and Florida and give thanks that we don't get hurricanes here.

And all year long we wonder what those people in California are thinking with earthquakes shaking the ground all the time.

But we forget that Arizona isn't heaven. Especially this year, when our rain has been more meager than usual and the storms rolling in off the Pacific bring nothing more than high winds. Large parts of Arizona are burning. You probably already knew that from watching the evening news. There's nothing real close to Tucson, but it's not that far away, either. The sheriff down in Santa Cruz County came on the evening news to announce that people living west of Rio Rico should be prepared to evacuate. Two of my coworkers live in Rio Rico and I pray that they and their families will be okay.

They're closing the Coronado National Forest, including Sabino Canyon, effective noon Thursday because of the fire danger. The drive up Mount Lemmon will be open, but you won't be able to stop at any of the overlooks. You're allowed to go to the village of Summerhaven. At least, that's what they're announcing today. Things may change later in the week. Mount Lemmon still hasn't recovered from the Aspen Fire in 2003. You can see the slashes of burned out trees at several of the turn-offs along the Catalina Highway.

I discovered a new website today while looking for news of the wildfires: Wildfire Today. There are maps of where the wildfires are and some incredible pictures of the billowing smoke. You wonder if the Wallow Fire will come under control before the first monsoon rains.

Still, despite the heat and the dry air this time of year and the threat of fire in the mountains, I'd be hard-pressed to live anywhere else.