Sunday, September 21, 2008

Computer Society

It's interesting how so many "experts" of the past have said that people are less social because of technology. I suppose that was true a few years ago, but not so much now. Last Monday I finally got on Facebook, and found dozens of friends I'd lost touch with over the years. It's addictive, and yet an efficient way to keep in touch with a lot of people in a way one never could via letters, or phone calls, or even e-mail.

Speaking of the latter, when I started my career the phones rang constantly, but now it's the e-mail in box that fills up at an alarming rate. I don't even have a physical in box on my desk anymore. Agents send proposals, and authors submit their manuscripts for editing electronically. 90% of my submissions are read on a Sony E-Reader. I still edit on hard copy, but transfer my changes to a Word document with track changes. I do have one author who does not own a computer. He doesn't know anything of the culture (blogs, message boards, :), IMing, etc.). He wouldn't have been much of anomaly even a few years ago, but working on his book at times has been a bit like going through your usual day with one arm tied behind your back--not unlike when we have a power failure and all productivity ceases. I've had to use the archaic fax machine, mail hard copies of covers and manuscripts, and talk on the phone with him daily. I don't know that it is that much less efficient than using the computer--in a way it's a bit nostalgic. This is how it was for most when I started in publishing ten years ago, but I can't help but wonder if ten years from now people will be at a loss as to how to communicate with someone without a computer.

Yesterday morning I went to a photo session at the Nashville Zoo--a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the shots, as it was overcast, the subjects (chinchilla, skunk, kinkajou, two-toed sloth, and serval--which was gorgeous, like a living Egyptian statue) moved a lot, and my camera, I'm realizing, is pretty basic. The zoo was crawling with photographers, not just because of the 15 people in the session I was there for. Apparently there was a photography class present, and another group of at least 30 people all in matching blue shirts and toting high-end cameras. I suspect the current fuel shortages kept a lot of other folks away. But it was great to have so many photographers around as I was able to start asking questions about upgrading to a new camera. One man recommended the Cannon Rebel or Cannon D40 as a good reasonably-priced intermediary between amateur and professional--he let me try his, which had a telephoto lens he was trying out that was about half the length of my arm. The shots were so much better than mine, though, even on the small display. Another man praised his Pentex for it's built in stability control and attached back-up battery. Last weekend, many had Nikons, though I didn't ask about the features. I still have a lot to learn about what to look for in a camera (I'm starting to grasp the meaning of aperture and shutter speed, but still working on how to use them). Thanks to my new Meet-ups groups I have access to 300+ local photographers from whom I can seek advice via the message board. So oddly, the very thing that once isolated people has become the thing that facilities society. I wonder how I could not believe that, though. I am writing a blog.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Photography Meet-up at the TN State Fair

A while back I was chatting with my colleagues about how difficult it is to make new friends as adults outside of work, particularly when you move to a new city as most of us have. Which is why we've all began using the Web site It's a site where you can find other people who share your hobby or interest in your area, and get together. One of my colleagues invited me to join her at her jewelry making Meet up a few months ago, and I learned how to make silver clay jewelry. I really enjoyed it, but I do so many different arts and crafts already, the last thing I need is to add jewelry making.
What I am interested in developing (no pun intended) is photography. And it just so happens that there is a Meet-up group of over 300 photographers in the area. I went to my first meeting yesterday at the Tennessee State Fair. I had been to the fair last year on my own--having never been to a state fair of any kind I couldn't resist. But this time I was focused (I swear, I'm not trying to do these puns) on taking photos.
It's interesting how the standard conversational questions can morph when you get a group of people with a single interest in common. For this group it was, "What are you shooting with?" My reply was, "Um, just this little Kodak." Everyone else said letters and numbers, like we were playing Bingo--or rather, "Dingo" since they were all "D-70" or "D-32." So, we were all standing in a circle--and I happened to be the only woman there--and just before heading out, the nine men of the group brought out these huge cameras from their camera bags, each one with a bigger lens than the one before. And there was I, with my dinky Easyshare Z7590 in my purse. I think of it as my "big" camera, and it is, compared to my pocket size Cannon PowerShot SD850 IS. But I was not going to be intimidated. And just as we were leaving, an older woman drove up. So not only was I no longer the only female, she had a regular 35 mm camera smaller than mine.
We started out shooting the Midway, and as usual I tried for photos of the rides without people in them. I mentioned that later, to the surprise of my companions. And after seeing some of their great shots of people, I think I might have to try that subject. As you may have noticed from my photos on this blog, I'm more interested in animals. So we moved up the hill to the livestock exhibition (the group was very patient as I tried to get one last shot of a chicken who wouldn't stay still), and checked out the photography exhibit as well where we were able to cool off in the air conditioning.
The highlights of the day was seeing my first (and hopefully last) eating competition. It was 2 pm, and we hadn't stopped for lunch, which turned out to be just as well because this was the nastiest thing I've seen in recent memory. There was a 100-pound woman (I know, because the MC kept telling us) who just stuffed Krystal burgers in her mouth while it was still full, getting food all over her face. Surprisingly, most of the contestants weren't obese, but rather very muscular. There was one huge man, however, from New York who was apparently the favorite. But my favorite was a mild-looking man on the end who spent the competition calmly dipping his burgers in Kool-aid and taking methodical, neat bites, as if he was just eating his regular lunch. Maybe he was....

I'll upload the rest of the photos to my Webshots page, in case you're interested.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why Are Adults Reading Kids’ Books?

A few years ago, when I was working in New York City, I observed the following conversation between two New York executives on the commuter train into New York:
“Hi Phil, I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Hello, Jeff. Good to see you.”
“What’s that you’re reading?”
“Oh, it’s Harry Potter.”
“Uh, I thought that was a kids’ book.”
“No, it’s not just for kids. Adults are reading it too!”
What was particularly unique about this scene was that it wasn’t—a few months later, I observed the near identical scene with two different commuters.
Harry Potter was a phenomenon—a rare series that entertained all ages. But the trend it started didn’t end with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series has taken over, even if on a lesser scale. My sister-in-law told me of a fan Web site exclusively for mothers who are fans of the books. The Young Adult category, one of the most lucrative in publishing today, has become the equivalent of family films like those produced by Disney/Pixar. Appropriate for children, but equally entertaining for and beloved by adults--with and without kids.
So, did Harry Potter launch a whole new movement in literature? No, it relaunched one. This same phenomenon happened a long time ago with another British series that captivated readers of all ages around the world. In 1837 the first British novel to feature a child as a protagonist was published. The author not only introduced the idea of novels about children, but had also pioneered the concept of series publication with his first novel—intially publishing it three chapters at a time, and ending each segment with a cliffhanger. Like Harry, the child in this novel was a British orphan in dismal circumstances who gets caught up in a world that is foreign to him and leads him into mortal danger. His name was Oliver Twist. Oliver Twist was Charles Dickens’ second novel, and every novel he wrote after it centrally featured a sick, mistreated, or dying child.* While his books were written for an adult audience, Dickens lay the groundwork for a new genre, which was followed by authors like Mark Twain. We now think of Dickens and Twain as “classic” authors to be studied, but if they were publishing these books today, they would likely fall under the Young Adult category.
So the idea of adults reading books featuring children as protagonists is not new, but why has it become popular again? I think there are a number of reasons.
1. Taboo—the success of Harry has made it acceptable for adults to read “children’s” books.
2. Time--they're faster reads—with limited leisure time, and competition for that time from other sources, a book you can finish in a day or two is appealing.
3. Values--while adult commercial fiction has grown more explicit in an attempt to shock and titillate our over-exposed sensibilities, books for young adults (with some notable exceptions) are a haven for readers who want to escape into a softer world.
4. Creativity—adult commercial fiction is categorized into genres (romance, mystery, western, science fiction) which have guidelines to make them appeal to the broadest possible audience—it’s effective for sales, but it limits creativity. Young adult fiction can mirror adult genres, but I’ve found more originality in those novels lately than in novels aimed at adults.
5. Nostalgia--We may be interested in reading about a veterinarian working in a Depression Era circus (Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen), or Tudor Queen Anne Boleyn (The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory), but we can’t directly identify with those characters. I am not a veterinarian or royalty (as far as I know). The world of adults is so much bigger, yet our paths as adults seem more fixed. But we all can recall the world of childhood, and the endless potential and possible futures. This is why YA books seem more imaginative—they are because the audience they target is open to it. And I think adults want to recapture that feeling of future potential, and the promise of adventures to come.

Here are my two favorite recent young adult series:

The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld: Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras--Westerfeld is excellent—truly innovative in creating a fictional world, and reinventing the first person narrative.

Lois Lowry’s Worlds trilogy: The Giver, Gathering Blue, The Messenger--Lowry won the prestigious Newbery Medal for The Giver. Like Westerfeld's more recent take, or another classic, A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle which won the Newbery medal in 1963, this series examines alternate realities to expose themes in our current world.

*If you’re interested in learning more about Dickens, the above information was drawn from an audio lecture The Dickens Nobody Knows by Elliot Engel, available at All of Engel's lectures are entertaining, fascinating and highly recommended.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Road Trip: Indianapolis, Indiana

Every now and then, particularly on summer weekends, I get the urge to travel. There’s something about a change of scenery and exploring an unfamiliar place that seems to revitalize me. In the past, I’ve done trips to Atlanta, GA; Louisville, KY; Paducah, KY; Chattanooga, TN; Knoxville, TN; and Birmingham, AL, to name a few. My main criteria for choosing a city are: if I can drive there in four hours or less, and if there is something there that I’d find educational or that ties into one of my hobbies. Indianapolis fit the bill.
I left early Friday morning, and arrived in the mid-afternoon at my first site, the Indianapolis Zoo. My latest and most ardent hobby is animal photography, so I’m always drawn to zoos in particular. The Indianapolis Zoo is relatively new, built in the 1990s, and while not huge, it has some unique and modern exhibits that are well laid out so you see animals pretty much continuously in each of the environment-themed areas: Forest, Desert, Savannah, Ocean. Highlights for me were the koalas, on loan from the San Diego zoo, the walruses—unusual for a zoo-- who swam underwater and seemed as interested in us as we were in them, and the lemurs on an island at the zoo center. At one point I noticed the lemurs moving cautiously onto a narrow bridge, retreating several times, until finally bounding lithely across. A closer look through my zoom lens saw the reason why. Lemurs don’t like water to begin with, and there were three turtles sunning themselves on the log that the lemurs had to jump over.
If you’d like to see more of my photos from the Indianapolis Zoo, I’ve posted the best of them in an album on my Webshots page:
The Indianapolis Museum of Art--an impressive modern building set in beautifully landscaped gardens--was my next stop. The museum features art and artifacts from around the world, and had a special exhibit of Egyptian artifacts from the Brooklyn Museum. I particularly enjoyed the fine collection of artwork in the pointillism style pioneered by George Seurat. Like most paintings, you really need to see these in person to fully appreciate them. From a distance they seem uncannily lifelike, but up close you find they’re all dots, not unlike pixels on a TV screen. But what is interesting is the use of color, how an ocean at sunset isn’t made up of blues alone, but of spots of yellows, greens, and oranges as well. My favorite artist using this style is Camille Pissarro (French, 1831-1903). His “The House of the Deaf Woman and the Belfry at Eragny” (1886) was one of my favorite paintings in the museum. The trees look so real, even up close. It’s quite stunning. My other favorite paintings in the collection were “Tidying Up” (1941) by Isabel Bishop (American, 1902-1988) a humorous painting of a woman inspecting her teeth in a compact mirror, and “His Majesty Receives” (1885) by William Holbrook Beard (American, 1824-1900). Beard is known for his satires featuring animals in human attire, and this is of a regal fox in a red ermine-trimmed robe, surrounded by small woodland creatures in business suits. I had never seen Beard’s work before, but will have to seek out more of it.
On Saturday I visited the birthplace of James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), the “Hoosier poet,” in Greenfield, IN, just East of Indianapolis. Unless you went to school in Indiana, you may not know of him or his work. On the other hand, you almost definitely are familiar with two of the byproducts of his children’s poetry. During the Civil War, the Riley family took in an orphan named Mary Alice Smith, whom they called Allie for short. Allie worked for her room and board, and named each of the stairs she scrubbed. She also told the Riley children stories of fairies and goblins in the dark cupboard under the stairs. She was only with them about a year or two before moving on, never to be heard from again in Riley’s lifetime. But she made such an impression on James that when he grew up he wrote a poem about her. Unfortunately, when the poem was printed the typesetter made an error, and it was published as “Little Orphant Annie” instead of “Allie.” The poem became hugely popular, and inspired a comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie,” which in turn inspired a musical, Annie, which in turn inspired my favorite childhood movie of the same name. The Rileys’ house was on a main road, and another of Riley’s poems was inspired by the men, some of whom were returning from the war, who passed by. He called it “The Raggedy Man,” and it was the inspiration for the wildly popular dolls (and subsequent franchise) Raggedy Ann and Andy.
While the people I met in Indianapolis were all friendly, polite, and warm, I found the city itself to be most unwelcoming to visitors. The layout is sprawling with no pattern to the streets that allows for easy navigation. Each site seemed to be a half hour away from the previous. But worst of all were the detours. The entry ramp to the highway by my hotel was closed, prompting a long detour. But what was especially irksome was the “detour” for the same highway in Greenfield, which had signs pointing in various directions depending on where you were approaching from, signs that ultimately led to endless roads in the wrong direction. After an hour of trying to follow these detours, I finally found a gas station where I learned that the detour was no longer necessary as the construction had been finished, but only some of the signs had been taken down. All of this is to explain why I wasn’t able to see the Medical History Museum or tour the house where James Whitcomb Riley lived and died in Indianapolis.
I did, however, stop by the Museum of Miniature Houses and Other Collections in Carmel, IN, a charming town north of Indianapolis. When I was a little girl I had a dollhouse--not the Barbie variety, but a serious hobbyist/miniatures-type deal. I never finished it—it’s assembled, and I had bought all the supplies to wire it for electricity, wallpaper, carpet, and furnish it. But I never got beyond the main assembly. I believe it’s still sitting in my parents’ house somewhere. The museum brought back fond memories, and the houses were almost overwhelming in their detail. I would have adored this museum when I was a little girl.
On the drive back, I made stops at the Devonian era fossil beds in Clarksville, Indiana, in the Falls of the Ohio State Park (which doesn’t appear to have any falls, and is not in Ohio—go figure), located beside the I-65 bridge from Indiana to Kentucky. It’s also near one of my favorite Louisville-area stores, Schimpff’s Confectionary in Jeffersonville, IN, which I discovered on another trip earlier this summer. The Schmipff family has been making the most amazing cinnamon hard candy the same way, with the same equipment, since 1891. They also have a traditional soda fountain where they hand-mix Coca Colas the old-fashioned way (much sweeter and more flavorful), and a candy museum. I also drove around the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Clermont, KY. It’s a beautiful park that’s ideal for hiking and biking, before heading home.