Monthly Archives: March 2010

From the Department of Don’t-Try-This-at-Home

Ignorance is not always so blissful.

I am losing a fingernail because of this. Not in a girly sort of oh-I-broke-a-nail kind of way, I mean losing a fingernail as in my-fingernail-is-falling-off-of-my-hand.

This, and a bad knee combine to make me feel a bit like a leper.

Or a zombie.

Mmm… zombies… Make it a double.

Ever wonder why they don’t call those toxic, pink drinks with all the fruit in them “lepers?” It would be way more appropriate, as the next day you will resemble a leper. And, if memory serves, be about as popular.[1]

There are some basic things a single girl needs to know. Married girls too, unless you’re married to a forest ranger or physician or something. A generation or two ago, most public educational systems in the U.S. thought they could remedy this knowledge-gap by instituting what is euphemistically called “Health Class” in the schools.

I am, as a result, blessed with a general knowledge of birth control techniques, and know what “reds”[2] and quaaludes looked like in 1987.

Also, I know how to treat venomous snake bites.

I grew up (and took Health Class) in New Jersey. There are about three venomous snakes in New Jersey.[3]

What I did not learn and what I now pass on to you:

If you, the intrepid woman who Can Hang Her Own Pictures, Damnit, or Finds Herself Inspired by Martha Stewart to Attempt Reupholstry, or Who Just Wants to Nail Something – Is That Too Much to Ask, ever hit your finger with the hammer (or slam your finger in a car door by accident, or whatever), and you wind up with a Very Nasty bruise underneath your fingernail, you should do something about it.

What you should do is this: if it is throbbing, and the nail turns all kinds of colors, and your finger swells way up, go to the doctor, in case you have broken something. If it just throbs and hurts like hell and turns colors and swells up a little, do this:

1)   Take six or eight Advil (or scam high-dose ibuprofen from your boss, who takes them for her back and is a Saint).

2)   In a few days, when the swelling has gone away, get a needle, heat it way up with a match or a candle. If the tip is a little bit red, that’s more than plenty hot.

Take the needle and make a little hole in the top of your nail (no, not underneath, a la the Viet Cong). I mean put your hand on a flat surface and puncture the nail from the top, just a little, until you can see serum (clear liquid) or dried blood. The point (Heh, heh. Ick. But you gotta) is to relieve the pressure that the blood will have built up between the layers of your nail (yes, your nail has layers — which you already know if you’ve ever a) been bulimic, or b) had a Bad Acrylic Nail Experience). If you do this, you will not lose the whole damn nail (as I am about to) when the pressure of the dried, congealing blood forces the nail’s layers apart and the top part falls flat off.

There you are. Forewarned is forearmed. Any good Outdoor Medicine, what-to-do-when-you’re-camping-and-something-gross-happens-to-you Guide will tell you this. I recommend Medicine for the Outdoors, by Paul S. Auerbach. It’s good to invest in a book like this to keep around the house, even if you don’t camp or hike or think you’ll need it, because, as I wail over my Way Ouchy fingernail, I ask:

Who knew?

[1] You’d like to be known as the spouse who challenged all the CEOs at the telecom conference to a who-can-sing-Danny-Boy-the-loudest competition? Drink up.

 [2] Surprise: they weren’t all red! I think these may have been amphetamines of some sort. I very much doubt anyone calls them “reds” anymore, or indeed calls them anything at all, since crack is probably the thing now. 

[3] They all listen to Sinatra.

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A great, big thank you

A lovely blogger friend has given me a prize! It just made my day. She is the Inveterate Optimist at and her posts always make me smile. And how can you not like the idea of sending people an award with cupcakes on it?

When receiving an award, one is instructed to do the following:

1. Post-back to thank the person who recognized you. Naturally, etiquette is observed.
2. Offer 10 things that make you happy. Though I’ve noticed straying from that number is acceptable.
and 3. Pass along the award to 10 bloggers who make you happy.

So, in the things that make me happy department:

1. Bulbs coming up in my yard – mini-daffodils: yayy!

2. The fact that the giant thump that scared the heck out of me this morning was caused by a pair of dare-devil squirrels and not by the tree in my backyard falling onto the house.

3. Ian Drury and the Blockheads. Seriously. Nope, no idea why there’s a sea turtle involved. He’s cute, though.

4. Rescue dogs.

5. My amazing friends and coworkers. You make my heart sing. And save my butt.

6. The 12 year old friend of the the bookshop who exclaimed last week, “Mom, look! They have the Iliad AND the Odyssey!” I love my job.

7. Our local humane society moving to a brand new, extra-nice building.

8. A sweet thank you note from a wonderful new author. This is her book:  I think it’s quite a big deal. Sure to give readers many happy hours.

9. Green marshmallow peeps. I only wish I had found them in time to send to my dad for St. Patrick’s Day… Oh, well, I’ve got more time to pre-stale them for him now! Did you know you can make peeps joust in the microwave? Yes, yes you can.

10. Nerdy comics. 

Oh, and? Owlcam.

My Ten Favorite Blogs (not counting The Inveterate Optimist above): Author Jen Lancaster’s funny, funny blog. Author Mimi Smartypants’ (hey, it’s her pen name – I can’t help it) funny, funny blog. Our Pack Inc. pit bull rescue’s informative & heartwarming blog about all things dog. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary’s stories about happy endings for animals in need. Tartitude: smart, funny commentary on just about everything. For immense fun, scroll down to her British Humor post. Knitgrrl, AKA Shannon Okey knows everything about yarn, as far ask I am concerned, and can tell you how to do just about anything. She writes books & patterns too.  This is her cat, Spike, who is preternaturally patient.

For horsey types, Janie Rentz always has some neat ideas for stuff to do with your equine friend, from coping with exercising in deep snow, to nifty how-to dressage videos. I’m mainly in this for the comics, but he does do a blog too. makes me laugh & counts because there are book reviews.

And last, but certainly not least: a group blog for new authors, featuring the incomparable Emily Winslow, author of “The Whole World” (a literary mystery coming in May)

Thanks to all you guys – you make my world a happier place.


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Careful what you wish for

Today we had an author event at our local retirement community. All sorts of organizations in town meet & host activities at this venue. It’s a logical choice – a nice place with a good sound system.

It’s very cheery, really. I know lots of the residents, and one in particular is always a top contender in our yearly book shop poetry contest.

As you walk in the front doors, you pass through a greenhouse area with some really impressive staghorn ferns. There’s almost always a fire lit in the gas fireplace next to the lobby. A room nearby holds the snack bar and a big-screen wii set up. Another large-screen TV in the main hallway lists upcoming events:  Thursday is Movie Night!

“Wow,” I think, “can I move in?” It’d be like college, but better: no exams (plenty of classes to take if you want, though – a book club did Russian Round-Up last year: Tolstoy, Turgenev & Dostoyevsky), instead of kegs of Blatz, there’s basically decent wine – and your whole world is a co-ed dorm…

As I go to bring in another carton of books from the car, a well-dressed middle aged woman gives me a friendly wave and asks quite earnestly, “Ready for your tour?”

Have I been mistaken for a potential resident? Suddenly the proliferation of tattoos & piercings among the 40-plus crowd in my town is completely understandable. It may be time to dye my hair magenta, or green… before somebody gives me a blue rinse.

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This year, it’s quatrains. To celebrate National Poetry Month this April, I am trying to get our customers and friends to send in four-line mini-poems of their own creation on the subject of reading or books. The one whose poem I pick will win a prize. Maybe a dinette set… Oh how I revel in the awesome power I wield as a bookseller!

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a poetry game show?

You have five seconds, contestants. Now: for what’s waiting behind door number three, give us a haiku!

Or you could have teams and make them write a sonnet. Up next: X-treme SonnetSmackdown.

Or for a really vicious & terrifying reality-TV feel: Critique Each Other’s Work with Simon Cowell!

But our contest is totally benign. I give out fliers that say Enter Your Poem on one side, and on the reverse get all educational (sort of) and tell you a little about the form.

But what to call the contest? I have come around to the idea that it is inappropriate to call it Show Us Your Quats. It took me a while to get this. And thank you, Kris, for explaining to me exactly why that would be wrong.

Quadrophenia? Like the Who album? Doesn’t that sound like a good name for a quatrain contest?

Hmm… maybe I’d better find out what it means first. But back in the Paleolithic, my first boyfriend made me a mix tape with a bunch of stuff from the album on it, so how bad can it be? After brief jaunts to Wikipedia & a Who fan page, I find out:

Apparently, the idea for the album was to present four different narrators, recorded in quadraphonic sound, so that each could speak to the listener from a different direction. I guess it didn’t work out like that. But whew! – Pete Townshend makes me kind of dizzy and exasperated just reading him:

The whole conception of Quadrophenia was geared to quadraphonic, but in a creative sort of way. I mean I wanted themes to sort of emerge from corners. So you start to get the sense of the fourness being literally speaker for speaker. And also in the rock parts the musical thing would sort of jell together up to the thunder clap, then everything would turn slowly from quad into mono and you’d have this solid sort of rock mono … then a thunder clap and back out again. We spent months mixing it and then found out that MCA was using the CBS quad system and … you might as well forget it. So our engineer remixed it in the same manner that it was mixed in stereo, the same sort of creative approach.

See what I mean? Strangely, First Boyfriend made me feel exactly the same way…

I read on to discover that “quadrophenia” used to be a popular term for dissociative identity disorder. So much for that.

But I am left with this Gem of Knowledge:

“The 8-track tape version of this album has the distinction of being one of the few 8-tracks that is arranged exactly like the album, with no song breaks. ”

All you vintage 8-track collectors out there should be thrilled to hear.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

And a Happy National Poetry Month to Us, One and All.

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Pick a Card

[Just so you know, you’ll have to click on the graphics to see them properly. Ah, technology…] 

I have now had roughly a gazillion people tell me I need to have a business card. Long ago, I had one for my freelancing stuff – but then all my contact information changed. Since I’d never really found much use for them (I had a ton of my old ones left over), I just let it go.  

But now people say that I need a card. Not for freelancing, but for my job search. 


 Yes. I need a card for a job that I need to have. 

At the book shop, I’ve always just written my name on the back of our bookmarks. The bookmarks have all my contact information at the shop on them, and no one expects booksellers to be especially slick. 

My resistance may be born from past attendance at telecom trade shows. For reasons that in retrospect seem unclear, I used to go to a lot of these. They suck. If I ever tell you that I’m going to a conference for telecom stuff again, shoot me in the head. It will be the kindest thing. 

At those sorts of uber-boring gatherings, guys in suits who think they’re cool (take a high-school bully, put him in an off-the-rack grey blend, send him to college and remove some of his hair: you have the man I am talking about) hold out their business cards to you while scanning the room over your shoulder, looking for a client with more money. This fails to charm. And here’s where the cards are these fellows’ downfall: They think you don’t notice them looking behind you for a fatter mark. They think you are looking at their card. 

So: we come to the ugly bit, where I ask myself, along with every other under-employed generalist on the planet, what the heck do I put on my card? 


“Highlight your strengths and duties at your present job,” I hear all you What Color Is Your Parachute* readers saying. Ok: 


That doesn’t mean I’m overworked. That is just indie bookselling. And it is (except for the toilet fixing part) great fun. I bet you thought we sat around and read all day, didn’t you? 

The point is that no card is big enough. And if I were to get a variety of cards, each highlighting a different skill, I would wind up with a set of 52 (collect ‘em all!**). 

What to do? I could get a card that just says my name and contact information. Like an old fashioned calling card. But then I’d feel like I was living in a Henry James novel. Also, I’d have to learn to turn down various corners to signify different things, as they did in Victorian England.*** And we’d all have to go out and buy silver salvers for people to leave them on, and the purchase of a silver salver would necessitate me having a job that paid more, so you see where this is going. 

Besides, if my card had nothing but my name on it, people would retrieve it from the depths of their wallets and purses and briefcases and say sad things like, “who’s this?” and “So what?” 

There is a school of thought that advocates putting one’s photograph on one’s card. Realtors do it all the time. It makes sense, since when you’re looking for a realtor, you probably talk to more than one and with their photos there, you can remember which was which. There are also people who think you should put your photo on personal cards. One of these people runs a matchmaking service and writes books.**** I think having a photo on a personal card makes someone looking for a “match” seem as though they are looking for something offering more concrete remuneration, but maybe that’s just me. 

Do feel free to comment. The great What Should Mary Put on Her Card debate is open to all (but remember: this is a family show). In the mean time, I give you: 


*Yes, the banner at the top does say, “The Hard Times Edition.” Kind of makes you want to take to drink, doesn’t it? 

**And for fun geeky-ness (I mean that in a good way) check out: “Collect all 21: Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek” at 

***For more on this, see the Etiquette Grrls, who are funny and snarky and are determined to teach the world a thing or two whether we like it or not.You can find this book at: 

 ****Patty Stanger, who has a show on BRAVO came up with this idea. God help us all:

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The Sun is Shining, the Sky is Blue & Girlfriend Needs a Job

As some of you returning readers may know, I am a bookseller with a quest: To acquire a job remunerative enough to support my tragic addiction to selling other people books.

That’s right: I love my job at the book shop like Romeo loves Juliet, like Homer loves a doughnut, like… Steve Martin loves the way he is unable, though he abase himself right into the orchestra pit, to avoid upstaging Alec Baldwin. And yet, these affectionate feelings do not pay the light bill.

So I’ve been looking for a better-paying job. Fear not, dear readers – I will remain firmly ensconced at the shop nights & weekends should more lucrative employment present itself.

But that’s really the problem, isn’t it? Even if I manage to tackle an HR director in the street and charm them into giving me an interview on the basis of my fiercely marketable talents, not least of which is the ability to recite Byron’s “Epitaph on John Adams” from memory, I will have to actually Go on That Interview. And then someone, or possibly more than one someone, will ask me the question feared and hated by every interviewee:

Where do you see yourself in five years?

This was a silly question when I graduated from college and sillier still when I left grad school, but in today’s economic climate it has attained the status of Truly Inane. It’s right up there with asking, “Read any good books lately?” above the din of a thrash metal concert.

For most of us seeking work these days, it is precisely our own, Wall Street’s and the world-at-large’s inability to predict what would happen five years down the road that has landed us in our present economic pickle. I should know better than the average investment banker what the future holds?

Hark back to your last interview. Did someone ask you this same question? Did you, in response, say something along the lines of: “I see myself right here, giving my all for the Impressive Corporate Giant of which this company is a part”? Are you still there, doing just that? If you are, how did that happen? Are you sacrificing a virgin every solstice, or what?

Now, I’m not knocking interviewers here. They get paid to ask that question. And really, how are they supposed to know anything about what we potential hires are like from a resume and a 40 minute chat? Do we have ethics? A sense of responsibility? Any skills at all? Are we basically decent to our fellow human beings when we aren’t all dolled up in our Interview Suit, laying the nice on with a trowel? What else are they supposed to ask?

I suggest drawing randomly from a sample of questions asked of beauty pageant finalists. Consider these ever-popular options used to grill the young & cute:

Tell me something about yourself.

Describe a recent goal that you achieved.

Sounds good so far, right? Here are some more:

If you could play god for a day, how would you change the world?

That could be a useful one – definitely weed out some psychos…

And – asking,

If you could be on the cover of any magazine, which one would you choose and why?

will keep you from accidentally hiring Sarah Palin.

Of course, there’s always:

Do you prefer a love marriage or an arranged marriage?

Popular at pageants held in parts of Indonesia, I am told… This question has infinite comic potential when used in job interviews, and will keep the legal department on its toes. But don’t let pageant questions limit you. Why not branch out? Try:

What is your favorite color?

to identify Monte Python fans, and:

Rock, paper or scissors?

when you need to make a quick decision.


What is the sound of one hand clapping?

if you need a sec to go and grab a cup of coffee. Leave your interviewee to think about it for a while. You could even take lunch while they mull.

As I fling my resume, along with various carefully crafted cover letters, out into the void, I look forward to encountering new and exiting interview questions. Any takers? I await the adoption of the Mary McDonald Interviewer’s Guide as a standard for hiring practices sometime soon. Possibly on April 1st.

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I have to confess: I am confused about young adult literature. Sure, I remember being a “young adult,” back in the days of gaslight and corsets. But we weren’t marketed-to so much then. Ok, contemporary pop music was aimed pretty squarely at us in the 1980’s (how many adult humans were listening to Wham? I mean sober.). Fiction was not so determinedly focused on the too-young-to-vote crowd, though.

What is a “young adult novel,” anyway? We have a whole section devoted to them at the bookstore, so I will tell you what I have learned.

One hard-and-fast rule: Fiction geared for teens invariably has a teen main character.

The inverse is not true. If it were, no one over 12 would read Huckleberry Finn.  Adults seem able and willing to read about protagonists of any age.

Rule two: Follow the money.

Adolescents today seem to be the only ones with disposable income. They buy books. They also buy music and movie tickets in far greater numbers than their adult counterparts. And it’s much harder for a parent to deny their child the funds to buy a book than to tell them no when it comes to films or music. Books are supposed to be good for you in a way that tunes and cinema aren’t. What that says about those other art forms is a whole ‘nother story…

So, publishers are happy to supply teens with all the books they can read. Bully for them! Sometimes it seems that if a book can be marketed to teens, it is. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. When Madeleine L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time, she intended it for an adult audience. Her publisher thought it would be more popular as a children’s book. I loved this book as a kid, and find, having re-read it a couple of years ago – that it retains its appeal. It is truly a classic that both young and old can enjoy.  

The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch, was first published in 2005 as adult fiction, but was “repackaged” for young adults in 2007 and sold to bookstores as a teen read. I read The Highest Tide when it first came out and loved this coming-of-age story set in the Pacific Northwest. I gave it to teens then. I give it to them now. The “young adult” version is exactly the same text. It’s cheaper, less well made, and has a sort of bland cover. Go figure.

The volume of Young Adult fiction being produced right now is high. It sells, so there’s a lot of it, wonderful and otherwise. The great vampire bandwagon is still being enthusiastically jumped on. You cannot shake a stick without hitting a Gossip Girl spin-off or imitator. And of course, you have the James Patterson sci-fi/fantasy thrillers, as well as whole slew of teenage spies busy saving the world.

But: what separates a “teen novel” from its “regular fiction” counterparts?

Rule three: Safety First?

I regularly hear parents express concern about what is now widely termed “age-appropriate content.” And I get that. Everybody wants to protect their kids – that’s a good thing. Some adults mistakenly see the YA section as a sort of “safe zone.” Is it sex and violence free? Nooooo. Would anybody read the books in it if it were? I really can’t even call it “sex & violence light.”

Here’s the thing: I can give a kid plenty of regular, adult literature, secure in the knowledge that it is technically G-Rated. Agatha Christie is sure not to shock; ditto Dickens. I can’t imagine a mom or dad who wouldn’t be thrilled at their offspring picking up a copy of Anna Karenina, or The Red and the Black, but these are certainly not “safe” books in any sense of the word. They are groundbreaking, challenging novels. They don’t give you a blow-by-blow when it comes to sex or violence – just shattered marriages and corruption.

What’s weird is that often parents are more troubled about sex scenes in the books their children read than about scenes of violence. Shoot-outs are OK; the same goes for serial killers and spies as far as most are concerned. To be fair, there are quite a lot of books out there that treat both the emotional and physical aspects of sex far too lightly – but this is fiction, after all. To be frank, if they’re going to take their cue from books, I’d much rather teens fool around with each other than with, say, guns or international espionage. While underage sex can certainly damage a person, it’s nothing compared to what a semi-automatic can do.

But this is America; we’re kind of a culture of violence. Fine, keep your gun.

Rule Four: The Gettoization of Real Literature

All that ranting brings me (at last) to something nice to say: Some books, classified as Young Adult due to their under-18 narrators, are Real Literature that the rest of us are missing out on.

Before I Die, by Jenny Downham , chronicles the last few months in the life of a teenage leukemia patient and what she is determined to accomplish in them. It is sensitive and real and will make you cry. Downham’s protagonist is no saint – she’s a young person wrestling with and enjoying all the things that make life beautiful and awful.

Madapple, by Christina Meldrum is a nuanced portrait of a family that tells itself lies, and truths and is sometimes eerily silent. There is no reason it should be confined to the underage reader. 

Rule Five: Sometimes, it’s not all there.

Because, as a society, we seem to see teens as sort of glamorous but unfinished adults, some publishers of teen fiction see no need to ensure that their books are finished – that is, done being written – before they are sold.

You start on one and are intrigued by the story. The characters get fleshed out and you begin to care about them. Then you reach a plateau where the main character is fully developed, but the story ceases to resemble events which might take place in the actual world (any actual world, even one with a zombie plague). It’s sort of like Coyote running off the edge of a cliff with his Acme safe. He keeps going for a few strides and then there’s the rueful realization that solid ground is no more & down he falls. In this kind of novel Coyote just keeps running. The consequences are not so dire. The examinations are not so deep. And the book is allowed to remain not-quite-fully-completed. It starts out with a tough issue, but gets to be life-lite – because it’s “for teens.”

One such book is God is in the Pancakes, by Robin Epstein. It tells the story of a misfit teen who makes true friends at her local nursing home. She ultimately has to decide if she can euthanize one who is dying of Parkinson’s. Difficult issue? Much?

This could be a “real,” “adult” novel. The reason it’s not? It’s not finished. If this book were going to be sold to adults, things would not tie up all tidy. The author would have been encouraged by her editor to examine the emotional lives of all her characters in more depth; to allow them to live in a darker world –one less pleasant, but more genuine. That said, I liked this book. Parts of it are very good – the dialogue is snappy and entertaining. The characters are interesting. The issues are compelling, if not fully realized. I wanted to like the end, but to me it seems like there isn’t really one – the oven timer is still ticking.

So what’s the skinny?

What makes a YA novel a YA novel? Are there through-lines? It seems to me that they are the same conventions society applies to teens themselves. We ask (or allow) the younger generation to be very adult when it is convenient, and expect them to retreat into childishness when it makes us more comfortable. The literature aimed at them is much the same – racy or difficult subjects abound, but are fully addressed only by the most skilled, persistent and daring authors and their publishers. It’s a hard school, but those who succeed in it do so spectacularly – in fact, the YA market, flooded though it is with indifferent or flawed work, may be the place to look for the real stand-outs in new fiction.

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