Friday, January 29, 2010

Musing on the Common Cold

Yesterday, I woke up with a sore throat from drainage. For much of my life, this was the first step down a long, dark road: days of sore throat, coated tongue, congestion, raw nose, that dried-out feeling, muscles feeling continuously scrunched up, achey joints, culminating in a chest full of gunk and bronchitis that would lay me out for a week, minimum, and the specter of full-on pneumonia.

Yeah, more than you wanted to know. I haven't had bronchitis since 1998 when I stopped eating meat (I don't think it's the meat per se; I think it's the increased consumption of fresh food, especially vegetables) but the memories are too vivid not to invoke the protocols - the strongest decongestants and expectorants I can legally obtain, lots of juice, tea with honey, lots of lying around reading mysteries and ghost stories. Since it's so long since my last bronchitis attack, I'm going to take a big chance and drive up to Austin tonight to attend an SCBWI convention instead of wallowing in bed. After all, it's already paid for, and I'll be crashing at a friend's house. I'll have someone to take care of me if necessary.

As a historical and prehistorical researcher, whenever my body assails me in this way I can't help reflecting on how I would have lived through illness in the earlier time periods that interest me, and this makes me so, so grateful to have been born in the late 20th century! If I had been born even 20 years earlier, there's a a good chance I wouldn't have survived infancy, and I might well have been a sickly deaf orphan if I had. The infant mortality rate worldwide was still 116 per thousand in 1960, the year before I was born; my race, class, and country of origin cushioned me from that risk.

Penicillin was discovered in 1928, but did not become available as a drug until 1943. I took a lot of penicillin in my youth. I had my tonsils out when I was three, because that was the earliest the doctors would operate on me. To the best of my knowledge, I had tonsillitis constantly the entire time I was two - Mom would get a two-week prescription and symptoms would abate till I used up the prescription. Modern medicine came to my rescue again when I got an inner ear infection at the age of six; my mother was in a sanitarium for tuberculosis that same year; and a few years later my sister had yellow fever. And, oh yes, we had an epidemic of mumps in our house at one point. My brother got it on one side, then I got it on both, then my sister got it on both, then my brother got it on the remaining side. We kids never caught measles, rubella, TB, or any of the poxes, thanks to vaccination programs.

We now have strains of TB and many other diseases that are resistant to antibiotics, and I know that they are overprescribed; but when I think how different my life would have been without them, had I had a life at all, I can't agree with people who think we'd be better off had they never been developed. It's easy to despise what you've never done without.

And consider the day to day reality of my bronchitis-prevention regimen. At the first sign of the dreaded sore throat, I mobilize my forces. Drugs are the least of my allies on these occasions. Consider life as a poor sick person without Vicks Vaporub to hydrate the raw skin around my nostrils and dry out the sinuses within! What if I had to squeeze my own juice and make my own soup from scratch on an open hearth? Since the doctor told me to go low-sodium I have to make my own soup from scratch anyway; but I like to keep a Mason jar of vegetable broth, made from the odds and ends of veggies I use during the week, in the fridge anyway. The Mason jar was patented in 1858; the first ice factory in Texas opened in San Antonio in 1866; before that, here in the south, you could preserve what you salted or dried. Also, I can cook and heat the house with nice clean smokeless gas, instead of a wood, coal, or dried cow chip fire releasing smoke to sting my eyes and further irritate my nose and lungs.

Consider the common facial tissue. So flimsy, so frail. You use it a time or two, crumple it up, and throw it away. No one ever has to handle it again (assuming you don't miss the wastebasket), and it carries its load of germs and grossness quietly off to a landfill. Yeah, we have too many landfills; yeah, tissue irritates the nose. I use handkerchieves when I can. They're easier on the nose. Did anybody anywhere ever have enough handkerchieves on hand to get me through one day of a cold? I doubt it. They would have had to be washed every night, until very recently indeed in water heated on top of that smokey fire or stove, and dried in the same place if the sun wasn't out, and probably needed again before they were dry. (The same would have been true for diapers. Since I have no children, I can get away without thinking about that too closely.)

Readers of 11,000 Years Lost will recognize this preoccupation of mine as the origin of the episode in which all the women and children in the group catch cold at the same time, huddling together in the rockshelter, infecting each other. If I'd really wanted to gross the reader out, I could have given them stomach flu. With no indoor plumbing. Count your blessings!

I could go on, but it's time to rest some more and you get the idea.

I want to time travel, but I don't want to live in the past. I'd die there.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Headlines! Homo Floresiensis!

Homo Floresiensis, the "hobbit" of Indonesia, is the coolest paleontological discovery ever, and that's including megafauna. I have no doubts that they were a human species, and none of the arguments or evidence marshalled against that interpretation strikes me as more than flimsy special pleading. New hobbit stories always attract me, and here's one:

Is the Hobbit's Brain Unfeasibly Small?

I read my new DWJ book, my husband's picking up the car after three weeks in the garage and will use it to pick up our backlog of comics at the comic store, the new dishwasher is installed, and I get a hobbit news story. Could this day get any better?


I got another Fortean Times, which is nice but - remember how I don't order from Amazon when I can get it from the Red Balloon?

Well not if it's Amazon UK and what I get is DIANA WYNNE JONES's new book which may not be available in the US for a year or more. Loyalty is great but this is Diana Wynne Jones. They'll understand.

I first started reading the great DWJ with Charmed Life, which I bought used for a buck ninety-eight while noodling around a genre store in Atlanta as my husband went meticulously through the comic boxes filling gaps in his Thor collection. It was pretty good. So I looked under Jones next time I went to the library, and there she was. I gave her the one-book-per-visit treatment, picking the books that sounded most interesting first, and then I was down to Dogsbody, which sounded pretty lame. The dog star Sirius incarnates as a dog to retrieve a magical dohickey, yeah, there's an upper limit to how good that can be.

Except there isn't when Diana Wynne Jones writes it.

After that, I didn't bother reading the jacket copy. I just picked her up and started reading her in the line at checkout. This one's called Enchanted Glass.

Excuse me, I think I've wasted enough time blogging now. "When Jocelyn Brandon died -- at a great old age, as magicians tend to do -- he left his house and his field-of-care to his grandson, Andrew Brandon Hope..."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bookstore Economy

Saturday was the grand opening of the Twig/Red Balloon, our local indie, at its new location at the old Pearl Brewery site. I had to bus over because the car's still in the shop, so I was limited in what I could buy, not only because our domestic tech is breaking down and money is tight, but because I can only carry so many books even in the backpack that makes total strangers worry I'm going to hurt myself hauling it around. Also, I stopped at the farmer's market in the space and got some spinach and broccoli, food that takes up a fair amount of space.

I still spent more than I ideally should have, but it couldn't be helped and I was conservative - next books in series, books I knew I couldn't get at the library, one research book, books by friends. I got new titles by Natalie Babbitt and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, who I've been reading for decades, and who are both authors that people who aren't in the children's book business are always delighted to learn are still alive and still writing. That's my ambition in a nutshell - to be one of those children's authors who keeps doing it, year after year, with a big chunk of shelf in the library that a kid can come back to trip after trip working through systematically one book at a time (I still do this) and occasionally see a new one pop up.

Anyway, I wish I had the funds, and the room, to keep up with my field solely through the Red Balloon instead of relying so heavily on the library. One trip a month and a subscription to The Horn Book would do it, and would be a help to their bottom line. I worry that San Antonio will lose our indie as so many other cities have, but I also worry that my husband will die or that the back will fall off our house (it's more possible than you think) and that we need to keep overpaying the credit cards and keep our debt from ballooning. I'm a natural non-spender. So in the interest of serving all the needs, I avoid buying at the megabookstores and Amazon (my husband does not, but a lot of what he buys is outside their normal stock), and when I want to order a book and have it as soon as it comes out, I do so through them. They have an excellent track record for ordering. If the book is available at the distributor at all they'll have it for you the Tuesday after you ask for it, and they call and tell you when it comes in.

The store is double-sided: the Twig for adult books, with a small but good assortment of mainstream, literary, genre, and non-fiction; and the Red Balloon doing the same for kids. The new space is more open than the old one on Broadway and right off the new museum reach of the River, easier to get to in some ways, harder in others. I hope they can draw tourist business there. I hope I sell a book soon, the budget eases up, and I can go more often.

The trouble is, I'm a book magnet. It doesn't matter how resolute I am. They practically mob me. Subjects I didn't know anything about, authors with which I am familiar, new work in an area I'm already interested in, random pictures of megafauna - I'm telling you, it's not my fault. The only way to avoid them is to stay away from them.

So I tend to stay away from the Red Balloon, even though it's one of my favorite places, and fill my reading needs at the library, where the books are free and I can take them back rather than building another room onto my house to fit them all in. When I'm as rich as J.K. Rowling, I'm not buying any castles; I'm just going to buy the bungalows on either side of us and fix them up as library annexes to our house, and then I'll adopt the Horn Book and once-a-month trip routine.

Please, when you come to San Antonio, visit the Red Balloon and spend money there, so it'll still be there when that happy day arrives!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Secret Staircase

One of my first drawer manuscripts was titledThe Secret Staircase. I was ten, I think. I wrote "The Secret Staircase" on the top line of the paper, skipped a line, wrote "Chapter One," and started introducing my characters. They were Claire (12,) Maud (10 and the protagonist), and Mavis (8). They lived in the mid-nineteenth century in a classic Queen Anne house and I spent several chapters describing how they lived without ever figuring out where the secret staircase was, why it was in that house, or what the plot would be.

I thought about using the title again, about 20 years later, and made a serious attempt to think about how to make it work with my limitations and talents as a writer. As an adult I prefer to set stories in places I know well, so I needed a reason for a secret staircase in one of San Antonio's historic houses, and a reason for it to be key to the plot. Our historic houses aren't generally as big as all that (the one I live in now is about typical, at 2,000 square feet) unless originally built as hotels, boarding houses, or apartments. I decided that when the house was converted to apartments in the mid-twentieth century the narrow back staircase used by the servants was sealed off. The girls in the apartments at its foot and head would discover it and find a way to go backward and forward in time using it. That was when I first became interested in Reconstruction as a time period; but I never got the spark that turned the mechanical operation of putting a plot together into a book. The only characters with faces and voices were two people in the past: the ex-slave cook-housekeeper, and her son, a State Policeman under Congressional Reconstruction. Even they were distant, on the far side of a sea of research.

So I let it be. I may tell their story someday. I'm finding that, though not nearly the open untapped field the Pleistocene is, Reconstruction cries out for a different sort of treatment than it's generally had in fiction. And The Secret Staircase is a good title. But I may not ever be able to use it and anyway, titles can't be copyrighted. So take it if you need it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

It Came in the Mail

More maily goodness.

For one thing I got my Skin Horse: Volume 1 compilation book, with free original art thrown in and an irradiated operatic Italian silverfish sketch on the envelope! Skin Horse is a daily webcomic about the underfunded secret government department in charge of the welfare of nonhuman sapients - monsters who have escaped from/eaten their mad scientist creators, classified bioweapons who turn out to be pacifists or uncontrollable or both, irradiated silverfish who escape from their terrerium and create Italian-renaissance civilizations in basements full of classified documents, that sort of thing. I'm making my husband read it, too.

Also, and more to the point of this blog, I got a Mammoth Trumpet, the quarterly educational outreach publication for the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M in College Station. Less comprehensive but also a lot more readable than the annual journal, Current Research in the Pleistocene, the Mammoth Trumpet contains nonscholarly articles about what is going on in the study of Pleistocene America.

First up, "Paleo Woman: Lost to History." I only skimmed this, because they're preaching to the choir with me and it's basically a distillation of stuff I've already read. The article talks primarily to Elizabeth Chilton and James Adovasio on the reasons why women are so absent from traditional views of prehistory when obviously they were present and doing important stuff throughout.

"Finding Traces of Early Hunters Beneath the Great Lakes" is cool - all about a team using sonar to identify potential archeological sites on drowned terraces of Lake Huron. They've spotted a number of features that resemble historical caribou drive lines. Of course now they need to go down and test the hypothesis, which has its problematical elements. But the great thing is, if sites survive down there, materials that are perishable when buried on dry land are often preserved when buried in freshwater lakes, so there might be ropes, or basketry, or fabric, or all kinds of stuff we don't normally see from so long ago.

"Decoding the Woolly Mammoth: Part II" talks about DNA analysis of frozen mammoth remains, and how they show that mammoths in Alaska and Siberia related, with Alaskan mammoths spreading back into Siberia after a period of depopulation. Plus a sidebar on mammoths.

"Early Human Occupation in the NW Plains of Uruguay" - this is all new to me, and some of it is new to the field generally. Uurguay is virtually untapped as far as Pleistocene archeology goes and they've got a good site at Pay Paso, the earliest occupations of which are about as old as the oldest known Clovis occupations in North America.

"Use Wear, Up Close" is all about the process of putting a tool under a microscope and figuring out what it was used for. This is not a specialty for those of either short attention spans or lax work ethics, as it involves both hours of hunching over a microscope and inventive experimentation on modern rocks to find out what kind of traces different tasks leave. So you might have to butcher a bison with a number of different kinds of stone in order to understand what you see under the microscope.

And that's it except for the book sale on the back cover. Wonderful geeky goodness, and a nice break from Civil War Texas for me. If you want to get some, too, you have to get a membership to the CSFA, but it's only $30 for a year at the base level, so what are you waiting for?

If you want to know more in-depth stuff about what women were doing in the Ice Age, you can read The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Judgement at Bexar County

This is going to be another too-long post.

About a month ago I posted about the web of connections we start making when we research. I used, as a present example, the ramifications of my online search for data on the interpersonal violence in western Texas during the Civil War. The last time I tried, the index of Southwestern Historical Quarterly was still crashing me, but I could use the Table of Contents, so most of last week saw me scouring "The Records of the Confederate Military Commission in San Antonio, July 2-October 10, 1862," edited by Alwyn Barr, which are spread out over Volumes 70 (issues 2 and 4), 71 (issue 2), and 73(issues 1 and 2).

This Commission was the judicial organ of the martial law imposed in 1862 to stop depreciation of currency, enforce conscription, prevent a Mexican exodus, and head off a suspected Unionist uprising based in Gillespie County. I had hoped to find out something about the actions of the San Antonio Vigilance Committee and maybe some details about points south, but was disappointed in that. Not very, though - the records in their entirety are as juicy as any historian of the period could want, lacunae and all, and names familiar to me kept popping up, often accompanied by the closest thing to the sound of their voices I am likely to get.

Although the action of my story will be concentrated between Bandera, San Antonio, and Castroville, I found myself taking extensive notes on the Matter of Gillespie County. My attention, already engaged, was arrested when James P. "Weldrop" was sworn in to testify against a merchant on a charge of refusing to accept Confederate money. Unlike other names in the account, "Weldrop" was not footnoted; but misspellings are scattered throughout the record, and who could this be but James P. Waldrip, leader of the infamous Haengerbande, 25 men ostensibly recruited as a frontier defense unit but really engaged in murdering Unionists? His testimony doesn't stand out among that of others, and only a little arrogance and bad-temper presage his dire future: The hanging of former schoolmaster Louis Schuetze in 1864, for which crime among others he would be declared "vogelsfrei" (literally, bird free; figuratively, no more penalty for killing him than for a game bird in season) after the war. In 1867, when he dared to show his face in town and stay at the Nimitz Hotel, Schuetze's son-in-law Phillip Braubach would chase him through the hotel, try to hide in the yard behind a tree, and be gunned down by someone who would never publicly claim credit.

And who is the next defendant but "Phillipp" Braubach himself? The paper with the charges against him appears not to have survived. Never mind; I've done enough background reading to plunge into the testimony knowing he was, from the Confederate point of view, guilty as heck of being a loyal Union man and therefore a disloyal Confederate. The testimony is all about recruitment of a home defense unit suspected of being a cover for an armed resistance to the Confederacy, with a lot of reference to who and where he hung out, who he recruited and who he refused, what he did and did not do as sheriff, and how "everybody knew" he was for the Union.

Chas. H. Nimitz (if that name sounds familiar it's because you're thinking of his grandson, Admiral Chester William Nimitz), who put together a petition that the company Braubach raised not be commissioned, testifies that the company was raised in secret; that Braubach, when the petition went out, "denounced all who were engaged in it and said they were all a damned click, but he could bring 200 men to our doors and make us talk differently;" that Braubach was present and didn't interfere, though he was sheriff at the time, when a man was beaten for loaning a secessionist a horse. Not that Nimitz witnessed the beating, but he heard about it from at least 20 reliable men later. He admits that he and the accused have had "very strong difficulties."

He's not exagerrating either, if we may judge by Braubach's statement a few days later, when witnessing in the defense of his co-accused Mr. Radcliff, against whom Nimitz also testifies, that: "I don't believe Mr. Nimitz would swear a lie, when he is not interested." Which is as much to say: He'd only perjure himself if he had a reason to.

I am already talking too much, and I haven't even mentioned the person who interests me most. If I were writing a novel which included these men as characters, which I hope never to do, I would characterize Nimitz as a committed secessionist who sincerely feared that Braubach could have raised a viable guerrilla army and put a large portion of the frontier in rebellion against the Confederacy; and Braubach as a committed Unionist who would have done it if he could have. Either one, depending on the context of the novel, could be hero or villain. After all, in attempting to prevent a theortical guerrilla war which could have devastated the district, Nimitz and his petition brought in a real period of martial law which has gone down in history as extreme, violent, and unjust, with bodies floating in the Pedernales River and an aftermath of fear which allowed the Haengerbande to flourish. Braubach, for his part, if he behaved as Nimitz and several other witnesses claim, seems a hair away from becoming Waldrip's Unionist opposite number. Is it true that he stood by and let a young man be beaten for loaning a horse to a secessionist? What about other intriguing remarks in the testimony, about "the meeting when the man was killed" or "the same day the man fell from his horse and broke his head"? Were these incidents of Unionist violence, Confederate violence, random accident? Alas, the Commission was hunting down sedition and rebellion, not extrajudicial violence, and if they followed up on these remarks the testimony hasn't survived.

How you spin this depends on the story you want to write, and it's customary, in historical novels, to emphasize certain points of fact and de-emphasize others in order to render a story more dramatic. These two men leap vividly off the page; for good or ill, they demand starring roles. But let me direct you to someone in the background, a certain E. Krauskopf. Compared to Nimitz, his testimony for the prosecution is short and lacking in detail. "I have heard accused make remarks which led me to believe that he was opposed to us. He always went with the opposition or Union party. I know one time there was a Methodist Preacher, who came in and spoke about the war, and said he believed the war would be over in six weeks. He always meets with the party who halloes for the Union." That's the entirety of his testimony against Braubach.

In a subsequent case, against Ferdinand W. Doebbler for acting as agent of an abolitionist paper, writing a seditious letter to it, and maintaining his saloon as a meeting place for Unionists, Krauskopf testifies at greater length, in a singularly undamning way, and presents Doebbler (who defends himself - ably, presenting a persona not at all like modern notions of saloonkeepers) with several useful points. To one focusing on trying to understand what he himself felt, thought, or believed, he provides fewer hints, but it is not out of line to read him as a reluctant witness, testifying less out of conviction than fear. When he says that "some good loyal men" read the "abolitionist" paper because it had European news, is he shielding himself, or someone else, against accusations of reading it? It seems likely. And in this context, is it not fascinating to know that two years later, he would step into the leadership of a new frontier defense unit on the death of the man who organized it - Braubach's intended father-in-law, Louis Schuetze? That he made ammunition for the Confederacy? That the Krauskopfs and Nimitzes intermarried?

A novelist has a lot of leeway with the character of Krauskopf, because these two paragraphs of testimony seem to be all that he says for himself, on the record, ever. It would be easy, in either the hero-Nimitz or the hero-Braubach mode, to cast him as a coward; or as a sidekick; or as an opportunist; but I would never do so.

For one thing, it would be a base ingratitude against his great-great-grandson Ben (did I miss a great? I might have), who went miles out of his way this weekend to help me run my errands while my car was unavailable, and who trusted me with his file of geneological material so I could mine it for research leads.

For another, I don't believe it. The coward, the sidekick, and the opportunist are stock characters for this sort of novel, as are the hero and the villain. None of them is a real person.

Not even the Krauskopf family knows where Englebert Krauskopf stood on the issue of secession. Certainly, if he voted against it, he accepted the status quo when the results came in; but if he voted for it, he didn't go around crowing about that, either. It's clear from the testimony and the family connection that he was friends with Nimitz, but if you can only be friends with folks who agree with you, you're going to be lonesome. There's also a family story (documented in a newspaper article neither of us has tracked down yet) about his daughter extracting him from a meeting with a story that his son Oscar was sick, when he was really being summoned to talk to a Unionist who would have been hung if caught in town.

Our working assumption is that Union and Secession were abstract matters he didn't care much about. We are sure he cared about the community he'd been so much a part of creating (read the Handbook entry I linked to; the man wasn't a leader, but he was busy!), and his family. We presume he cared about his friends and neighbors. If I absolutely had to put him in a story, I'd portray him as someone who avoided political conflict, whom his friend Nimitz had convinced for awhile that there was a real danger of violent insurrection that would endanger everyone, but who wasn't nearly as sure of it at the time he testified; who wouldn't lie, but who would do his best not to harm anybody.

I'd probably also give him some of Ben's mannerisms; it's only natural.

So, do I have a point here? Mostly I'm sorting all this out in my head. Having refused to judge Englebert because I happen to know Ben, have I the right to judge anybody whose descendents I don't know?


Not even Waldrip?

Mmmmm...I guess not; though he sure did some evil things in his time. I will never be so neutral as to let a lynching go with a shrug and an "I wasn't there." But I will concede, I don't know how he got from the guy with a chip on his shoulder who testified, to the head of a mob hanging a middle-aged schoolteacher. And only when I understand that process can I be positive of avoiding it myself.

I won't use any of these people as characters unless the story gives me no option, but part of the reason for all this reading is to make my fictional characters realistic in the context of their times. My heroines, my villains, and my support characters are gestating in an amniotic sac into which are distilled my conceptions of Braubach, Nimitz, Krauskopf, and Waldrip; as well as dozens of other individuals who rise from the documents like dolphins from the Gulf - a shadowy bulk under the water, a fin, a bright leap into the air half-obscured by splash.

Just because we can't see them clearly doesn't mean they weren't real, or that the selves they knew themselves to be don't matter. It behooves us to remember that as we are, so they were; that not one of us knows how we would behave in the situations in which they found themselves.

No, you don't. You're kidding yourself if you think you do. No one ever knows what they would do, until they do it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Headlines! ALA Awards!

The American Library Association Youth Media Awards are posted at ALA's site, and I get more reflected glory. Diego: Bigger Than Life, illustrated by David Diaz, written by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand, and published by Marshall was honored with both the author and the illustrator Pura Belpre award, and I've known Carmen T. on the internet for years. I even had her vet my book The Music Thief for gringo stupidity. So I'm very proud of her.

Tanya Lee Stone hasn't been on the listserve as long and I can't claim any close acquaintance with her, but her Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, won the Robert F. Sibert Medal for most distinguished informational book for children, and I'm going to take the liberty of being proud of her, too.

Now for the embarrassing admission - of all the Newbery books, award and honors, I have only read The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick. This is because I can't make myself keep up with all the new books coming out and choose my books haphazardly, based on what I happen to run across, rather than actively reserving books or ordering them. So I'm always behind the curve on Newbery day, and am not much good at improving the dismal record of the SFWA for haphazard and sometimes inexplicable nominations for the Andre Norton Awards, which has always acted as the neglected stepchild of the Nebula. But I'll get 'em read.

Headlines! Megafauna Forever!

Italian scientists want to "recreate" the aurochs by selective breeding of similar modern breeds. But it wouldn't really be an aurochs, which I presume was a species rather than a breed, and what place do they see in modern Europe for such a large critter? Is this just for the tourist trade? Or is there an ecological need for a large wild grazer in some areas of Europe? Or do they just think it'd be cool? A lot of science is proposed because the scientists think it'd be cool.

Which it would be.

Giant Cattle to Be Bred Back from Extinction

Meanwhile, up in Alaska, examination of genetic material in soil samples shows that horses and mammoths survived there much later than the fossil record shows, presumably in small remnant populations. This is an exciting technique for dealing with the fact that fossilization is a random event, not guaranteed to leave any traces of a species at all, and less and less likely to occur as a species declines in number. DNA doesn't survive well, either, but a small soil sample that has no bones in it at all could potentially have DNA from a good cross-section of the animals that existed in the area at the time it was laid down. Way more practical than rebreeding!

Late-Surviving Megafauna Exposed by Ancient DNA in Frozen Soil

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Local Librarian Panel

Normally I'd be doing Idea Garage Sale this morning, but I have a lot on my mind and it'll keep. That's the thing about ideas. They hang around your head waiting for you, whenever you want them.

So yesterday our local SCBWI hosted a panel of librarians, both from the public and from the school libraries, to talk about the areas of overlap in the interests of writers and librarians. I got there late due to various logistical problems - it's been that kind of week - and didn't catch all their names, nor did I write those names down, but here's some of the things talked about, willy-nilly and without attribution.

Middle school kids like weird things - ghosts, the supernatural (what I used to call "rumor books" and now call Forteana) - lots of graphics, and non-fiction in easily-digested snippets. One local middle-school librarian is having a run on cookbooks. She does not know why. One can't keep any of her graphic books on the shelves; another moves her graphic fiction but not her non-fiction. Middle schoolers love books in which "extreme, terrible, terrible" things are happening to the characters; the kinds of books that parents are most likely to hate, in fact. Books are a safe place to explore the dreadfulness of the world. One of them quoted Josh Westbrook: "Kids are living stories every day that we wouldn't let them read."

(I knew that, but most adults seem to forget it, unless they work with kids all the time; and even most parents forget or try to deny it. I'm constantly running across book reviews, usually in genre publications, in which a reviewer for adult fiction comes across a YA book and is both surprised at how good it is and how shocked at how graphic and dark parts of it are. Read more YA and get over your grown-up squeamishness.)

Non-fiction purchases for school libraries, and to a lesser extent public libraries, are guided by the curriculum. Language Arts teachers are now required to teach genres, and the early grades are having a hard time finding non-fiction of high literary merit suitable for the youngest kids. In Texas, second, fourth, and seventh grades are the "Texas years" in social studies, and high-quality, accurate, and graphically interesting Texas books suitable for those years are in high demand; especially ones that don't focus on the Alamo. There is a lot more to Texas history than that single battle in a single war! (Texas history has more history than all the others put together, I think sometimes.) The elementary school libraries particularly want biographies of Texans suitable for their age groups.

The public library won't do author presentations on books not in their collection and they don't buy books without strong reviews. As a public institution, they have rules and regulations as well as personal judgements guiding their acquisition. All of the librarians have such regulations, and it's part of the defense in case of a book challenge to be able say: "The reviews in School Library Journal, Voya, Bulletin for the Center of Children's Books, Library Media Connection, all the standard review organs indicated it was appropriate to my age group." If the reviews are in disagreement they have to fall back on their own judgement, and that can take awhile, sometimes involving consultation. No one wants to be a censor, but no one wants to be at the center of a controversy, either, and not all schools have the same needs. All of them have been in the position of deciding against a book which, later in the same year, they saw every kid reading - Twilight was specifically mentioned.

They all work with book distributors, or jobbers, in order to acquire books. If they have to go through a publisher or non-standard source it's a major hassle. They don't put books on reading lists if the books aren't readily available (though once in a great while a publisher who gets on the right reading list, such as Lone Star, will do a reissue to meet the demand). So, if you're with a small press or, heaven forfend, self-published, you need to focus your efforts on getting reviewed and on getting picked up by distributors before you go schmoozing the librarians.

When you get an author visit, they want someone who can engage the kids. Younger kids especially want visual simulation. They want to know what the author is like as a person and they want the story behind the story. As someone who's done author visits, I'd like to point out that you don't have to have a lot of bells and whistles; but you do need to tailor your presentation to your audience and lead with your strengths. If you're tech-challenged don't burden youself with a lot of tech. Visual stimulation can be achieved by a whiteboard and markers, or even by body language and a botched Power Point presentation can be boring as heck. Writing skills are described as "huge" in the curriculum, and every author can talk about them.

Talking about the problem of bilingual and multicultural books took up a lot of the last hour, not surprisingly, considering where we are. Although San Antonio is closing some schools for budgetary reasons, two total immersion bilingual schools will be opening soon, and they need books to serve a Spanish-English curriculum. American publishers are way behind the curve in that department. Scholastic Book Fair has recently announced that it would stop offering Spanish books because they don't sell, and our panel of librarians confirmed that this is so, despite a huge demand for Spanish books. This seems to me to indicate that whoever has been choosing Scholastic's Spanish line isn't good at his job. Small Texas presses that specialize in this area often provide books with good content, but their graphic presentation is poor - i.e., they have crappy cover art. We can bitch and whine and complain about it all we want, but kids (and adults) judge books by their covers and it doesn't matter how good the book is inside, they won't pick it up with a bad cover and no one can make them. Their best luck with Spanish-language books has been with Mexican distributors and the Guadalupe Book Fair.

Personal story here: Years ago, Switching Well was translated into Italian. I was thrilled, of course, but also surprised. As I told Margaret McElderry, the editor, I'd always assumed if I ever got translated it would be into Spanish. Her response was something along the lines of: "Spain isn't that big a market for children's books," to which I could only reply: "What does Spain have to do with anything?" It is time and past time American publishers woke up and smelled the menudo. Spanish-speaking Americans are the fastest-growing demographic in the country. They want to read as much as anybody and if we can't sell books to them, it's our fault for trying to sell them the wrong books. Hire some culturally Hispanic staff already and turn them loose on the slushpile and the conference circuit!

Back to what the librarians talked about: America is still a nation of immigrants. The librarian from the north side has a large Farsi population to deal with, and very little in the way of books to serve them specifically. They want multicultural books, books that reflect the diverse reality of their kids; but they can't move the kinds of books where the author sat down to write a multicultural book. The story comes first. Always. And why should a black, or Hispanic, or Farsi kid be constantly afflicted with stories in which the fact of being Hispanic, or black, or Farsi is the only important thing about the characters?

Then we had refreshments, and mingled, and I gave a few people my card and showed off my Ghost Sitter tour shirt, which was given to me by a class of kids bussed in from the far reaches of Kansas to attend the ceremony the time I won the William Allen White Award. It has the tilte of the book and my name above a box containing the names of the kids and teachers who got to come, all in a border of fireworks. Very cool. I only wear it on literary occasions.

I'm not a regular SCBWI meeting attendee for a variety of reasons, but this sort of panel is always useful and should be attended at every chance. Writers live so much in our heads, we need to make an effort to come into contact with the reality of the world we work in once in awhile.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Happy Dr. King Day

We don't get the day off and the parade through the East Side till Monday, but today is Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday. I have a friend, M, who shares this birthday with him.

He used to not like the connection because he didn't like Dr. King. His dad was a little, um, strange, no, not in the way you're thinking, but explaining would be futile as well as privacy-invading. All you need to know is that when I first knew him M had a lot of strong opinions that he though were well-founded that weren't. I told him he should be thrilled about it and bought him a biography for his birthday. He thought the biography a little too reverent but the facts in it reconciled him to sharing his birthday with a Great American. IMHO, the Greatest American of the 20th century.

One of his life stories is how the first time he voted he got up out of a fever bed to vote for George Wallace. During this last election, he not only voted for Obama, but he kept talking about getting a t-shirt that read "Obama: Because it's about F------ time." And that's America, folks!

It's also what we in the fiction business call a character arc, but he doesn't see it that way. He'll explain to you in tedious detail how his behavior has been consistent and logical throughout and that he's exactly the same person now he was the day he voted for Wallace. There sure wasn't any dramatic moment of revelation or plot-like series of transformative events between those two points in time.

Life is messy and unstructured and not obliged to make any logical sense. That's one of the things we want fiction for.

Come to that, it's why we like holidays. They provide a satisfying illusion of narrative structure for the year.

Anyway, peace out, y'all, and have a good day!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Headlines! More reflected glory!

So I opened School Library Journal this morning, and I saw that San Antonian Carmen Tafolla has won the Charlotte Zolotow Award for outstanding writing in a picture book with What Can You Do with a Paleta? ( Tricycle Press)

I can't claim any particular closeness to Ms. Tafolla, and I don't guarantee you that if you mentioned me to her she'd know who I was, but she's local and I've been in the same room with her, so I can be proud of her if I want to. And I want to!

A paleta, for those of you who don't know, is like a Popsicle but way better. They're basically frozen juice on a stick, but without that wateriness I get when I try to freeze my own. When you're about to collapse of heat exhaustion a tamarind paleta is the wisest thing you can buy. El Paraiso, the joint closest to me, sells watermelon ones with the seeds still in; and if you're into cold dill pickles you should try their dill pickle flavored ones.

I see I had a brain burp on Tuesday and got the Sydney Taylor Book Award mixed up with Susan Taylor Brown. What can I say, it was kind of a crappy day and I just wanted to go lie down before my head fell off. I could go back and edit and pretend it never happened, but I'm more honest than that. Or lazy, pick one.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Award Time!

My online writing community includes all sorts of wonderful people in whose reflected glory I can bask. Case in point: April Halprin Wayland has won the Sydney Taylor Brown Award for New Year at the Pier. I remember when she was talking about the book on our listserve and getting input on the title and so on. I don't think I had anything useful to say, but I was at least there for the conversation.

So go on over to her website and congratulate her already!
April Halprin Wayland

Headlines! Erectus on Crete!

Probably erectus - no bones, just handaxes; but erectus is the go-to species for certain eras, the default assumption for reasons I'm not going to mess with this morning. The important thing is, some hand ax making population got to Crete, which is inaccessible except by water, at least 130,000 years ago. This fits well with the homo floresiensis population, which looks like a dwarf subspecies of erectus whose ancestors got past the Wallace line, which means they had boats or could fly. All of which means that water transportation is as much a part of the basic human adaptation as fire and toolmaking, and we need to get used to that.

Ancient Hominids May Have Been Seafarers

Excuse me if I'm a little less coherent than usual. There's physical reasons for that you don't need to know about. I expect I'll write better next time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Headlines! Neanderthals

Pigment-stained seashells have been identified as "Neanderthal make-up kits." As usual in this sort of news story it's impossible to tell how other possibilities were eliminated, but that's what journal searches are for. Note that, though modern notions of make-up involve smooth skin and primarily women, the Neanderthal pictured is a singularly hairy man.

Meanwhile, someon analyzed the teeth of a 30,000-year-old homo sapiens child and found interesting resemblances with homo neanderthalensis, showing how evolution keeps right on happening gradually even where we aren't looking for it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: 20th Century House

Yesterday was my Reverend Mom's birthday. She's not all that old, but she used to live in an old-fashioned setting - rural Iowa in the first half of the 20th century - and she remembers a lot of things that, to my generation, belong much further back in the old days than she does. She attended a one-room schoolhouse and remembers a house without indoor plumbing. She's great to go antiquing with because you can pick up the mysterious implement or point in wonder at the bizarre farm equipment, and she says: "Oh, Ed had one of those. You put the corn in here and turn this crank and the kernels come out there and the cobs come out here." We lived in her and Dad's hometown while my father was in 'Nam, and would visit the farm where she grew up, which had a new house on it. She had a picture of the old one and we could compare; and every time we go back to visit she'll track landmarks that have vanished or are still usable, point out where something used to be, or where somebody used to do something.

During the long, long, long cross-country drives we used to take when we moved, she wouldn't let us read because reading in the car made her sick and she assumed we would, too. This forced us to look at the landscape, and she'd point out abandoned farms, wondering aloud who had lived there, why they'd left. We also stopped at historical markers to stretch our legs - here, in the middle of nowhere, the James Brothers robbed a stagecoach, Lewis and Clark crossed a river, a missionary preached the first sermon in the state, a hunter killed the last bison in the county, a grist mill served a hundred-mile radius and has since left behind only a weedy foundation, someone you never heard of changed history without knowing it.

All this has developed in me the habit of looking at a place and trying to see down into the layers of time that presently cover it. The ease with which this can be done in San Antonio is one of the things I love about it. Many people who visit the Alamo are disappointed because it's right downtown, incorporated into it, its main area a public square with stoplights and snack carts, its historical monument area a quiet oasis into which you can look from the windows of neighboring hotels. For those of us who live here that's one of the great things about it, though. It's right here where we can get at it. History is not set apart from the present. All of downtown is haunted - by Mission Indians and 20th-century murder victims as well as by Alamo defenders. Buildings are preserved, destroyed, added to, put to new uses, willy-nilly, all eras dancing cheek-to-cheek, fighting for dominance and none of them winning. When I want to travel to a distant time here, as long as it's not too distant (the Ice Age preserved no memoirs), I can dig around the local libraries find somebody's memoirs of the appropriate period, privately printed for the family or collected in a retrospective booklet. This building was here and that was there; I remember when the ice factory opened, when the gas lights were turned on, when they tore down Veramendi Palace or the old Bat Cave, which is where this thing is now. And the thing referenced isn't there anymore, either, or exists transformed so that when I go and look I look through the layers and get double-vision, like those transparent sheets you used to get in encyclopedias, showing the different stages of building the Louvre or the different systems in the human body overlaid on each other in different colors as you put different pages down.

I want to write a series that is like that for a house. One house, built in 1901 for a young couple. The first book would be written in 1901 from the POV of a ten-year-old girl, the little sister of the hired girl who comes in to sub for her sick sister so the family won't lose the job; the second book in 1911 from the POV of a ten-year-old girl who was born in the first book; the third book in 1921, when a relative orphaned by the war and the Spanish Influenza is staying with the family; the fourth one in 1931 when the young couple of the first book have fallen on hard times and taken in boarders; and so on and on, one small snippet of each decade of the 20th century experienced by a succession of ten-year-old girls. The house will get sold; the neighborhood will get rundown and then gentrified; the main character of one book will appear in a cameo in another, and the changes in the house, the culture, the time will overlie eachother and the reader will see how it all fits together.

I'd have to write ten books all in a lump; they'd have to be plotted so that each could be read independently and in any order but would reward those who read them all; I'd have to research the heck out of them; and - here's the rub - I'd have to sell it before I could write it. Theoretically, I know that's possible, but the idea of learning to do it with this particular concept freezes me like a rabbit hypnotized by a weasel. I'm a crappy salesperson, and I'd have to get a publisher excited enough to commit to ten books in which the main character is a house. The whole point of the concept is lost if I have a major action hook to sell it on. It has to be a series of domestic novels of everyday life, with crises involving mundane individual births and deaths, economic woes, sibling rivalries, and so on.

Yeah, I can write it well enough to make you like it. But can I write a query good enough to convince an editor to pay me to write it?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

It Came in the Mail

So yesterday was being kind of a bust - the (cough cough) inches I added to the seat of the sweatpants pattern vanished in the sewing and I'm confused; the car died in the driveway (better than dying in the library parking lot after 5); the refrigerator leaked copiously and the repairman couldn't come until today; and my inner gyroscope went out. But then the mail came, and I had a Fortean Times! So I spent a lot of the day wrapped in an afghan reading about weird stuff.

The term "Fortean" is derived from Charles Fort, who spent much of his adult life collecting clippings of strange stories from newspapers and journals and evolving theories of reality out of them. His four books - Book of the Damned, Lo, New Lands, and Wild Talents - are difficult to read due to both his literary style and his thought process, in which facts and ideas blend into eachother and nobody really knows, or can know, anything. Always serious except when he's joking, he builds theories he doesn't believe out of stories of mysterious disappearances, mysterious appearances, miraculous events, and the sometimes even more miraculous pseudoexplanations that people come up with so they don't have to think about them anymore. FT, a UK publication, gives space to ghosts, UFOs, crop circles, cryptozoology, witch panics, miracles, science from fringe physics to mainstream archeology, folklore and fakelore, fairies, frauds, medical anamolies - if it's weird, it's there. The magazine's editorial policy is criticized as credulous and as skeptical to the point of debunking, by different people on different subjects, and that strikes me as a strong indication that it's pretty evenhanded on the whole.

Do I believe any of it? What difference does it make? Whether an account of UFO abduction is interesting or not does not depend on whether I can make up my mind that it's a hoax, an accurate account of what happened, a psychotic episode, or whatever; or on whether the abductors come from the subconscious, the future, the Zeta Reticuli system, or Fairyland. I want the story. I can believe anything for the duration of the story, and in truth few truly Fortean events can be pinned down well enough for me to choose one interpretation over another. Unless given a reason to think someone a liar independent of the strangeness of his story, I accept that people recount their experiences as accurately and truthfully as they know how. That in no way obliges me to accept any given explanation of the experience.

I always get FT a month late due to the reality of distribution across the Atlantic, so I've already seen some of the items mentioned on the website or somewhere else, but whereas the website and forum sometimes annoy me into going away from them for weeks at a time (the internet is full of technical glitches and crabby people), I am always happy to see the magazine. The cover story is lurid - issue 257, February 2010, celebrates Dracula - but I like the little bits most. Breaking News, not so breaking anymore, and the Peruvian Fat Killers story has already been dialed back, but the fact that policemen were telling reporters that they'd uncovered a ring of thieves murdering people to sell their fat on the world cosmetic market (in fact the people they caught killed one person, for different reasons - the world cosmetic market gets its human fats from liposuction) is even weirder once you realize how unfounded the statement is. If I wrote adult thrillers I'd be looking into that!

"FT's Favourite Headlines From Around the World" is a box presenting, without explanation, odd headlines, most of which probabably made sense in context. Devil told: Don't go out at night (Metro, July 16, 2009); Intruder who took an axe to hospital 'for his own protection' (Irish Daily Mail, same date); Newsreader Natasha makes baby sacrifice (Aberdeen Press and Journal, June 25, 2009, oh dear!).

Small news stories: Apparently in August a cop in St. Paul broke into a gorilla enclosure to feed Pop Tarts to the inmates - I sense a Disney comedy behind that one, the old-fashioned kind, with a hapless Dean Jones as the cop. A stockbroker from Florida arrested for pretending to drown and hurling jellyfish at rescuers. Hair supposedly shorn from Elvis in the army sold for $18,300, raising the question "Why did the barber save it?" A physicist quoted as saying that God hates the Higgs bosun particle and that's why the Large Hadron Collider is having so many problems. A man named Shaun Byrne lost his wallet; four months later and five hundred miles away it was found by a dog named Byrne. A seven-year-old blind boy taught to use echolocation, pictured shooting hoops. A man with bad eyesight has a stroke, and after the clot is removed has 20/20 vision.

And on and on and on, articles on myths about Darwin (who did not repent evolution on his deathbed and who did not hesitate to publish out of fear, but because he was putting in the work to support it), a beluga who saved a diver, a Siamese twin starfish, looking for the chupacabras in Nicaragua where it's never been reported, report on the Texas Bigfoot Conference last October, and some freaky stuff in the lettercol. Ick, somebody found a packet with a picture of tooth fairies and the words "Put this under your pillow and see what the fairies bring" printed on it, on the balcony of his top-floor flat in Manchester. It contained 10 bloody human teeth - roots and all (picture included). Nasty story, there, and he can't figure out how it was delivered.

In a world this weird, how does anybody get bored?

Now if I could just figure out where those missing inches of fabric went...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Headlines! Lost Cities in Amazonian Rainforest!

This is pretty recent by my standards (i.e., younger than the Ice Age), but it's pretty startling given received wisdom about the agricultural productivity of the area. Possibly the reason that cities such as these gave way to today's scattered villages is that the people who lived there realized that these are, long-term, more viable?

Amazon Explorers Discover Signs of a Real El Dorado

Nitpicking here - El Dorado (the Golden One) was a person and he was "discovered." This was originally the name given by conquistadores to the ruler of the area around Lake Titicaca, who was periodically coated in gold dust. The Spanish located him, but were disappointed because the ceremony (which had grown in the rumors to being a daily occurance) was annual, and ended with a swim in the lake, washing off the gold; so there wasn't nearly the surplus of precious metal they had been imagining. They got it into their collective greedy head that there must be a bigger, better El Dorado out there somewhere. At some point in the grinding of the rumor mill it got mixed up with notions of the Seven Cities of Cibola and Quivera, and lots of cruel, greedy men died miserably looking for it in the rain forest. Served 'em right, too.

Also, Is Nessie Dead? But a legend never dies...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

It's Gonna Be a Great Day!

I'm going to hit the ground running this morning, even though it's cold. After all, it's a brand-new year, I finally got paid some royalties I earned in September, and there's lots to do. A little light housework and my exercises, then I'll cut out the fabric I bought with my Switching Well money and make some sweatpants that fit (by local standards it's REALLY FREAKING COLD and my house doesn't have central heat and my figure hasn't been fashionable since 1501, so ready-to-wear pants are too low in the back), then it'll be lunchtime. After lunch I really want to finish up some research that's been on hold for far too long, but while I was futzing around getting those manuscripts back in the mail another one came due (not that I got a rejection, mind you; too many places have an "if you don't hear assume the form rejection notice" policy to wait for that anymore), so I should at least do the market research to pick where to send that before I go to the library. Oh, and I forgot to get cat food and a replacement wash wand head while I was out buying fabric yesterday. But it's - OMG it's after 8 and I haven't done anything but read newsgroups, comics, and writing blogs? Agh! I have to get moving!

Yeah, that's pretty much how all my days go. At the moment, that list of things seems doable, but experience tells me some of it won't get done. Probably the shopping, and I'm too realistic to think the pants will be finished, especially if I dust the bedroom first. Possibly not even if I skip dusting entirely.

Sunday night I watched the BBC adaptation of Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford novels, and Miss Mattie was telling Miss Smith how their father used to make her and her sister keep double-entry journals, in which they put down what they meant to do on the left at the beginning of the day, and what they did do on the right at the end of the day. She said she found it a useful exercise. It would turn me into a basket case. I always feel in the morning like I can do everything, and at the end of the day I never have managed it. Having it in writing day after day would make it worse. Setting realistic goals doesn't work for me, though. I don't get enough done with them. Something about aiming high generates energy.

"A man's reach must exceed his grasp," says Browning; and though that was a dramatic monolog and you can't take it at face value as his own opinion, I think he was right. At least, it works that way for me. I have to set big goals and put some pressure on myself to generate forward movement - but they can't be too big or I get tired and discouraged and do nothing. But that's not happening today. I won't let it.

I think I will skip dusting the bedroom and go straight to cutting the sweatpants, though. Oh, darn, I didn't think to prewash the fabric last night...

All I can do is the best I can do and that has to be enough.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Fun with Titles

Before we get started today, I'd like to say Happy Birthday to our late lamented role models and world-changers, JRR Tolkien and Lucretia Mott. A world without the Huge High Fantasy Trilogy (and hobbits) and voting women would be a world impoverished indeed.

Anyway, to the subject at hand. This week I couldn't find the Elmer's glue (I knew we had some; it's as much a state of nature to have a half-dried-up bottle of Elmer's in the house as it is to have dustbunnies), and standard procedure for losing things is to ask my husband if he's seen it - finding things is his mutant ability - but I didn't want to interrupt him at work over something so trivial, so I started an e-mail, heading it: "Mystery of the Missing Glue." The first line of the e-mail was: "Change one letter of that, and you've got a pretty good title for a Nancy Drew story." Then I glanced sideways and spotted the glue hiding under some stuff my husband was supposed to file that was leaking out of his in-box, so I went on to other subjects.

"Mystery of the Missing Clue" really is a good Nancy Drew title, though. And it reminded me of the title I thought up, oh, years ago, that would be guaranteed to catch the eye of the 10-year-old mystery buff scanning the spines of library books for key words: "Secret of the Mysterious Hidden Clue." It's a can't lose proposition, as far as getting the kid to pick it up is concerned. Slap a decent cover on it - something with an innocent assortment of Meddling Kids in the act of finding something that the menacing shadow sneaking up on them doesn't want to find - and it's a sale. Or a check-out. Few kids have the allowance necessary to really feed the ravenous mystery habit, which requires at least three fresh titles a week, so it's a blessing that librarians gave up their prejudice against stocking Nancy Drew sometime in the sixties.

Of course, if you suck people in with a title that good you'd better deliver, and I find I enjoy playing with the possibilities more than pinning down that particular story. It could be a parody (ala Whales on Stilts, but I couldn't ever do that as well as MT Anderson does), or it could be part of a series (but then I'd have to come up with equally good titles and stories about the same person over and over), or it could be a stand-alone with a mystery buff using her knowledge of the genre and discovering that knowledge's benefits and limitations in the real world, or -

And then there's the clue. What is it? How can it be a clue if it's hidden? What's it the clue to? How dangerous is it? You can't let down that demanding ten-year-old mystery buff if you want a return reader.

So rather than just leave it as the shining, vague, but perfect mystery in my head, I'll toss it out there.