Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Audio Books For Gardeners

Several years ago my day job was actually a night job, working as a sweeper at a grade school. It wasn’t a bad job for a writer, because I did it alone, with no customers clamoring for my attention and no tasks that required serious thought, so I could think about books I was working on and do sketchy plotting and character development while erasing chalkboards and emptying trash. I actually looked forward to doing this job, but not because it made me happy to restore order to chaos. I liked the fact that for the last 2 hours every night, after all the teaching staff had gone home, my supervisor would play audio books on the P.A. system.

Prior to that time, I had foolishly scorned audio books. I thought they were for lazy people who didn’t want to read. And that’s partially true, we still get plenty of kids at the book store where I work who don’t want to read an assigned book, who think they’ll be able to pay attention to an audio version (and who probably don’t have the attention span to do so). But once I began to listen to audio books myself, I realized my scorn had been mostly unfair. Good audio books are as entertaining as a good radio show, something most Americans are too young to have heard. I have become an devoted fan of them.

Now I tend to listen to audio books under three different circumstances. I like to listen while I’m gardening, because the books divert my attention away from the fact that I’ve got such a huge amount of work to do. When I’m listening to a book, I can pull grass and weeds for hours. I can prune roses until it’s too dark outside to see (and my hands are clawed all to heck). I can lug stones back and forth, and fertilize annuals, and rake leaves, and still feel like I’m having a good time.

I listen to books while I’m cleaning too, everything except vacuuming. And while I’m cooking and baking, except for when I’m running the power mixer. Audio books have actually helped make me more attentive in the kitchen, instead of letting me wander off to let something burn. So they actually get credit for improving my domestic skills (even if accidentally).

I have some favorites that I’ve listened to many times. Dean Koontz probably tops the list with the audio versions of Fear Nothing, Seize The Night, One Door Away From Heaven, Life Expectancy, By The Light Of The Moon, Intensity, the (brilliantly performed by B.D. Wong) abridged version of Tick-Tock, and, last but not least, Dragon Tears.

Stephen King also has some audio goodies to offer: The Green Mile, The Cell, Lisey's Story, Duma Key, and all of his short story collections. I also really enjoyed the books recorded of the Gunslinger series.

Any audio book you can get by Agatha Christie is a treat. Likewise the audio versions of books by Elisabeth Peters and Ellis Peters. Elmore Leonard’s audios are even more entertaining than movies that have been made out of his books. Diana Gabaldon’s Voyager books are fun, and Elisabeth Kostova’s wonderful Dracula book, The Historian, is worth listening too over and over. Anything by Ray Bradbury is great, especially if he’s performing it himself.

By now you may have noticed a pattern in my preferences: thrillers, mystery, horror, sci-fi. But I listen to non-fiction too. Probably my favorite non-fiction author in audio is Sara Vowell. Assassination Vacation is as funny and entertaining as it is informative (very!).

The main problem with audio books has always been cost. Some of them are $50 or $60, sometimes more. Even the more moderately-priced audio books can run $25, and that’s too much for me. I look for inexpensive pre-owned copies, or remaindered (“sale”) stuff. But I suspect the audio book will decrease in price just as much as the hard copy will, once it becomes an electronic download. I would even be willing to get an ipod for audio books, something I’ve resisted doing for music so far.

I plan to record audio versions of my own books, probably starting in spring of 2010, and sell them as audio files online. I’m thinking $2.99 to $4.99 will be a fair price in this new millennium of depressed incomes. Ideally, I’ll be able to feature audio samples on my website, maybe even make commercials for you-tube. I suspect I’ll be a bit clunky at first, but this is the sort of thing you can only learn by doing. After all, Stephen King and Ray Bradbury are good at performing their own work – it’s not unheard of.

And in the meantime, I’ve got all these great books to listen to, setting the best example. Try them if you like audio. Check them out of your local library if you have to. Maybe, like me, you’ll become a fan too.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Heiroglyphic Trail

Ernie and I went hiking up the Heiroglyphic Trail in the Superstitions yesterday (there are actually petroglyphs at the end of the trail). Rain had parked itself over those mountains (disdaining Phoenix and surrounding cities) so when we arrived we crossed paths with a number of happy wet people on their way down. The trail was beautiful, and the mist gave it a Shangri-La quality. We sat at the top, studying the petroglyphs, for at least half an hour (we may have experienced some time dilation). That place is sacred. I gazed up at the crumbling mountains and realized again how much I love the Southwest. I've made a pledge to Ernie -- from now on, we work as little as possible to make a living and as much as possible to visit these places we love.
My camera was on the fritz, so I'm using an old photo from Peralta Canyon Trail. But I'll be getting a new camera soon, and when that happens -- look out, blogspot!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Piestewa Peak Mystery

When you’ve hiked in a place several times, and you love that place, and maybe even have made up your own names for features you always see along the trail in that place, you can actually get the idea that you’ve really seen that place. Then you’ll notice something you didn’t see before, and you realize you’ve only seen bits and pieces.

Take Piestewa Peak. You can make some assumptions about that mountain and its close neighbors based on the rocks you see, many of which are metamorphic. They have been squeezed and fractured, melted and re-crystalized, weathered and then colonized by plant and animal life. At some point, tons and tons of weight rested on them, they are the remnants of a mountain range. It has slowly crumbled and created some of the “valley fill” that hides the grabens (“pull-apart” faults) and low spots in the Basin & Range areas of Arizona.

And you can tell the area was under water for many millions of years, prior to and after the mountain-building stages. Fossils all over Arizona testify to that fact, as does the presence of limestone and other sedimentary rocks.

If you look at the entire Western United States you can see the train-wreck mountain ranges that run from Alaska to Mexico, the result of the counter-clockwise, Northwest shifting of North America after it broke away from the last supercontinent and plowed into Island chains, making them part of the continent. During that shift, Arizona overrode some very hot spots in the mantle, and melted stuff was forced up into cracks in fractured rocks to give us copper, quartz, and lots of other interesting metals and gems.

Those hot spots also generated lots of volcanic activity, so you see all kinds of magma, both light and dark, in fractured “necks” that cooled below the ground and then were exposed by erosion, and in collapsed craters that exploded and hurled rocky projectiles hundred of miles around. You can see the remnants of pyroclastic flows made of ash and melted stuff that scooped up rock debris as it flowed at top speeds across the landscape. And you can see that flowing water, blowing winds, human construction, and even plants and animals have moved rocks and sand far from their place or origin.

When Ernie and I first hiked Piestewa Peak last year, I observed the tilted stratification and wondered if it may have been the result of the Laramide Orogeny (“mountain-building period”), which is thought to have begun around 75 million years ago, and is also thought to have lasted up to 25 million years. And yes, that may have created the old mountain range that squished those metamorphic rocks in the first place. But now I wonder if something else pushed those layers up and out. Some of them seem to go almost vertical. Could super-hot stuff boiling up underneath have shoved those layers up? This is one of the questions with which I plan to pester the geology gurus when I pursue my degree in 2010.

But, mysterious as the geological history of Arizona may be, it’s not even the mystery that caught my attention last Friday, when Ernie and I took advantage of the cool weather to go hiking on our favorite Phoenix trail. We were headed for a spot we think of as The Secret Canyon, where a higher group of rocks sticking out of the mountains looks out over a wider, deeper spot in an arroyo. It’s no Grand Canyon, it’s not even an Oak Creek Canyon. But it’s a magical spot, where the wind blows and on some lucky days you can’t hear the sounds of town at all.

Hikers like to pause at that spot and nibble trail food, sip water, talk about their dreams. There’s a memorial bench up there that will bring tears to your eyes if you pause to read the dedication plaque. I think of it as the heart of Piestewa Peak, though many others believe the Summit Trail is that spot. I brought my camera up there this time, hoping to capture even a fraction of the spirit of the place.

I paused all along the trail to snap photos of interesting stuff. At one point I stopped to take a picture of a saguaro, and that’s when Ernie noticed something that’s been there all along. “There’s a rock stuck in that hole in the saguaro, over twelve feet up!”

Someone or something jammed a rock into that hole. And when we stopped to really look, we could see that several of the saguaros had similar rocks stuck in them. All of these were high off the ground, all stuck firmly into their holes. Many were the same size as the hole, but there were even a few big rocks, maybe the size (though not the shape) of oranges, that were also stuck fast.

I remembered the photo I had taken of the Zombie Saguaro a few months back, and he had a rock in his mouth that looked like a tongue. I had assumed some wise guy hiker had put it there. But these other rocks were too high up for a human to stick them in the holes, and if they had been thrown, they would probably just have bounced off. You’d have to stay there a long time, patiently throwing rocks at those tiny holes in order to get one to stick, and that’s not why people are on that path in the first place– they’re just out getting exercise and enjoying the view! Plus many of the saguaros weren’t even accessible to foot traffic.

So – birds? They might account for the small rocks, but what about the big ones? Are eagles stuffing rocks in saguaro holes? Or buzzards? Hawks? Pterodactyls? Muscular chipmunks? Why are they doing that? Do they think the holes look untidy? Are they trying to make the saguaro a more secure place to build a nest by closing off “back doors?”

Once we noticed the rocks, we realized dozens of the saguaros had them. Some of those rocks may have been there a hundred years. Unless gravity and wind and rain dislodge them, they may be there a hundred more.

So the next time you’re out hiking and you see a saguaro, look for the rocks. Yeah, it’s not the biggest mystery out there, but it made me stop and wonder what else I’m not seeing. That, alone, makes it worth pondering.

And please – let me know if you spot the saguaro gremlin that’s responsible.