Friday, May 6, 2016

Celebrating the moment

Photographs represent attempts to stop time, which is why we get out our cameras on Christmas morning, at birthday parties, at family reunions and when children and pets do cute things more than we do at funeral homes and in hospital rooms. Some moments we want to stop more than others.

Anne Tyler seems to have this thought in mind when she uses photography as a metaphor in one of her earliest novels, The Tin Can Tree (1965). James, the designated photographer, twice takes photos at gatherings of friends and family. One is soon after the shocking death of little Janie Rose, when smiles prove hard to find. Later he tries again, more successfully, after Simon, Janie Rose's runaway brother, is found and returns home.

Simon feels ignored and unloved after his sister's death. His mother, who hardly even gets out of her bed, ignores him, leaving him in the care of Joan, a young adult relative with a crush on James. Meanwhile Joan herself feels unloved and unappreciated, as James devotes himself to Ansel, his hypochondriac brother. So she runs away, too, later returning with hardly anyone even noticing she had left, finding the party for Simon, the young prodigal, already in progress.

Other times, both past and future, and other places, where the grass appears more green, have their appeal. Yet Tyler's familiar but timeless message seems to be that what we have in this moment's photograph, the place where we are and the people we still have with us, can be worth celebrating.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Adding to the conversation

Two books I've read over the past several months made references to book discussion groups, one positive and one negative. These might be worth a few comments.

The more positive remarks can be found in David Denby's Lit Up. He writes, "They enjoyed not just the books but the act of reading together. You couldn't have asked more of any book club." A few pages later he adds, "The English Department at Mamaroneck wanted to achieve in ninth- and tenth-grade students something like the morale of a good book club -- what Miss Clain called 'a social culture of reading.'"

Now Denby's is writing primarily about high school English classes, not book clubs, but the comparison he makes is to book clubs, where people attend because they want to attend, read the books because they want to read and discuss those books because they want to discuss them. Those are the criteria for an ideal book club, but they are also the criteria for an ideal English class.

Now here's what Joe Queenan says about book clubs in One for the Books:

"I would rather have my eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club. Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. What might that be? A book is a series of arguments between the author and the reader, none of which the reader can possibly win."

And later, "Book discussion clubs have almost nothing to do with books. This may be why they do rarely choose good books."

And still later, "The people I know who attend book clubs are generally intelligent, but they are rarely what I would call interesting."

So Queenan attacks book clubs, the members of these clubs and the books they read. The books selected by most book groups are probably not among literature's finest. But so what? These people are reading, enjoying what they're reading and enjoying talking about it, just like those high school students Denby's writes about. This may not be Queenan's cup of tea, just as it is not mine as I wrote yesterday, but that doesn't mean it can't be of value to someone else.

The most disturbing comment Queenan makes concerns "the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. This seems like an odd thing for a sometime book reviewer to write, for what does a book reviewer do but add to the conversation? What is the author saying and how well does he say it? These are questions any book critic and, indeed, any reader is free to address. When you read a book you are free to talk about it and interpret it as you will.

Last night I watched the movie Broken Flowers and later a short film about the movie on the DVD. Here director Jim Jarmusch says, speaking of his films, "It's not my job to even know what they mean." What they mean, he suggested, is up to each person who watches them. "Their interpretation of them is way more valuable than my own." What's true for movies must be true for books, as well. Each reader adds to the conversation, and book clubs may not be such a bad way to do it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Let's start a club

"Well, instead of discussing the book we could discuss why none of us had time to read it."
The New Yorker cartoon caption

I have never belonged to a book club, not counting those where they send you a book every month unless you remember to let them know you don't want it. I've belonged to two or three of those over the years. No, I'm speaking of those where everybody reads the same book, then meets to talk about it.

In theory this sounds like something I should love to do. Maybe I would, but only if the following criteria were met:

1. I get to choose the book. Of course, every member of a book club should have an equal opportunity to choose which book the group will read next, but rarely am I interested in reading books chosen or recommended by someone else. I did enough assigned reading in high school and college to last a lifetime. I own hundreds of unread books, as well as hundreds of other books I'd love to read again. So why would I want to read books selected by someone else?

2. The group actually discusses the book, not everything else. I love the New Yorker cartoon cited above, which I have had posted on my bulletin board for years. Discussions that stray off topic are a pet peeve of mine. I like meetings that have agendas and discussion groups that stay on the subject. That's my biggest problem with the movie discussion group I sometimes lead (when I get to choose the film). When I pose a question, there is always somebody who wants to talk about something else. I have to keep reminding myself that the whole point of the evening, other than watching the film itself, is a good discussion. Whether or not my particular questions are ever addressed is irrelevant, at least to everybody but me.

I expect to have more to say about book discussion groups next time.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Literature's importance

I have long believed literature to be important, but I've never been clear on why it's important. Religions, cultures and even families pass down their wisdom through stories, so maybe that's part of the answer. But still, why should students study Macbeth or Moby-Dick? What of lasting value is actually being learned?

Now I've read David Denby's new book Lit Up: One Reporter, Three Schools, Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives, and if I am still not entirely clear why literature is important I am at least more certain than ever that it is. I can witness dramatic changes in the lives of several high school sophomores through literature classes taught by challenging teachers given the freedom to teach outside the confines of textbooks and state testing guidelines.

"At that age, the brain still has a genuine capacity to change," Denby writes in his introduction. "Fifteen is a danger spot and a sweet spot... They can be reached. Their moral education, as well as their literary education is a stake; the two may be inseparable." And so he decided to monitor classes in three public schools, including a troubled inner-city school. The racially diverse students, while unusually bright, were not readers when the year began. Their lives were chained to their handheld devices, and they seemed to believe that was all they needed to lead successful, rewarding lives.

Then they met their teachers, including Sean Leon, who teaches at the Beacon School in Manhattan and whose assigned reading would be too demanding for most college sophomores. Books he required included Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's 1984, Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Jean-Paul Satre's No Exit and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Teachers Jessica Zelenski and Mary Beth Jordan were less challenging, but still they taught works by William Shakespeare, Kurt Vonnegut, Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Alice Walker, among many others. These lit teachers lit fires in their students, most of whom were non-readers when they began ninth grade and are now in college.

Denby follows these classes month by month and book by book, and you can observe the progress made as students become more animated, more caught up in their discussions and more committed to actually reading these books rather than just reading about them in study guides. One class was told to write an essay ranking the books they had read and explaining why they judged one better than another. "They justified their taste," Denby writes. "Suddenly they had taste in books, a new idea for many."

The difficulty of the these books, especially those assigned by Leon, was an advantage, not a disadvantage, Denby believes. "Curious and ambitious teens always read things that are too hard for them and fail to understand half of what they read. But frustration only makes them eager to find out more."

One advantage literature has over such other typical high school subjects as biology and geometry is that it allows for interpretation and argument. What does 1984 mean in 2016? Well, it means something a little different to everyone who reads it. It gives us something to think about and talk about, and thinking and talking about it and other great books helps young minds develop in ways that biology, geometry and those handheld electronic devices cannot do.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Entertaining stories

There's nothing arty or pretentious about Sharyn McCrumb's short stories in her 1997 collection Foggy Mountain Breakdown, with the possible exception of "Gerda's Sense of Snow," the least successful of these stories. The tales, first published mostly in detective magazines, were meant to entertain, and that is what they do.

Mostly crime stories, as one would expect, they vary a great deal in tone, style, locale, characters and points of view. Some of them, like "Typewriter Man" and "Autumn Migration," flirt with the supernatural. Several are humorous, while others are as serious as death. Her surprise endings truly surprise. One never gets the feeling that if you have read one Sharyn McCrumb story, you have read them all.

In "Remains to be Seen," one of the more lighthearted stories, a couple of old women buy a mummy at an army surplus store. In "A Predatory Woman," a murderess released from prison turns out not to be the title character at all. "The Matchmaker" tells of a dating service that finds the perfect mate for a killer. The murder story in "Gentle Reader" is told entirely in a series of letters between an author and a fan. The title story, one of the best in the collection, tells of a bully who gets his just deserts, and then some. And so it goes, one gem after another.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The popularity of mysteries

I was able to attend the Ohioana Book Festival in Columbus on Saturday. It was the tenth year this fine event has been held, bringing together under one roof dozens of Ohio's authors and, of course, their books displayed on tables. Because I had to leave early, I attended just two of the many panel discussions held during the day, but they were good ones. The first featured five mystery writers and the second the three writers responsible for recent biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the country's only four-term president, and James A. Rhodes, Ohio's only four-term governor. These politicians had more in common than you might think, although the real surprise, at least for me, was Douglas Brinkley's list of things Franklin Roosevelt had in common with Theodore Roosevelt.

Yet mostly today I want to reflect on responses made by the mystery writers about why mysteries are so popular with readers. This popularity was evident at the book festival, where at least 15 of the 40-some novelists present were mystery writers.

Shelley Costa
Shelley Costa, author of Practical Sins for Cold Climates (a book I'd like to read just for its title), suggested mysteries are popular because they are "moral fiction." In other words, murderers get caught, and justice prevails. Most readers prefer unambiguous endings. Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife and the Assassin, spoke about how "the social fabric is torn by crime," and a mystery story is about its repair.
Sam Thomas

I have heard this explanation before, and I'm sure there must be some truth in it, yet I wonder if another, simpler explanation might have been suggested earlier in the discussion when Thomas commented that when he was trying to get his first book published, the publisher asked if it were part of a series. He said he knew enough to answer yes, even though he had no idea for a second novel featuring the same character.. Other authors echoed much the same thing. To get that first novel published, they had to commit themselves to writing a series.

Why do publishers like series? Because readers like series, and once they become familiar with the characters in one novel, they want to follow them into other books. One reads Jane Marple mysteries at least as much for Jane Marple as for the mysteries themselves. As good as Sherlock Holmes stories are, it is the character that readers love, which is why Sherlock Holmes stories continue to be written long after the death of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One could write similar mysteries featuring other characters, but it is Holmes readers want to read about.

Series of books are popular in other genres, such as romance, westerns and science fiction. Readers even like to revisit beloved characters in more serious fiction. Consider the recent avalanche of books featuring the beloved characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Yet more than other kinds of books, mysteries are ideally suited to series treatment. There can always be another murder that needs to be solved by our favorite fictional detective.

I bought just one book on Saturday, but that was a mystery, Bookmarked for Murder by Dan Andriacco, another of the panelists that morning. If I like it, and especially if I like the characters, I will probably seek out other novels in that series. That's what readers do, and that's one reason so many mysteries are sold.

Friday, April 22, 2016

What makes a book a book?

A "text" existing only on a screen and in the mind is not, to me, a book.
Wendell Berry, My Bookstore

Wendell Berry
If you or I were to say something like that, it wouldn't mean much. Nobody would take us seriously. But when celebrated poet and novelist Wendell Berry says it, it's worth paying attention to.

I have sometimes used the phrase "real book" to distinguish between something printed on paper and something, even if it's the same something, reproduced on a Kindle, iPad, CD or whatever. Every month LibraryThing presents a list of newly published books that will soon be available for members to review. You can indicate those that appeal to you and, if you are lucky, you might win a copy. Those at the bottom of this list are identified as ebooks. I always ignore these. If I'm going to win a book, I want it to be a real book, something I can hold in my hand and, later, put on a shelf. I have read a few ebooks and listened to quite a number of books on CD and, years ago, on tape. These were books in my mind, but yet not quite. They are like artificial Christmas trees. They serve the purpose, but are not quite the real thing.

Hear what else Berry has to say on the subject: "To me, it is not enough that a book is thought realized in language; it must also be language further realized in print on paper pages bound between covers. It is a material artifact, a thing made not only to be seen but also to be held and smelled, containing language that can be touched, and underlined with an actual pencil, with margins that can be actually written on. And so a book, a real book, language incarnate, becomes a part of one's bodily life."

Wendell Berry uses the phrase "real book." too, I'm glad to see. Other phrases that catch my eye are "thought realized in language," which is true even of any spoken sentence, and "language incarnate," which refers to words taking physical form. It was a big step when mankind moved from just "thought realized in language" to "language incarnate." To many, especially younger generations, it seems like another big step to be moving on to language on screens.

David Denby's new book Lit Up, one of the recent review books I've received through LibraryThing, examines the difficulties faced by teachers trying to teach literature to today's teenagers. He quotes one boy, perhaps speaking for his generation, saying, "Books smell like old people." Thanks to an inspired teacher, this same boy was soon not just reading real books but engaging in literary discussions with classmates. Even so, it would appear that those of us who agree with Wendell Berry on what makes a book a book are in a dwindling minority.