Friday, September 22, 2017

Admiring Woody Allen movies

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall
Not even Woody Allen admires all Woody Allen movies, as we learn from reading Woody Allen: Film by Film by Jason Solomons, an analysis of every movie (up to Irrational Man, 2015) Allen has ever had anything to do with as director, writer or actor, and even documentaries made about him. One thing I like about this book is that while Solomons doesn't admire every Allen film either, he finds something admirable about most of them.

Some people who review films give the impression that, in general, they don't like movies at all. Solomons isn't like this. He loves movies, and Allen movies in particular. Like a parent with a misbehaving child, the offender may disappoint but doesn't alter the love.

Dianne Wiest Mia Farrow and Barbara Hershey
with director Woody Allen on the set
 of Hannah and Her Sisters
If anything, Solomons may use too many superlatives, and not just with the widely acknowledged Allen masterpieces like Annie Hall and Manhattan. Hannah and Her Sisters "is about as perfect at Woody Allen gets," he says. Crimes and Misdemeanors is "perhaps the most skillful and soulful picture of his career." He calls Radio Days "one of his funniest." And so on.

I love it that Solomons loves such gems as Radio Days and Alice that get little attention from other critics when they are ranking Allen's best movies. Solomon's doesn't try to rank them. To use the parental analogy again, it would be like ranking one's children.

Allen, now in his 80s, has been making movies since the mid-Sixties at a rate of about one a year. Few of these movies have been box office hits, and few even have been critical favorites, although Allen has had amazing success on Oscar nights, especially in the screenplay and best actress categories. The parts he created have sweetened the careers of many actresses, especially Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Mira Sorvino and Cate Blanchett.

Although his best years seemed to be behind him after such box-office flops as The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Melinda and Melinda, Scoop and Whatever Works early in the new century, Allen surprised his critics with masterful films like Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine in his old age. He's still at work, and who can say what other surprises he may have left.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Organized chaos

When we bought a spacious three-bedroom home in the city in the late Seventies, I claimed the unfinished attic for my expanding library. Even with all the stuff that normally accumulates in attics, there would still be plenty of room for lots of shelves and lots of books. Or so I thought at the time. As the decades passed and my books continued to multiply (the result of both my purchases and the fact that publishers sent me a number of books each week for possible review), the available shelf space gradually disappeared. So that led to stacks of books on the floor, stacks that get so high they sometimes topple. See the photograph for a glimpse of a small portion of my library.

To anyone else this looks like clutter. And in fact it is clutter, but to me it is beautiful clutter. I am never more content than when I am reading amid this clutter. The photo shows the view from my reading chair.

As unorganized as my library may appear, there actually is some order to it, and I can usually find the book I am looking for quickly, even if I may have to move stacks of books to reach it. I actually use several different organization systems.

1. Fiction is shelved alphabetically by author.

2. Stacked fiction, mostly novels still unread, also reflects some alphabetical order. The stacks shown in the picture include an F stack (written by authors whose names begin with F), a G stack, an HIJ stack and a JK stack.

3. Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs are shelved in alphabetical order according to their subjects.

4. Other nonfiction is grouped according to subject, more or less. History is here, natural history over there, sports in this corner, show business on that shelf, etc. As books accumulate, this order becomes more and more disorderly.

5. Books are also sorted according to size. Mass market paperbacks are shelved separately from hardcover and trade paperback books, again with the fiction kept apart from the nonfiction. Large books, whatever they happen to be about, are kept on shelves big enough to accommodate large books.

6. Unread nonfiction is kept mostly in stacks behind my reading chair. These stacks lack any order whatsoever, which is not all bad. I never know what treasures I might find when I dig into them.

When we bought a Florida condo a couple of years back, it provided a modest amount of additional book space but also more complication. No matter where I happen to be, I never have access to my entire library. Usually that's not a problem, but sometimes I want a book that happens to be a thousand miles away.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Organizing books

The more books one owns, the more important organization of those books becomes. Also, the more difficult it becomes.

If your personal library consists of just 20 books, or even 50 or 100, there's not much point in sorting them according to author or topic. You will always be able to find the book you are looking for with ease. As libraries expand, however, it becomes necessary to order them in some way, even if it's something as basic as fiction here, nonfiction there.

Hannah Gerson, in an article she wrote for The Millions ( in July, suggests 10 ways to organize a bookshelf: chronologically, by date published; by color; artful piles; by subject/genre; geographically; in order of importance and/or goodness; secretively; alphabetically; randomly and autobiographically.

Most of these suggestions make no sense at all to me. A random organization is really no organization at all. Shelving books according to their publication date would soon become a burden, especially if you happen to own more than an armful of books. Imagine returning from a used book sale with 20 volumes and having to find where on your shelves they belong. And how would you find a particular book you are looking for?

By "secretively," she means placing the spines of the books toward the wall. She says this would make it difficult for anyone to borrow your books. Or it could prompt curious houseguests to take virtually every book off a shelf to see what the "secret" is. And again, how would you find the book you are looking for?

Placing books in "artful piles" or sorting them by color has more to do with decor than books. If that is where your priorities lie, then go to it, but why are you reading book blogs?

Autobiographical shelving, Gerson says, was suggested by a character in Nick Horby's novel High Fidelity. The idea is to order your books in a way that makes sense to you but nobody else. Books you read while you were in college might go on one shelf, books in the early years of your marriage might go on another and those from your child-rearing years on still another. We can often remember when and where we read particular books, so this method may actually work for some people. Not for me, however. There are just too many books, many of them still unread.

Shelving books geographically might also work for some people. If a book is about Africa or is a novel set in Africa, then place it on the African shelf. The trouble is, some books are about several different areas, or no area at all. You could shelve it according to where the author is from, but some books have two authors from two different places. This system just seems too complicated to be practical.

Ordering your books by their quality or importance might be workable, except that it would require a value judgment each time you place a book on a shelf. Ranking 100 books might be fun, but a thousand books or more? And what do you do with those books you have yet to read?

That leaves ordering books by subject or genre, the most sensible of the 10 ideas. Gerson herself says she uses this one, although some books don't seem to fit into any category, so she just stacks them in a miscellaneous pile.

Maybe next time I'll write about my own method of library organization.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Literature both contemporary and historical

As I like to say, all literature is contemporary literature. It is read and preserved by those to whom it continues to speak.
Scott Turow, foreword, By the Book

Scott Turow
These words by Scott Turow, the author of popular legal thrillers, could serve as a definition of literature: stories that speak to every generation. Some stories don't even speak to their own generation. Others speak only to the generation in which they were written but have little to say to later ones. Real literature has staying power. It speaks anew to each succeeding generation, although what it says is not necessarily the same to each generation. Thus, as Turow points out, it seems contemporary, however old it may actually be.

It may even take a few generations to discover whether a particular book qualifies as literature or not. Some novels are widely read and appreciated when they are first published, but then are quickly forgotten. Sometimes these books are rediscovered and their literary value recognized years later. With most books, however, once forgotten, always forgotten.

A few weeks ago I read Anthony Trollope's 1879 novel Cousin Henry. The fact that the book remains in print indicates somebody recognizes its literary value. And I found, as I wrote in my review (July 24), that the story spoke to me, even though it was about people in a different time and place and about a situation, a contested will for the inheritance of a large estate, that I will never experience. Even so I could relate to these people and their attitudes and behavior. It seemed contemporary to me.

If all literature is contemporary literature, as Turow argues, I would add that all fiction is historical fiction. When Cousin Henry was written, it was a contemporary novel. Nearly 150 years later we read it both as being about us now but also about a culture that no longer exists. Historical writers today may attempt to capture something of 19th century England, but Trollope did that for us while writing about his own time.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Working mother

Working mothers sometimes have to take their kids to work with them, which can become problematic when a mother works as a police detective. When I reviewed the first book in Michael Hiebert's Alvin, Alabama series of mysteries, Dream with Little Angels (April 11, 2014), my objection was that Detective Leah Teal took her 11-year-old son Abe to too many crime scenes and interrogations to be believable. Even a bad mother would be unlikely to do this, and Leah is portrayed as a good mother.

Abe is 12 years old in the second novel in the series, Close to the Broken Hearted, and while he remains a main character and the narrator of much of the story, both Hiebert and Leah show better sense in keeping the boy, who thinks he's a better detective than his mother, away from most of the action. However, both Abe and his older sister, Caroline. happen to be in the car when their mother gets the call that sends her rushing to the novel's violent climax.

The story centers on Sylvie Carson, a young mother who has been emotionally disturbed since Preacher Eli accidentally killed her younger brother years before. Now the preacher has been released from prison, and Sylvie claims he is harassing her. Strange things are happening at her home, open doors and odd noises, and Sylvie keeps calling the police department to complain about Preacher Eli. Only Leah believes these complaints are not just in Sylvie's imagination.

Meanwhile, Abe and his friend Dewey provide comic relief, playing with their wooden swords and spying on Preacher Eli while disguised as trees. A subplot involves discoveries about Abe's father, who died when the boy was very young. Hiebert gives us a compelling story and lots of small town Alabama atmosphere. What's hard to believe this time is not children being taken to crime scenes but the fact that the author hails not from Alabama but from Canada.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Not so easy A

Although I devoted my career to newspapers, my college major was actually magazine journalism. The toughest journalism class I took was magazine writing because the professor didn't give A's. Only magazine editors gave A's. To get an A in the class a student had to sell an article to a magazine, then show the acceptance letter or the check to the professor.

A few days ago, in a vain attempt at housecleaning, I happened upon the articles I wrote for that class and the rejection letters I received from magazine editors. Most of the latter were form letters probably sent out by the dozens each day to frustrated writers, although the one from Dick Kaplan, managing editor of Pageant, at least said, "Please forgive this impersonal reply." Henry W. Hough, editor of The Poetry Forum, said, "Sometimes we send back good poems because we're overstocked at the moment." Such phrases seemed somehow reassuring even though they were in form letters and so meant absolutely nothing. Most letters, like those from Redbook, P.S. magazine, the Diners Club Magazine and The Reader's Digest, weren't even signed but just came from "The Editors." Somebody at December Magazine simply wrote the word "SORRY" on a 3-by-5 card

The best rejection letter came from David E. Kucharsky, news editor of Christianity Today, who wrote, "Thank you for letting us see your manuscript on the dormitory Chaplains at Ohio University. It is interesting enough, but I doubt if there is enough significance here on a broad scale. Space pressures are such that we are not able to handle the more local issues." At least I knew that what I had written was actually read by somebody and rejected for a good reason.

As for the other rejected articles, one was called "Saucers, Sea Serpents and Such," another "Edison and the Aeroplane" and another "You Don't Want to Keep This Job You Got," which is what a kindly police chief told me after he picked me up for attempting to sell encyclopedia in his town, in which door-to-door sales turned out to be illegal. I took his advice and quit the job that night.

The rejected poems included the following:

how are you
said one
in greeting

fine thank you
said the other
in suffering

i'm glad to hear that
said the first
in passing

Yet not all my efforts were rejected. On Jan. 12, 1966, Paul Fromer, editor of His, a Christian magazine aimed at college students, wrote, "Thanks for your sensitive article 'The Gift of Shyness.' We want to use it and I am enclosing a check." The article was short, just one page in the magazine, and the check was small, just $7.50, but it was the first money I earned as a journalist and, more importantly, earned me an A just before the semester ended.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The great big American novel

The "great American novel" is a form which Americans respect, not only because it seems equal to the "grandeur" and size of the country and the universal implications of its history, but because in some way its looseness, its broodingness, its very size seem about to yield up the secret, the essential truth of American life.
Alfred Kazin, "The Great American Bore," Contemporaries

Alfred Kazin
For decades in the middle of the 20th century, the idea of the great American novel referred not so much to literary greatness as size. A great novel had to be huge, or so we can assume from the thickness of so many of the novels being produced by American writers of this period. Literary critic Alfred Kazin examined this assumption in his hard-hitting 1958 essay "The Great American Bore."

Most of those hits were directed at John O'Hara and his massive novel From the Terrace which had just been published. I don't know that I have ever read a book review as negative as this one.

Kazin called the novel "mercilessly repetitive and meaninglessly detailed."

He said it "makes no great demand on anyone's mental faculties."

"There is no plot, no dramatic unity of any kind to enforce suspense or even tension," he wrote.

The book, he said, "is simply a large piece of American history in our time, ripped out of the reference books."

Mostly Kazin focused on the novel's length: "Nine hundred pages! Nine hundred pages of characters who appear for a paragraph and are forgotten; nine hundred pages of rapacious females who talk about sex like college sophomores discovering that 'sex is nothing but sensation anyway.' Nine hundred pages of detail about rich men's stables, what workmen ate for lunch in a Pennsylvania steel mill in 1900, of careful notations about lemon phosphates and who was mad at whom and who slept with whom, and what people ate at a prep-school lunch in the 1920s ..."

O'Hara was not alone in churning out these massive, door-stopper novels. Kazin refers to Thomas Wolfe, Irwin Shaw, James Jones and other writers. He could also have mentioned lesser writers such as James Michener, Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins and any number of others from that period when bigness seemed to equate to importance or value or even greatness in the eyes of publishers, readers and even the authors themselves.

Long novels are still being written, of course. I usually read one or more such novels each year. Sometimes they seem padded, other times they tell stories equal to the length of the books. Yet when I enter a bookstore today, as I in fact hope to do later today, I don't have the sense that size dominates story in the books I see on shelves and tables. Great American novels are still being written, but great size no longer appears to be the primary objective.