Monday, December 5, 2016

Miracle worker

Judith McPherson, the 10-year-old narrator of Grace McCleen's impressive first novel The Land of Decoration, defines a miracle in an early chapter as "what you see when you stop thinking." Perhaps because she thinks too much, Judith begins to see herself as a miracle worker. At first her power seems a blessing, but it becomes more and more a curse because miracles, like wishes granted by genies, don't always work the way they are intended.

Her mother died after her birth, and Judith has been raised by her father, a simple laborer who is a part of a fundamentalist congregation with strict ideas about sin and punishment. Judith knows Father loved her mother, but she isn't so sure that he really loves her.

The introverted girl spends most of her time alone in her room, in which she creates what she calls the Land of Decoration, a phrase based on an Old Testament passage. She has made, in effect, her own little world made out of rubbish, complete with mountains, buildings, rivers and pipe-cleaner people. One day she covers her world with cotton snow, and the next day an early-season blizzard strikes her town. A couple of days later she does it again. From then on, anything she does in her Land of Decoration happens in the real world, even if not quite as she might have imagined it.

Much is going on Judith's life beyond the Land of Decoration. Her father decides to continue working even though most of his fellow workers go on strike. She is bullied at school, and when one of the bullies follows her home, her house becomes a target of vandalism by him and his friends. This drives her father, already under extreme pressure at work, into a panic, especially when the police seem incapable of stopping the nightly assaults on his property. When he builds a fence to protect the house, authorities come after him for his illegal fence.

And then there are her almost daily conversations with God, who seems more like a kooky uncle.

The trouble with stories like this is how to end them in a satisfactory way without everything being a dream or the product of a character's imagination. The usual solution is to obfuscate the conclusion so that readers haven't a clue as to what is going on. Until McCleen arrives at the dilemma point, her novel proves rich and wonderful. After that, well, I for one was left unsatisfied.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Books in boxes

It was wonderful unpacking a big box filled with books, even if we had mailed it to ourselves.
Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Used and Rare

Opening almost any kind of package can provide a measure of excitement. This may even include taking items out of bags following a trip to the grocery store. For those of us who love books, nothing can quite match opening a box of books, even if, like Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, we are the ones who placed the books in that box.

I ship books to myself every year following a winter in Florida. I reserve the limited shelf space in our Florida condo for books I have yet to read. Before returning to our much more spacious Ohio home, I place the books I've read over the winter into boxes and ship them home. These boxes await me at the post office  upon my return. I may know what's in them, but even so I look forward to opening them and removing the books one by one.

A step up in the excitement level happens when ordering books from catalogs or through an Internet site, like Amazon. Here, too, I know what to expect, but I have yet to actually see these particular books or hold them in my hands. So simply opening the box, especially when it is a large box, can become the highlight of the day.

For nearly 40 years I reviewed books for a newspaper, and as incredible as it still seems to me, a variety of publishers actually sent me books on a regular basis. Some days my desk would be stacked with boxes of books, and rarely did I know what was inside these boxes. So I could experience something of the joy of a kid at Christmas almost every day. And as on Christmas morning, the contents of the package were often disappointing. Other times I felt like I had hit a jackpot.

Although retired from professional reviewing, I continue to receive usually one review copy a month through LibraryThing, so the excitement of receiving free books directly from publishers is not entirely a thing of the past.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The art of murder

Thomas De Quincey
Writers of historical mysteries have turned everyone from Bertie, Prince of Wales, to Mark Twain to Groucho Marx into an amateur sleuth, but David Morrell's choice of writer Thomas De Quincey as his hero may be the most inspired of them all, even if De Quincey is little known today. If his name is recognized it is probably as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater (1822) in which he describes his addiction to the opium-loaded drug laudanum after first taking it for pain relief. To support both his habit and his large family, he sold countless essays on a variety of subjects to British publications.

It is another of De Quincey's writings, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) that Morrell uses as a launchpad for his 2013 novel, the first in a series, Murder as a Fine Art. De Quincey wrote about the infamous Ratcliffe Highway killings of 1811. Morrell imagines that, decades later, the crimes by the Ratcliffe Highway killer are repeated, almost death for death, as if to rub them in De Quincey's face.

At first, De Quincey is himself considered a suspect in the new round of bloody murders. Soon, accompanied by his youngest daughter, Emily, he is assisting Detective Inspector Ryan and Constable Becker in trying to solve the crimes. Or perhaps they are assisting him, so sharp is his mind, at least when he has access to a steady supply of laudanum.

Morrell, a literature professor before he became a best-selling author of thrillers (beginning with First Blood), became a Thomas De Quincey scholar before beginning this series of novels, and it shows in the detail he provides about De Quincey and his times. Also, Morrell provides his readers with a short history lesson at the beginning of virtually every chapter, writing about the London police force, the popularity of laudanum as a pain reliever in De Quincey's day, the spread of cholera in London in the middle of the 19th century and other topics relating to his story.

Murder as a Fine Art may be a violent novel, especially in the initial chapter, but it is an unusually fine mystery, one that may inspire some of us to seek out some of Thomas De Quincey's work.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Celebrate some words

Let's celebrate some centennials today, not of individuals, places or events but of words.

It can be difficult to be certain exactly when words were coined. Often they are used in conversation long before somebody writes them down, but not until they are written down in books or other publications can later scholars assign dates to them. Sol Steinmetz, in his book There's a Word for It (2010), provides lists of words coined, or at least put into print for the first time, every year from 1900 to 2009. So let's look at the words that appeared first in 1916, 100 years ago.

When I see lists of words arranged by their date of origin, I find myself dividing them into three groups in my mind: those I would have thought to be older, those I would have thought to be newer and those that sound about right. So allow me to do that now.

1916 words that seem older
Ambivalent, counterattack (used as a verb), dagnab it, dealership, goof, Midwesterner, multimillion and pastrami.
1916 words that seem newer

Carcinogenic, cryptobiotic, dysfunction, ecotype, environmentalist, homo-erotic, hush-hush, penny-pincher, princessy, punchline, Realtor and sex drive.

1916 words that seem about right

World War I was well under way in 1916, and certain words and phrases from that year appear to have grown out of that war. These include blimp, jarhead, munitioneer, national service, over the top, R.O.T.C., steel helmet and trip-wire.

Actually there are several other words on Steinmetz's list that I don't know where to place on one of my own. These include cuckoo-land, economy size, excludable, low-maintenance, photofinishing, profiteer and well-scrubbed.

Some of the words from 1916 we might have done very well without, but others, especially such handy gems as ambivalent and punchline, are certainly worth celebrating.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Literary prizes for songwriters?

A few weeks ago I mentioned folksinger Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in connection with Paul Simon's denial that he himself is a poet. I didn't get into the question of whether literary prizes should be given to songwriters. Let's do that now.

A fellow LibraryThing member argued in a discussion group that Dylan's "not a literary figure, he's a songwriter and there are plenty of venues that celebrate excellence in music." That is a good point. Is there a hall of fame for poetry the way there is for rock and roll music and country music? Are the National Book Awards televised the way the Grammys and other music award presentations are? And are there as many categories so that one writer can win multiple awards and many writers can win at least one? (Of course, because there are so many categories of Grammy Awards, poets and other literary figures have sometimes won them. Grammy winners have included Maya Angelou, James Dickey, Carl Sandburg and Rod McKuen.)

Yet just because a poem is set to music does not mean that it is no longer a poem. There was a time when virtually every literate person read poetry. Today relatively few people do, but they do listen to it. And so most of our poets, like those who wrote the psalms in biblical times, set their poetry to music. I argued in my Nov. 2 post that Paul Simon is a poet. I could make a similar case for Leonard Cohen, who died recently, Dar Williams and many other singer-songwriters.

The quality of the poetry should not be judged on the basis of the music or the voice of the singer or the writer's celebrity. If you are going to give literary prizes to songwriters, it had better be because the words themselves and the strength of their imagery make them deserving. It would not do to start handing out literary prizes to celebrities in the music world at the expense of those who write quality books and poems in relative obscurity. But an occasional Nobel Prize for a Bob Dylan? I have no problem with that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A writer who reads

Larry McMurtry, a prolific writer who also happens to be a prolific reader, surprised me when he observed in one of his books that many writers don't read all that much. Visiting in authors' homes and looking over their shelves, he said he often sees few books other than those they have written themselves or that have been sent to them by publishers hoping for some kind words to use as a blurb. I had always assumed that reading, whether for research or inspiration, was a prerequisite for writing.

Laura Lippman
One writer, other than McMurtry, who does read a lot is Laura Lippman. I have commented on this in past posts. Her crime fiction has numerous literary references, and in her personal appearances she often mentions books she has read. So when I read Baltimore Blues, her first Tess Monaghan novel, I decided to make note of her literary references. There turned out to be more than I expected.

She places three quotations at the front of the novel. One is from H.L. Mencken, "Of all escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient." Another comes from a letter written by a Baltimore doctor. later published in an 1873 book. The third consists of lines from A.E. Housman's poem, Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff. That Housman poem comes up twice in the 324-page novel, and another Housman poem is mentioned as well.

W.H. Auden
During the course of her story, she mentions, usually through her characters, Thomas Hardy, James Thurber's Walter Mitty character, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce (Cain, in fact, pops up again and again in the novel), W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, John Milton, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, A.S. Byatt, Edgar Allan Poe and Don Quixote.

In addition, Tess works part-time in her aunt's used bookshop, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore is referred to as "a place of wonders to Tess."

All this is in a murder mystery that could be classified as light reading. Best of all, these many literary references contribute to the plot without getting in the way.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The first Tess Monaghan

Laura Lippman has written a dozen Tess Monaghan mysteries. I had read a couple of them with pleasure, but I was eager to read the very first in the series, Baltimore Blues, published in 1997. It reveals how Tess, like Lippman herself a former Baltimore newspaper reporter, becomes a private investigator.

It's not by design. Having lost her reporting job when her newspaper folded, she works part-time in her Aunt Kitty's bookstore and looks around for a new job, maybe a new career. Then her workout buddy Rock offers to pay her to follow his girlfriend, Ava Hill, who has been acting strange lately. It seems like easy work, but Tess's efforts end up getting Rock accused of murdering a lawyer she suspects of having an affair with Ava. Then Rock's lawyer hires Tess to work for the defense team with some investigative work, to play Paul Drake to his Perry Mason.

Tess turns out to be a better detective than she thought at first, although still not good enough to actually solve the case until the killer, thinking she knows more than she actually does, comes after her.

Despite the ending, something of a cliche in detective fiction, Baltimore Blues makes enjoyable reading. The characters, especially Tess Monaghan, are vividly drawn, the story moves at a steady pace and the side stories actually add interest rather than seeming like filler. So I'm glad I sought out Baltimore Blues. Now I must find a copy of Charm City.