Friday, April 17, 2015

About chapters

Without chapter breaks, when do you turn off the lamp and go to sleep? When do you reward yourself with a cookie or a hot chocolate? When do feel that you've got somewhere?
Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Novels Like a Professor

Most readers prefer books with chapters, and most books have them, especially nonfiction books. Not all novels do, however, and I always find these books a trifle irritating. Without chapters, as Thomas Foster suggests, there are no logical places to take a break. And everyone needs to take a break now and then, especially if a novel has 400 pages or so.

Not only do I like chapters, but I like relatively short chapters. Ten pages may be just about the ideal chapter length, but I have no complaint wth even shorter chapters. I am in the middle of Stewart O'nan's Emily, Alone, which has some chapters just one or two pages  long. I love it. I take lots of breaks.

Furthermore, I like chapters to be numbered, something O'nan doesn't do. I like knowing where I am in relation to the number of chapters in the book. Some authors have a knack for writing chapters that are all about the same length, which also helps you track your progress.

Chapter titles are expected in nonfiction books, but they seem to be optional in novels, and most novelists today avoid them. I value those novels that have them. I don't know of any author who has better titles for his books than Alexander McCall Smith. You can't get much better than Morality for Beautiful Girls and The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday. Smith's chapter tites are just as good. In The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, he has chapters titled "On a Hot Day We Dream of Tea" and "Food Cooked with Love Tastes Better."

Another novel I read recently, Rachel Joyce's The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, also has some fine chapter titles, like "The naming of shoes," "What shall we sing of when we die?" And "The nun and the peach."

Each chapter in a novel is, or should be, a story in itself. It should have a beginning that helps the reader quickly get into the business of that chapter and an ending that makes the reader want to keep going into the next chapter. If finishing a book gives a reader a big feeling of satisfaction, finishing a chapter should give a reader at least a small feeling of satisfaction.

These are just my own preferences, of course. Foster also says in his book, "A chapter, as a section that makes sense for its particular novel, follows no rules but its own."  That is, "the chapter must work for the novel that houses it." And further, "chapters help teach us how to read the novel."

Two novels, one I recently read and another I am currently reading, seem to have chapters perfectly suited to the novels. Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry uses the titles of famous short stories as chapter titles, and the chapters somehow mirror the stories. Paul Malmont's The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, a title that itself includes the titles of three science fiction pulp magazines, has chapters that reflect the spirit of pulps and movie serials of the 1940s, the time in which the story is set. We find, for example, "Issue 1 The Free Will of Atoms" and then "Episode 1."

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

More lines worth a comment

I return today to Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End and to some of the lines in the novel I thought interesting enough to make note of as I read. Here are three more worthy of comment.

They might have been awkward silences, or they might have been companionable. How did you tell the difference?

Last night I watched an epsisode of Newhart in which Dick and Joanna see a marriage counselor because Joanna is concerned about the awkward silences when they are alone together after 18 years of marriage. Of course, they discover those are actually companionable silences, and they go home much happier.

In real life I think we can usually distinguish between awkward and companionable silences. I've noticed that when you go somewhere with friends, whether it's a daylong excursion or just an outing to the movies, the drive to the destination is always filled with lively conversation, while the drive home tends to be much more subdued. This is partly due to the fact that everyone is tired, but it may also be because the topics of conversation have been pretty much exhausted. The silence is more companionable than awkward. If, however, two people are dating for the first time and after 30 minutes neither can think of anything to say, that's awkward.

My wife and I once entertained another couple in our home whom we had never met before. They turned out to be as introverted as we were, and there were a few awkward silences during the evening. But I noticed the other man, a pastor, had a neat trick for getting past these silences. He would look about the room and see something on a wall or on a shelf and ask a question about it. Who is that in the picture? Where did you find that? Immediately the conversation would start flowing again.

So Addison was compelled into a life of deceit and charade, which is what always happens whenever honesty is forced upon someone.

That may seem like a contradiction, but I suspect it is true. I recall reading somewhere that married couples who pledge to tell each other everything are more likely to divorce than those who don't. That makes sense to me. I don't recommend lying in a marriage, but I don't recommend always revealing everything either. There are some things a spouse is probably better off not knowing -- the details about former boyfriends or girlfriends, for example. Does a husband really need to know about the man his wife works with who flirts with her on occasion? Does a wife need to know her husband saw the neighbor lady in a bikini in her backyard and enjoyed the view?  Those who pledge to keep no secrets may find themselves either revealing too much or feeling guilty about not revealing enough.

The actor was campy and sardonic. Sarcasm without wit. Rima had once taught middle school; she'd had enough sarcasm without wit to last a lifetime.

Most sarcasm comes without wit, it seems to me. That's because sarcasm is easy, while wit is not. Even professional comedians and sitcom writers sometimes try to get by with just the sarcasm, hoping it will pass for wit. It doesn't.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Lines worth a comment

Wit's End, the Karen Joy Fowler novel I wrote about a few days ago, contains a number of lines worth writing down as I read the book and now, a few days later, worth writing about. Let's begin:

Getting up would very likely involve chatting; her good mood was too baseless to survive a chat.

That line early in the novel strikes me as highly descriptive of the kind of person Rima, the main character, is. She is someone who doesn't necessarily think a chat is always a good thing. I am that kind person myself, which is probably why I wrote down the sentence. Some people always seem to be up for a chat, which to me means a friendly discussion of matters of little importance: the weather, a sporting event, an upcoming party, a recent shopping trip, etc. Others of us, mostly introverts, can often view such discussions with dread. It is partly a matter of mood, as Fowler suggests.

No one in novels watches TV.

Or in movies or television programs either, with the exception of the characters on Seinfeld. In real life, most of us spend a few hours of every day watching television. Yet fictional characters, no matter how much realism writers try to put into their stories, rarely have their characters watch television. We may find them in movie theaters, but rarely in front of a TV. I think we can all be grateful for this.

The letters were short and undemanding, and just enough like reading to substitute for reading.

By reading, Fowler seems to suggest substantive reading, that is reading a book or something with a little intellectual weight to it. Most of us probably sometimes find substitutes that are "just enough like reading to substitute for reading." This might be anything from a cereal box at breakfast to a copy of People magazine. Sometimes just buying a book or checking one out of the library can become a substitute for reading, especially if we can be seen with the book at the beach or Starbucks. In Citizen Vince, the Jess Walter novel I recently read, the main character finds difficult books and reads just the first few pages of each so he can impress a girl. It is, of course, not so much reading as a substitute for reading.

I may continue with this next time.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Who's real?

The high bidder in an eBay auction that closes in two days will get his or her name used for a character in the next Michael Connelly novel, The Crossing. The auction benefits Trinity Cafe, which provides meals for the homeless and the hungry in Tampa. That sounds like a good cause, but anyone who has read Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End may wonder if the prize is really such a good thing.

Fowler's 2009 novel tells of Rima, a young Ohio woman whose father, mother and brother have all died before their time. She goes to California to visit her godmother, Addison Early, the author of a popular series of mystery novels featuring detective Maxwell Lane. While there Rima decides to do a little investigating of her own to try to discover why the murderer in one of Addison's early novels  was named after her father and how that choice may have influenced her own life.

Wit's End turns out to be a study of  identity. Not only are real people characters in novels, but characters in novels, including Maxwell Lane, are regarded as real people. Technology enables users to take on multiple identities in blogs, fan sites, etc. Even Rima, herself named for the character in W.H. Hudson's Green Mansions, finds herself treated on the Web as a fictional character.

The novel sort of wanders between clever and confusing, perhaps appropos of its subject matter.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Learning languages in restaurants

I sometimes order moo goo gai pan in Chinese restaurants, but I pick out the mushrooms, which I don't like. Once in a small restaurant I asked my server, actually the owner, if I could have moo goo gai pan without the mushrooms. She gave me an odd look and explained that "moo goo" means mushrooms. The next time I ordered moo goo gai pan there, I told her, "And hold the moo goo." She laughed and served my idea of the perfect Chinese dish, just chicken (gai) and vegetables in a white sauce.

And so I learned a wee bit of Chinese. It occurs to me that most of us, even if we speak but one language, nevertheless pick up words from other languages in restaurants, as well as in kitchens and dining rooms, perhaps more than anywhere else.

Consider some of the Italian words we know: linguini, Stromboli, Parmesan, prima vera and so on. Some of them, like lasagna, macaroni and spaghetti, have become so commonplace that we may even think of them as English words. And, in fact, they now are English words.

Mexican restaurants have taught us numerous Spanish food terms beyond just taco and tortilla. We probably also know a few Greek words, French words, Polish words, German words, Thai words, etc., simply because we enjoy foods from these cultures. The Normans conquered England in 1066, but they never succeeded in forcing the English to speak French. One exception, however, was food terms like beef, pork and mutton, all derived from French words.

All these foreign words we learn in restaurants probably won't do us much good if we should happen to find ourselves in Mexico City, Rome or Berlin and need directions to the nearest restaurant. But if we can find that restaurant on our own, chances are we will be able to find something on the menu we want to eat.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Columnists at their best

For newspaper columnists, their greatest challenge is their deadline. Whether their column runs daily, weekly or something in between, they still have to come up with an idea, something they can write the required number of inches about and that people will want to read about, and get it into shape by the time the clock ticks down to zero. That pressure can be terribly difficult to bear day after day, week after week, year after year.

Yet most of the columns collected in Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies and Triumphs (2012), probably seemed to write themselves. Mostly they tell about significant events and important people, natural subjects for columnists. The writers just had to give form to the ideas as as they came.

And so we find H.L. Mencken writing about the Scopes-Monkey trial, Damon Runyan on the trial of Al Capone, Jack London describing the San Francisco earthquake, Ellen Goodman on the murder of John Lennon, Shirley Povich telling about Don Larson's perfect game, Grantland Rice writing on the Dempsey-Willard fight and so on. Some of the columns are great because they describe great events. Others were made great by great writing.

In this latter category I would place Nora Ephron's New York Times piece about being an intern in the Kennedy White House and NOT getting propositioned by the president. Lorena A. Hickok wrote a wonderful column for the Minneapolis Tribune in 1923 about most of the population of a small Iowa town staying up all night just to watch President Harding's funeral train speeding through. Jim Murray wrote a superb tribute to ball player Jim Gilliam. Regina Brett wrote an unusually fine column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer about recovering from cancer. The book includes several columns by Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-times, and each one is outstanding.

Editors John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis made excellent choices for this, the second of their "Deadline Artists" books. My only complaint is with how a few of the columns are categorized. Were the victory of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the defeat of Tammany Hall in 1961 and the persistent failure of the Chicago Cubs really tragedies? I can see placing William Laurence's column about the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki among the triumphs, but a postwar piece by Homer Bigart describing the terrible Hiroshima after effects seems more like a tragedy to me.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A political thriller

Jess Walter's 2005 novel Citizen Vince won an Edgar Award for best crime novel of the year. I don't know of any award for best political novel of the year, but if there were, Citizen Vince might have won that, too.

Vince Camden's real name is Marty Hagan. He's an ex-con who was convicted of his first felony in his teens and has never been eligible to vote in his life. Yet he's now living in Spokane under a new identity in the witness protection program, and with the new identity, his felonies are erased and a card arrives in the mail making him a registered voter. Never mind that Marty, now, Vince, continues to work the old credit card scam he did back in New York. He just hasn't been caught yet.

But Vince learns Ray Sticks, a notorious mob hit man, is looking for him. Assuming the New York mob has found him and is trying to settle old scores, Vince returns to New York to try to buy his life back. The mobster takes his money but tells Vince the actual price is to kill Ray Sticks, who also turns out to be in the witness protection program.

All this takes place in late October and early November in 1980, when Ronald Reagan is challenging Jimmy Carter for the presidency. Vince may be battling for his life, but he's also, for the first time in his life, fascinated by the upcoming election. In a key scene, with Vince and Beth, his prostitute girlfriend, in grave danger, he manages to talk Sticks him into letting him vote.

The novel has a bit of the grit and the unpredictability of an Elmore Leonard story, yet Citizen Vince also reads like a literary novel. Jess Walter could have won an award for that, as well.