Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Two kinds of people

Anne Curzan
Linguist Anne Curzan says that when she meets new people on social occasions they usually either express fear that this language expert will find fault with the words they say and the way they say them or they express contempt for the language choices of others. Are these two groups of people? Well, yes in the sense that some of them lean toward timidity while others lean toward obnoxiousness. Yet they are united into a single group by the fact that they see language in terms of right and wrong. Most of us, in fact, fall into this extremely large group.. Our parents corrected us. Our teachers corrected us. Even as adults we are corrected by friends, spouses, editors and sometimes total strangers. (Being laughed at because of the way we say something is a significant form of correction.) As a result we tend to view language in black-and-white terms.

So the second kind of people may actually include just Anne Curzan herself and a very few others capable of viewing language more objectively, not in terms of what's right and what's wrong but rather in terms of what works and what doesn't. The purpose of language is to communicate with others. If what you say communicates your message clearly, that's what counts, not your particular word choices or grammar.

Of course, I've noticed that Curzan, Steven Pinker, John McWhorter and others in this group speak and write in ways that would win the seal of approval of English teachers anywhere. They know the rules and follow them, even though they may say they don't believe in them. That's because things like grammar rules, standardized spellings and widely accepted definitions are what make language work. We couldn't communicate very well if we each spoke our own language in our own way.

Words constantly come and go and change their meanings and pronunciations. Verbs become nouns, and nouns become verbs. Last year's dictionary can go out of style as quickly as last year's dress. So as much as we may need language rules, we should not allow them to become rigid. The two groups of people may actually be those who stay both flexible and tolerant when it comes to language change and those who do not.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A peculiar detective for peculiar crimes

One of the best things about Bryant & May and the Burning Man, the latest in Christopher Fowler's series of Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries, comes on the first page after the novel ends where we find the words, "BRYANT & MAY WILL RETURN." That's good news because throughout the novel Arthur Bryant, the aging London police detective, struggles with advancing dementia. He can get hopelessly lost within a block or two of his residence. Even so, backed up by his partner John May, hardly a young man himself, and the other members of his unit, Bryant gets his man.

Someone is using fire in a variety of ways to kill a victim each day during the week before Guy Fawkes Night. Meanwhile the streets of London are full of demonstrators. Is the killer one of them or is he using the civil unrest as cover for his crimes? What do the victims have in common? And why is fire the weapon of choice? Bryant, fitting for his department and the crimes he investigates, has a peculiar way of finding answers, but find them he does, even if he can forget where he lives.

The crimes may be horrendous, yet Fowler still manages to keep the novel's mood light. The usual subplot is that the police hierarchy wants to disband the unit. That threat is made more serious by Bryant's declining health. I've always found the books in this series become less interesting whenever Arthur Bryant leaves center stage. So it's encouraging that somehow Fowler plans to bring both Bryant and his unit back for at least one more adventure.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Shaped by war

While a high school student, as I mentioned here a few weeks ago, I viewed history as the story of war, with interludes in between when nations recovered from the last war and prepared for the next. In his new novel, Sweet Caress, William Boyd seems to view his main character and narrator Amory Clay from the same perspective. She is a 20th century woman, born in 1908 and dying in 1983, and her life is shaped by the century's wars virtually from beginning to end.

Her father is a writer before the Great War. He survives combat, but afterward he is a shell of the man he once was. At his lowest point, he picks up Amory from her school and deliberately drives the car into a lake, determined to die and take his favorite daughter with him. Both survive, but Amory is forever changed.

She becomes a photographer, gets beaten up by fascists while trying to get shots of a parade and, after the next war breaks out, has some harrowing experiences following the Allied army into Europe. Her brother dies in World War II, and the war veteran she marries is, like her father, ruined psychologically by his experiences.

In her 60s, Amory leaves her twin daughters behind in Scotland and becomes a war correspondent in Vietnam. She is wounded by the Vietcong, yet her greatest danger comes from the British. Returning home, she learns that Blythe, one of her daughters, has run away to the United States and, even at that distance, has had her own life shaped by the war.

This photographer's story comes complete with photographs throughout, raising a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Did Boyd find photos to illustrate his story or shape his story around the photos he found? I suspect it was a little of each. In any case the photographs greatly enhance the novel.

In case anyone needs reminding, Sweet Caress suggests the stupidity and futility of war, yet in the end the novel manages to be life-affirming. It is not just war that shapes our lives and our history. It is also those sweet caresses of peace in between.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Lost in the thicket

I am not a fan of Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series of novels, but his stand-alone Texas tales, such as The Bottoms and A Fine Dark Line, are excellent and The Ticket (2013) is his best yet, at least among those I've read.

The story takes place soon after the turn of the 20th century, when automobiles have just started to appear on Texas roads, but otherwise the rural areas of the state remain a wild frontier. Jack, a teenager who narrates the tale, loses his parents to smallpox, then sees his grandfather murdered and sister Lulu kidnapped by Cut Throat Bill and his band of criminals. Like Mattie Ross in True Grit, the boy wants to pursue the villains, but he needs help.

Jack's Rooster Cogburn turns out to be Shorty, a former circus midget, and Eustace, an alcoholic black man with a big shotgun and modest skills at tracking. They agree to try to rescue Lulu in exchange for Jack's newly inherited land, plus the outstanding rewards on the heads of Cut Throat Bill and the members of his gang. Along the way they are joined by Jimmie Sue, a young prostitute who falls for Jack and sees him as her ticket to a new life; Sheriff Winton, who would like a share of that bounty for himself, and Spot, a black man who cleans up the sheriff's office and goes along to make sure he gets his small reward for passing along key information about the whereabouts of the gang.

The Thicket, named for the area where Cut Throat Bill's hideout is eventually found, is by turns a funny and violent adventure, yet it also proves to be full of poignant commentary about the human condition. Explaining to Jack about the justification for killing the bad guys, Winton says, "Life isn't just black of white, here or there;  it's got some mud in it, and we're some of the mud." Later Jack himself observes, "To some extent I find sin like coffee. When I was young and had my first taste of it I found it bitter and nasty, but later on I learned to like it by putting a little milk in it, and then I learned to like it black. Sin is like that. You sweeten it a little with lies, and then you get so you can take it straight. I just didn't want to do it all the way. I wanted to keep a little milk in it." Life, in other words, is something of a thicket, a place where you can get lost but also where you can be found.

Lansdale is a fine, under-appreciated writer, and in The Thicket he is at his finest.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Unpredictable to the end

Elmore Leonard's Road Dogs (2009), published when he was in his 80s, shows that his narrative gifts didn't desert him near the end of his life. The novel about two prison pals, road dogs, and what happens to them after their release, entertains as much as any of his earlier stories.

Elmore Leonard books always remind me of Coen Brothers movies. That's because of their wit, the strength of their dialogue and the unpredictability of their plots. In Road Dogs, Jack Foley, who has robbed more banks than anyone else, wins an early release because his buddy, Cundo Ray, pays for a first-rate lawyer. Then Cundo sends him to stay in one of his California mansions, while Dawn, his beautiful and supposedly chaste girlfriend, waits for his return in the other next door. When Cundo gets out of prison, you expect him to place some demand on Foley as repayment for his generosity. But that isn't what happens at all, this being Elmore Leonard. Instead the threat, make that threats, against Foley come from elsewhere.

One of those threats is Lou Adams, an FBI agent convinced Foley will quickly return to his old habits. In fact, he is betting on it. He is writing a book about the nation's greatest, and most polite, bank robber, but he needs an ending. He figures he will have that when Foley robs another bank and Adams is there to catch him. He closely monitors Foley's activity, even to the point of hiring even worse criminals to tail him. But as threats go, Lou Adams proves to be little more than an irritation. Again, this is Elmore Leonard here.

I shouldn't reveal more of the plot, for Leonard's surprises are best left to come in their own good time.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Music without a name

Don Cusic
The kind of music we loved in our youth is the kind of music we love for the rest of our lives. Nothing new there. But when I was in Nashville in September, I heard a series of lectures on the history of country music by Don Cusic, a professor at Belmont University and the author of numerous books on country music. He said country music tends to echo popular music, and draw the same fans, roughly 15 years later.

As examples, he mentioned Patsy Cline, whose records appeared in the late 1950s and early '60s. Cusic said she appealed to the same people who, in their youth, loved big-band singers like Doris Day, Jo Stafford and Helen Forrest. About a decade and a half after the Beatles and similar groups, the same fans who loved them were listening to Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys on country stations.

I'm beginning to understand why my son, now in his early 40s, listens to country radio. I don't hear it, but apparently today's country performers remind him of Heart, U-2 and other rock groups he once listened to.

As for me, I loved the folk music of the 1960s, especially Peter, Paul and Mary, and, as far as I'm concerned, country music reached its zenith when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded Pancho and Lefty in 1983. Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and similar performers also had country hits during that period.

I still enjoy the same kind music, and will always stop whatever I'm doing whenever Peter, Paul and Mary or Pancho and Lefty come on Pandora or Spotify. But I no longer know what to call this music, and neither does anyone else apparently. Today neither the term folk nor country quite covers it.

Sometimes it's called acoustic, but the music I like isn't always acoustic. You also hear the term Americana. But this morning I was listening to Mary Black sing the kind of songs I enjoy, and she's Irish. Others prefer to called it singer/songwriter music, but don't many pop, rock and country singers write their own songs?

So it's music without a name, but I know it when I hear it, and I'm hearing it right now on Lucinda Williams Radio.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Get down to the facts!

McKim had opened this meeting with a wandering talk about the fair and its prospects. Hunt cut him off: "McKim, damn your preambles. Get down to the facts!"
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

Whenever you hear the phrase "needs no introduction," you know you can expect not just an introduction, but most likely a long introduction. Most of us can agree with Richard M. Hunt at that meeting of architects planning the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, as described in Erik Larson's book. We, too, would sometimes like to shout, "Get down to the facts!" or maybe, "If the speaker needs no introduction, why are we hearing one?"

Andre Dubus III
At the Writers in Paradise public readings in St. Petersburg last week, each writer who gave a reading was introduced by another writer, who would then be giving the reading on some other night. These writers, many of whom return to the writing program year after year and by now know each other very well, try to outdo each other with the wit and creativity of their introductions. Sometimes, quite frankly, the introductions are far better than the readings that follow. That wasn't the case Friday night when Ann Hood introduced fellow novelist Andre Dubus III, using the theme of "How do I love thee, Andre, let me count the ways." I don't know about Hood and Dubus, but I found it embarrassing. The essay read by Dubus, however, about meeting of his father, a terrific short story writer, with Raymond Carver, another terrific short story writer, was, well, terrific.

If the introductions of speakers, and sometimes the introductory comments made by the speakers themselves, can often be tedious, introductory passages in books can be equally so. Erik Larson's book itself has a prologue. Looking over some of the other books on my shelves, I found one with both a foreword and a prologue, another with a preface and an introduction, yet another with a foreword and a preface, and another with an introduction and two prefaces, one by the author and another by the editor.

It gets confusing, even for writers and editors, to understand what all these terms mean, but technically a preface is not the same thing as a prologue, which is different from both a foreword and an introduction. (We won't even get into afterword and epilogue.) A foreword, for example, is usually written by someone other than the author. The introduction "usually forms a part of the text (and the text numbering system)," according a source I found with a Google search. Of course, there are exceptions. My Bookstore, a book of essays by writers about favorite bookstores, includes an introduction by Richard Russo with Roman numerals.

I try to read introductions, prefaces and all the rest, and sometimes they can be helpful. Prologues especially tend to be vital to the book, although I often wonder why a prologue can't just be called Chapter One. Yet they can all be annoying at times, especially when they are numbered with Roman numerals, making it seem like you have to read page after page before you can actually start the book, and especially in fiction. "Get down to the story!" we want to shout. "Get down to the facts!"