Monday, September 29, 2014

Good stories retold

The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The Quiet American are usually considered Graham Greene's best novels, but I have long had a fondest for his lighter work, specifically Our Man in Havana, Travels with My Aunt and Monsignor Quixote. These are hardly comic novels, for they deal with serious issues, but they are lighter in tone than most of Greene's work.

I have read Travels with My Aunt (1969) three times and just finished a second reading of Monsignor Quixote (1982). That the latter novel, just 221 pages long, represents a retelling of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes should be obvious from the title. In addition, references to Cervantes's work can be found on just about every other page. What I didn't realize until this second reading is that in Monsignor Quixote, Greene also retells the story of Travels With My Aunt.

In both stories an innocent of mature years (a retired bank manager named Henry Pulling in Travels with My Aunt and a Spanish priest who thinks he's descended from Don Quixote in Monsignor Quixote) hits the road with a much more worldly companion. In the earlier novel, that character is Henry's Aunt Augusta, a former high-class prostitute in Paris who returns for the funeral of her sister, Henry's mother, and then pulls Henry away from his flower garden to see the world with her. In the retelling, the priest unexpectedly is made a monsignor, then goes on a holiday with a Communist former mayor he calls Sancho in the old car he calls Rocinante. In each case, the trip proves to be an eye-opening experience for the innocent. The new monsignor is surprised to learn he is spending a night in a brothel and then is taken to an erotic movie, which because of its title, A Maiden's Prayer, he assumes must be a religious film.

In both of these novels, the trip broadens the horizons of the main character, while bringing a measure of grace, love and acceptance to the more worldly secondary character. The "appalling strangeness of the mercy of God" has been described as a dominant theme in Greene's work, and one can find traces of that theme in these two novels, and especially in Monsignor Quixote.

And by the way, Cervantes was born on this date in 1547. Thursday will be the 110th anniversary of Greene's birth in 1904.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Discovering what we think

How do I know what I think till I see what I say?
E.M. Forster

I guess I'll have to just wait and see what I think about that.

When I made my living writing newspaper editorials back in the 1970s and '80s, the easiest and usually the best editorials I wrote were those I was passionate about, those where I knew what I wanted to say before I said it. The truth is, I wasn't nearly opinionated enough for the job, so I often started writing about a topic before knowing what I thought about it. I would put down the arguments for each side in my own words, and in the process of doing so one side would usually make more sense to me than the other. Then I would rewrite the editorial, or at least give it a new opening paragraph, to conform with my newly discovered viewpoint.

I love it when my own writing surprises me, when something I know I've written seems to have been written by someone else. It's a bit like saying to yourself, "Did I really just say what I think I said," after a moment of unusual candor. But I'm not talking about the things I regret having written, although there are plenty of those unfortunately. I'm speaking of things that make me proud, or would if I felt more responsible for them. Instead I feel more like the channel through which those ideas, which I don't remember having beforehand, were expressed.

Writing, more than just expressing one's thoughts, actually seems to often create those thoughts in the first place. Sometimes I've found I don't really understand what a book is about until reading my own review of that book. Then it becomes clear, or at least my own thoughts about the book become clear.

I came across the above quotation from E.M. Forster out of context in the Saul Bellow novel More Die of Heartbreak, so I don't know exactly to what he was referring. Do you suppose Forster's novels sometimes surprised him in the same way some of my editorials and book reviews have surprised me? I'd like to think so.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lost causes

Jonathan Swift, back in the 18th century, hated and tried to eradicate the practice of abbreviating words into shorter words. You know how that turned out. Today words like ad, phone, bus, taxi and sitcom are commonplace.

Swift also resented newer words he considered crude and temporarily fashionable. Among these words were sham, bully, banter and bubble, all words now long established and accepted by English speakers everywhere.

For generations, protectors of the language, probably including your high school English teachers, have crusaded, as Jonathan Swift did 300 years ago, for purer, more correct grammar and vocabulary. Their successes have been few, for most of us talk the way we hear our peers talk, not the way language authorities insist we should. Just as Swift's campaigns in defense of the language were doomed to failure, so are most of those still being waged by some of us in the 21st century. Here are just a few of the lost causes:

Eager, not anxious

The word anxious, correctly used, suggests anxiety. Yet most of us use it to mean eagerness, as in, "I am anxious to start our trip." We should say eager instead, but few of us do. Patricia T. O'Conner in her book Woe Is I, says the words can be used interchangeably in speech, but that we need to be more precise in our writing.Yet I once noticed John Updike using anxious instead of eager in one of his books. If even Updike does it, it is probably a lost cause.

Literally

I hope this isn't a lost cause because people saying literally when then mean figuratively is one of my pet peeves, but I am afraid it is. Too many people just don't know the difference.

Aggravate and irritate

As O'Connor points out, poison ivy irritates and scratching aggravates, but few of us bother to make that distinction.

Have a good day

I mentioned again just a few days ago my annoyance when I hear people say "Have a good day!" instead of the more concise "Good day!" Others say "Have a nice day!" or "Have a good rest of the day!" Some of us may still dream of going back to simpler times, but there is no sign this will ever happen. Perhaps we should just be happy people are still wishing others a good day, however wordy they may be.

There are many other lost causes. Perhaps I will continue with this topic some other time.

Monday, September 22, 2014

How Britain won the war in 1940

If only all history books could be written by Michael Korda (or David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin or Candace Millard or Stephen E. Ambrose or a handful of other writers with a gift for making history come alive). Enthralled as I was last year reading Korda's Ike, a biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, with its primary focus on the D-Day invasion, I was eager to read his 2009 book With Wings Like Eagles: The Untold Story of the Battle of Britain. What a fine book it is.

The "untold story" has to do with Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, whom few Americans have even heard of and whom may not even be that highly regarded in Great Britain. Korda says the official history of the Battle of Britain, which sold more than 6 million copies, did not even mention Dowding's name. Yet Korda calls Dowding "the architect of this victory." It was he, more than anyone (with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, who instilled in the British the will to resist Hitler) who prevented a German invasion of Britain in 1940.

The German bombing raids that came to be known as the Battle of Britain were intended to weaken British resistance to an invasion during the summer of 1940. Destroying the Royal Air Force was a major part of that plan. Dowding began developing Britain's fighter planes long before the war started, at a time when most other military authorities thought bombers, not fighters, were where the money should go. When large numbers of German bombers began flying across the English Channel, however, it was Dowding's fighters that intercepted and destroyed so many of them.

Some military strategists try to convince the enemy he faces a larger force than he actually does. Dowding had the opposite strategy. He convinced the Germans the British had fewer fighter planes than it did, so the German kept sending bombers and fighters to try to destroy those remaining fighters, but Dowding brought more and more of them into the fight, weakening the German air force all the while. By the time late September arrived, it was too late in the year to count on favorable weather for an invasion, and Hitler called it off, for good as it turned out. "Perhaps without even realizing it, in mid-September 1940 Hitler lost the war, defeated by the efforts of perhaps 1,000 young men," Korda writes.

Yet in another aspect to this "unknown story," Korda gives credit to the many young British women who played major roles in the victory. Female pilots delivered new fighter planes, ready for combat, to the bases around Britain. Women worked as radar plotters and radio operators, continuing to work even as German bombs dropped all around them. (It was Dowding who insisted back in 1937 that telephone lines be buried deep underground to protect them during any possible airstrike.) Women deciphered German codes and defused bombs and dragged them off runways so British planes could take off and land.

Introverted and not one to build friendships or promote his own causes, Dowding was a controversial figure whose many rivals were always trying to replace. They succeeded long before the end of the war. Even Churchill didn't like Dowding and, according to Korda, never forgave him for being right about sending more fighter planes to France during the German invasion of that country. Churchill wanted to send more and more planes, while Dowding insisted France was a lost cause and those planes were needed to protect England. That Dowding was able to protect as many fighters as he did went a long way to making victory possible.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Teen idol

When I was a member of the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club as a teenager, Clifford D. Simak (1904-1988) ranked among my favorite authors. His sci-fi stories displayed wit and imagination, yet his fanciful plots were generally anchored in the real world, making them easier to grasp and identify with than the works of certain other writers in that genre.

It has been decades since I've read any of Simak's books, but recently I picked up They Walked Like Men (1962) and was reminded of why I liked his stories so much as a kid.

The novel might also have been called They Rolled Like Bowling Balls, for the aliens who have invaded Earth seem to be able to take whatever form suits their purpose. They can turn into men (or money) when they want to buy real estate or into something the size and shape of bowling balls when they want to make a quick getaway. Buying real estate is how these creatures aim to conquer Earth, one plot of ground at a time. They want it all to be perfectly legal (even if they are using phony money) and totally undetectable by mankind until it is too late.

Small-town newspaperman Parker Graves discovers the plot, but getting anyone to believe his story is another matter. Who's going to believe aliens from outer space are trying to buy their house? Many journalists have, in the real world, been enticed into public relations. Simak tells what happens when the aliens who walk like men and roll like bowling balls make Parker an enticing offer to become their public relations man.

This tale manages to be both exciting and humorous at the same time. It also contains better prose than some might usually associate with science fiction. Here are some descriptive lines Simak wrote that I particularly like:

"The rustling of the drying leaves, heard in the silence of the night, sounded like the furtive pattering of many little feet."

"... where empty bookshelves gaped back at me like an old man with a toothless grin."

"Then the brake lights burned red holes in the night ..."

I don't think I was wrong to have admired Clifford D. Simak so much as a teen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Anchored to one's house

"For books are a desperate nuisance; a library of even a few thousand volumes anchors a man to one house, because it is such a task to shift them."

Robertson Davies, Holiday magazine, 1962

This wonderful sentence was written by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies (1913-1995) for a magazine essay, which was later reprinted in his 1970 collection The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies and then again in A Passion for Books (1999), which is where I found it. Rather than comment on the sentence as a whole, I thought I would break it down into phrases.

For books are a desperate nuisance

I like the author's chosen modifier: desperate. Books are not just a nuisance, but a desperate nuisance. They are costly, they take up space, they collect dust and, as Davies goes on to point out, they are hard to move from one place to another. As with nagging spouses, unruly children or barking dogs, one has to really love them to put up with them.

a library of even a few thousand volumes

The word that jumps out at me here is even. I would love to know how many books Robertson Davies owned to use the phrase "even a few thousand volumes." I own about 5,000 books, which apparently falls into the "even" category. Writer Pete Hamill claimed to have 10,000 books. I notice that one member of the LibraryThing website owns almost 18,000 books. Many other members have many more books than I do.

anchors a man to one house

Here the key word is anchors. Once your library begins to expand, you simply don't want to move, not even to a bigger house with more room for books. It's not just the thought of moving tons of books that anchors a book lover. It's also the fact that no matter how many books you own, you probably have a pretty good idea where each of them can be found. They are organized in a way that makes sense to their owner, even if not to anyone else. Moving those books to a new home means losing that disorderly order and that unorganized organization.

because it is such a task to move them.

But, yes, the real problem is the task of moving them. It can take many years to collect "even a few thousand volumes," and by that time the collector is no longer young. That makes the task of moving all the more taxing. Most of my own books are shelved (or floored) in my upstairs library. So that means not just boxing and lifting those thousands of books, but also carrying them down a flight of stairs. Yes, I can hire someone else to do the work, yet I still think of it as my task, not something to be entrusted entirely to a stranger.

Also, as one ages, any possible move is likely to be to a smaller home, not a larger one. That means an additional task of sorting through one's books and deciding which to keep and which must go. I would prefer to delay this task as long as possible. Thus I remain anchored to my house.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Racial boxes

Mary Omosa of Kenya
I heard the guest preacher say this phrase last Sunday morning: "an African-American woman who is from Kenya." Was she really an African-American woman from Kenya? Or was she an African woman from Kenya? Or perhaps just a Kenyan woman?

I have always resisted the term African-American, in part, for this very reason. It requires too much knowledge both about a person's racial background and about his or her national background. Or, as in the case of the preacher, it requires simply ignoring what knowledge one does possess and using the term out of habit in order to avoid the supposedly insensitive word black. Yet calling an African woman an African-American strikes me as much more insensitive. But I don't know why it was necessary to make an reference to the woman's race at all, both because most Kenyans are widely known to be black and, more importantly, because the woman's race was irrelevant to what the preacher was saying.

Perhaps also because I was a newspaper copy editor for so many years, I dislike African-American because it is long and unwieldy. It doesn't fit easily into a headline. Why use long words or multiple words when shorter words or shorter phrases work just as well, if not better? That's why I would rather tell someone "Good day!" than "Have a good day!" or, worse, "Have a good rest of the day!"

The mixing of races in today's world has reached the point where a stranger, or in some cases even the person in question, cannot easily identify the race of that person. Perhaps the time has come, or soon will come, when we should stop trying to fit individuals into racial boxes. Certainly that is what last Sunday's preacher should have done.