Monday, January 15, 2018

Book power

Never underestimate the power of a good book.
Connie Willis, Crosstalk

It is the real power of a book — not what is on the page, but what happens when a reader takes the pages in, makes it part of himself.
Matthew Pearl, The Last Bookaneer

That books, at least some books, exert power has long been known. Consider the impact of the Torah, the Christian Bible, the works of William Shakespeare, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Harriet Beecher Stowe and many others down through the centuries. But what Connie Willis and Matthew Pearl suggest, through characters in their novels, is that even lesser books by lesser authors hold power over those who read them. Willis specifies “good book,” but almost any book can be thought good by somebody. Thus, almost any book can hold power over someone.

How does this power rexert itself? Let us count the ways.

1. The power to change

Changing anyone’s mind about anything is never easy. Most sermons, lectures and political speeches change nobody’s mind, perhaps because changing minds is so clearly their intent. We all tend to resist attempts to change our minds. Books, however, are more subtle.

Consider To Kill a Mockingbird. There is no way to know how many minds have been impacted by this story about children growing up in the Deep South in the middle of the 20th Century. Perhaps everyone who has read the novel, and that includes millions, has somehow had a change of heart about race, justice, mental illness or whatever as a result.

2. The power to entertain

Most people read books for entertainment. We’re looking for a good time. Thus, those writers who entertain readers sell more books than those who don’t, giving them economic power, if nothing else. But entertainers, from Bob Hope to Madonna to John Grisham, also feel the power of holding a large audience in their hands, however briefly.

3. The power to motivate

Self-help books don’t always work. Even so, many of us sometimes read them to try to lose weight, do a better job of raising our children, feel better or whatever. Just buying or borrowing the book shows motivation. When we’re lucky, reading it will actually motivate us enough to improve whatever needs improving.

4. The power to educate

I am not convinced textbooks are the most educational books around. They have the advantage of packing a lot of information between two covers, but they usually aren’t that interesting. We read them only because we have to in order to get passing grades. We may be more likely to learn from those books we read because we want to learn more about a particular subject, books we choose rather than books chosen for us.

5. The power to inspire

I just realized that to illustrate this point I need only point to the two quotations at the top of this blog post. Both were found in books, and together they inspired these ideas about the power of books.  The ideas contained in books inspire other ideas, which can  result in other books or any number of other kinds of creative actions.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Protecting language

In the United States, the term language police is just a metaphor for those who unofficially try to enforce political correctness. In Quebec, however, there is actually a government agency charged with protecting the French language, which mostly means limiting the spread and influence of English within the province.

Even though the former French colony was ceded to England in 1763 — that’s more than 250 years ago — and is a province in Canada, a member of the British Commonwealth, Quebec continues to have French as its official language. The language laws are intended to keep it that way. Last month a new law passed, by a vote of 111-0, telling merchants to greet customers by saying “Bonjour” rather than “Bonjour hi,” which is considered a little bit too bilingual for some in the province. Merchants who want to sell their goods to English-speaking tourists would prefer more leeway in how they address customers.

I’ve noticed when driving in Ontario that road signs are bilingual, both English and French. In Quebec, however, they are in French alone. Most other signs are in French only as well, although English is permitted as long as it is kept to the equivalent of fine print.

The concern about protecting the French language is understandable, at least up to a point. In Ireland, the battle to preserve Gaelic has been all but lost. In many other nations native languages have been lost, or nearly so. There are those in parts of California, Texas, Florida and other states who worry that English could give way to Spanish.

Because of movies, popular music and especially the web and social media, it is impossible to ban all English usage from Quebec. Most conversations, especially among the young, usually involves many English words scattered among the French. In many cases, English words win acceptance simply because there is no French equivalent

Indeed, the English language includes a great many French words that have been accepted over the centuries until they seem like good English words. History shows that all attempts to guard the integrity of English from foreign influence (or from slang) have been unsuccessful. There really is no way to protect a language in the way the most diehard Quebecers desire.

Language evolves, changing with time and circumstances and the people who speak it. Laws may slow the change but will be unable to stop it.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Good adjectives gone bland

Philip listened to her stories with rapt attention. “That was interesting,” he’d say (and Rebecca was thinking that on their second date, which she was already taking as a given, she’d gift him with a thesaurus as a well-meant tease).
Dexter Palmer, Version Control

In Dexter Palmer’s novel, Philip is a brainy, socially awkward scientist who, however complex his work may be, simplifies his conversation through the use of a single adjective, good for all occasions: interesting. It grates on Rebecca, but she marries him anyway.

In truth, many of us are like that. We tend to overwork a single adjective until it becomes meaningless. Lately I’ve noticed restaurant servers, store clerks and others using the word perfect as their standard response to everything. I fail to see how an order for a meatball sub can be perfect, or any more perfect than an order for a grilled cheese sandwich.

This reminds me of when we were on a cruise ship , and at dinner there would be just three or four entree choices. Around a table of eight people or so, each entree would be selected by someone. Yet to each order the well-mannered waiter would say, “Excellent choice.” That might have been flattering at a table for two, but under the circumstances it seemed blatantly phony. Any adjective, even when it is accurate and sincerely used, loses meaning when it is overused.

When someone asks you how you are, how do you reply? Most of us say “Fine” or some other standard, one-word response. We all know it means nothing, but it does help get the conversation started.

Ernest Hemingway used relatively few adjectives in his work, but you may notice that the word nice, among the blandest of adjectives, shows up frequently in some of his books. I've seen it argued that this overworked word actually shows Hemingway’s skill as a writer, but it seems just as likely that he, like the character Philip in Dexter Palmer’s novel, simply didn’t want to hunt for the most appropriate adjective, so just used an all-purpose word so he could move on to the verbs and nouns that interested him.

My own overworked adjectives seem to be wonderful and very good. Two weeks ago my wife called me on saying “very good” in a conversation with a medical provider about why my insurance company hadn’t paid anything toward a hospital bill. It seemed that at the end of a year in which I had faced a mountain of medical bills, I still hadn’t met my deductible for the year. Very good? Obviously meaningless.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Magic in a name

A young woman from Kathmandu was a guest in our home last summer.

My in-laws lived for a time in Kuala Lumpur.

In 2005 I stayed two nights in a Killarney hotel.

Each of those statements is true, and each is unremarkable but for the cities mentioned, which for some of us have a bit of magic in their names. Thanks to movies (think Casablanca), literature (think The Snows of Kilimanjaro), songs (think It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary) and travel articles and brochures (think Honolulu and Cozumel), certain place names just sound more exotic, more romantic, more adventuresome than others.

It also helps to have three or more syllables. If you had your choice of going to either Tampa or Tallahassee and knew absolutely nothing about either city, you would probably choose Tallahassee just because it sounds like more fun. You might also choose Chattanooga before Nashville. Paris, among the most magical of all cities, is often called Gay Paree perhaps to give it that third syllable.

Here are some other places in the world that sound a bit exotic: Timbuktu, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Tripoli, Algiers, Kyoto, Bangalore, Singapore, Rangoon, Mandalay, Samoa, Rio de Janeiro, Vienna, Valencia, Marseille, Palermo, Lincolnshire, Wells-next-the-Sea, Mexicali, Guadalajara, Alcapulco. You can probably think of others.

My friend from Nepal doesn't seem to find anything magical in the word Kathmandu. It's just her home town. So the romance to be found in a place name may also depend upon how far away it is. I'm from Ohio, so Cuyahoga Falls don't sound that exciting to me, but if you live in Italy or Japan you may think differently. Most of the U.S. towns that sound a bit exotic to me are relatively far away, such as Albuquerque, Pasadena, Santa Rosa and Petaluma.

A little stone house in Charlevoix, Mich., built by Earl Young.
An exception for me are certain towns in Michigan. During my childhood one set of grandparents lived briefly in Houghton Lake and I would hear them mention towns in the northern part of the state that somehow sounded alluring to me. Also, as a teenager I listened to a Detroit radio station that frequently mentioned towns from around the state. And so even today the sound of places like Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Bad Axe set off a smidgen of excitement in me.

I have vacationed twice in Charlevoix in the past five years, and partly because of the many stone  "Hobbit houses" designed by Earl Young in that community, I can attest that sometimes places actually live up to the magic promised by their names.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Fictional heroes, real villains

Conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination abound even more than half a century after the fact. By contrast, the Lincoln assassination seems cut and dried. John Wilkes Booth did it, with a little help from his friends. But novelist Timothy L. O'Brien imagines a conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln as wild and outlandish as any of those invented to explain the John F. Kennedy assassination in The Lincoln Conspiracy (2012).

O'Brien's hero is Temple McFadden, a tall police detective with a bad leg whose cane is his weapon of choice. During a violent encounter at the Washington railroad station soon after the assassination, Temple recovers two diaries someone is willing to kill for and, he soon discovers, he may have to die for. One diary, written partly in code, is that of John Wilkes Booth. The other is that of Mary Todd Lincoln, the dead president's widow. Temple resolves to hide the diaries until he can uncover what makes them so important.

Trying to claim them are Allan Pinkerton, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and, the most ruthless of all, Union spy Lafayette Baker, all real individuals. Mrs. Lincoln, her son Robert and Sojourner Truth are among other real people with important supporting roles in the story.

On Temple's side are his wife, Fiona, one of the first female doctors in the country and a woman as resourceful as her husband, and Augustus, a former slave who is his right-hand man and very able in spite of his drug addiction. Temple himself has a gambling addiction, so it falls to Fiona, who appears to be perfect, to keep them straight.

In the early going of this novel, I was smitten. I wondered if O'Brien had written a second Temple McFadden novel yet. By the end, I didn't care, for I had no intention of reading it. The promising beginning of this historical thriller turns increasingly preposterous and disappoints in the end.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The company of books

When I really wanted company I read a book, and I was thankful for the little public library.
Sharyn McCrumb, Prayers the Devil Answers

The narrator in Sharyn McCrumb's novel is an introvert, a woman with no friends who feels uncomfortable whenever she's in a situation where small talk is required. Books, she tells herself, are all the company she needs. I know the feeling.

Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale in The Station Agent.
I am reminded of a wonderful independent film called The Station Agent in which a dwarf named Finbar (played by Peter Dinklage) inherits an abandoned railroad station. A train enthusiast, he views this as a perfect place to sit and watch the occasional train go by while reading books about trains. He, too, is an introvert.

Trouble comes in the form of Joe (Bobby Cannavale), who is operating a nearby food truck for his ailing father. Joe is an extreme extrovert who constantly needs other people to talk with, but except for the occasional customer, Fin is the only one around. And Fin prefers the company of his books.

As an introvert, I love how the movie portrays the introvert as the strong one and the extrovert as the needy one. By the way, the town where this story takes place has a "little public library," like the one McCrumb mentions, where Fin meets a young librarian (Michelle Williams) with a problem. Once again, he gets to be the strong one.

In real life this is not always true, but I've found it to be true more often than you might think.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Changing the ending

Ever since Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the detective story, we have known that a good murder mystery can also be good literature. Even so we tend to forget, isolating mysteries into their own genre and their own sections of book stores and libraries. Once in a while someone like Carolyn Parkhurst comes along to remind us of what we already knew.

Her 2010 novel The Nobodies Album is a low-key murder mystery with literary aspirations (just as her previous novel The Dogs of Babel was a sci-fi/horror story with literary aspirations). The narrator and heroine is Octavia Frost, a successful novelist who is rethinking her career just as she is rethinking her life. The new book she is about to deliver to her publisher is actually a collection of revised endings to all of her previous books. Couldn't they have happier endings?

Her own life, for all her literary success, has been less than happy. Her husband and daughter died accidental deaths some years before, and for the past four four years she had been estranged from her son, Milo, now one of the country's most popular rock stars. He had read something in one of her novels that, for good reason, he took very personally.

It takes a murder to bring mother and son back together. Milo has been arrested for killing his girlfriend. He was intoxicated and remembers little about that night, but he is discovered with her blood all over him and no other person in the house.

Octavia doesn't see herself as an amateur sleuth and doesn't act like one. She is just a mother who doesn't believe her own son could do such a thing and so looks for any other possible explanation for what happened that night. Can this story, too, have a different ending than the one that seems so obvious?

This idea of changing endings replays again and again throughout the novel, including when an aging rock star talks about rerecording some of his biggest hits. Can you go back and change what has already taken place, or must an ending be changed before the ends comes?

In the end, The Nobodies Album succeeds better as a murder mystery than as a literary work, yet both attempts are hindered by Parkhurst's inclusion of the last chapters of Octavia Frost's novels as well as the proposed revisions. Some of these are interesting enough, but they all interrupt her story more than they contribute to it.