Saturday, January 21, 2017

A study in limitations

Well-chosen one-word titles can sometimes carry a multitude of meanings in that single word. A good case in point is Scott Turow's relatively brief 2006 novel Limitations. At first glance, the title refers to the statute of limitations at the center of the legal case before the Court of Appeals and in which George Mason, as the presiding judge, has the deciding vote. Some college boys had raped an unconscious girl and videotaped their actions. The girl, when she awoke, knew something had happened to her but didn't know what until years later when the videotape surfaced. But after so many years, at least according to the defense attorneys, the young men, now respected citizens, cannot be held accountable. Or can they? Judge Mason must decide, a decision made more difficult by his returning memories of something he himself did during his own college days.

Meanwhile, George's beloved wife is hospitalized with a serious illness, someone is sending him death threats and two young men assault him in a parking garage.

In under 200 pages, Turow makes his readers think not just about the statute of limitations, which could allow rapists to go free, but other kinds of legal limitations, as well. Plus we witness limitations of personality, limitations to life and health, limitations of ability, limitations of courage, limitations of strength, limitations of wisdom, limitations to friendship and on and on.

This may just be a legal thriller of the sort Scott Turow excels at, but amazingly the brevity of the novel did not pose much of a limitation on the author's ability to pack it full of points to ponder.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fascinating stuff

Malcolm Gladwell seems to have a knack for making a lot out of a little. Take, for instance, his book Blink, the thesis of which is: First impressions are usually right. What I said in five words, he stretches out to several hundred pages. Yet they are fascinating pages that don't just state and restate his initial thought but dig deep into the hows and whys of the matter.

In What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, Gladwell holds himself back, giving us shorter reflections on a variety of intriguing questions you may have never thought to ask but, upon reading this book, you are glad somebody did. The book collects 19 articles originally published in The New Yorker.

Among the questions Gladwell asks and then answers are:

Who's the guy in all those Veg-O-Matic and Showtime Rotisserie infomercials?

If there are so many varieties of mustard, why is all ketchup pretty much the same?

Should a charge of plagiarism ruin a person's life?

Is someone always to blame for major disasters like the Challenger explosion?

Why do we equate genius with precocity?

Are smart people overrated?

What do job interviews really tell us?

The answers to these and other questions are almost always surprising and, like Blink, utterly fascinating. In his introduction Gladwell states his belief that anything can be interesting if the writer does his job and makes it interesting. In fact, a reader might wish Gladwell would stretch each of these pieces into a book.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The contribution of collectors

Most bookish people, myself included, accumulate books more than collect them. That is, we acquire those books we most want to read or, at least, most want to have on our shelves. There's not much rhyme or reason behind our libraries. This can be true even of those who spend large sums of money for relatively rare books. If they love To Kill a Mockingbird, they may be willing to spend a great deal to have a first edition of that novel. On their next visit to an antiquarian book store they may pick up a copy of Lord of the Flies because they liked that book in their youth and it happens to be available.

True collectors are those with specific objectives to their collections. They want to own the complete works of William Faulkner, say, or the first editions of Sue Grafton from A to Z. In Used and Rare, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone's memoir about their introduction to the rare book world, they describe themselves as the first type of book buyers, not the second. They bought nice copies of those books they had particularly enjoyed.

Yet in their book they do discuss the specialists, the other kind of buyers of rare books. Or rather they listen as a Boston bookseller explains to them not just why specialists are good for antiquarian book dealers (they are willing to pay high prices for the books they need to fill out their collections), but why they are good for literature itself. Or why they were good for literature, because specialists are not as common as they once were.

"Collectors used to concentrate on one particular author or period or binder ... it became almost scholarly," Peter Stern told them. "The collections had historic value. A private collection, even more than a university library, would be the source for serious research."

Stern went on to say, "They'll collect a specific author's papers, letters, secondary sources, like what people wrote about them, other authors who influenced them, the sources of a person's work. For example, with Steinbeck, the way his upbringing affected books like, say, East of Eden. If we don't get people doing this kind of thing, bibliography will become a lost art."

I confess this had never occurred to me, that book collectors were actually furthering literary study. Yet it makes sense. A devout Billy Joel fan, for example, will want to collect not just every Joel album in every format, but also concert posters, photographs, letters, books and magazine articles about their favorite singer. Their collection might prove useful to anyone wanting to write a biography of Billy Joel.

In the same way, the collection of a reader devoted to a certain writer, especially one who has not already been widely studied, could conceivably be invaluable to a future scholar.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The royal I

"I'm not signing no one-year deal. No. I done proved it. I done showed it, there's not really a guy like me out here ..."
Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants

No, I'm not going to comment on Jason Pierre-Paul's grammar. Rather my interest is in his use of his of first-person singular pronouns, four times in about two dozen words. This focus on himself came just after his Giants lost an NFL playoff game 38-13 to the Green Bay Packers, a time when a little humility might have been in order. Such boastfulness is common today, especially in the world of sports. It makes one long for more players like Barry Sanders, who after each spectacular touchdown run would simply hand the ball to an official and head back to the Detroit Lions bench.

Barry Sanders
In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks writes about George H.W. Bush during his campaign for the presidency. "If a speechwriter put the word 'I' in one of his speeches, he'd instinctively cross it out. The staff would beg him: You're running for president. You've got to talk about yourself. Eventually they'd cow him into doing so. But the next day he'd get a call from his mother. 'George, you're talking about yourself again,' she'd say. And Bush would revert to form. No more I's in the speeches. No more self-promotion." Bush was to politics what Barry Sanders was to sports. It was about the team, not him.

Frances Perkins
Later Brooks tells about Frances Perkins, a warrior for social justice who served in Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet. "The word 'one' plays a crucial role in her descriptions of her own life," he says. "Sometimes she would use the formulation 'I did this,' but more often her diction was formal and archaic: 'One did this ...'" This may have sounded pompous, even 70 or 80 years ago, but Brooks says it was "simply a way to avoid the first person singular pronoun."

There are other was ways to avoid first person, some of them sounding even more pompous. There is, for example, the "royal we," most familiar in the phrase "we are not amused." Then there are those people, such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who refer to themselves in third person. MacArthur, like most kings and queens, was not known for humility. Even so, third person may have seemed to him like a way to talk about himself while seeming to be talking about somebody else.

For most of us, we are better off following the examples of Barry Sanders and George H.W. Bush, simply letting our actions speak for us or, if we must speak, as a presidential candidate must, sharing the focus with others.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The life of Lee

The United States has a few secular saints, and some of them (Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King) died at the hands of an assassin. Not so Robert E. Lee, who lived a full life. He is revered today as much in northern states as southern states, despite the fact that Lee, after spending most of his life as an officer in the U.S. Army, fought against that army when the Civil War broke out. Yet he is remembered today as more of another George Washington than another Benedict Arnold.

Michael Korda explores this remarkable man in his fine 2014 biography Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.

Lee, like so many great individuals, was a study in contradictions. He was excited by combat (Korda calls war "his one intoxication"), yet he hated personal confrontation (Korda calls this Lee's Achilles heel). He opposed secession and disliked slavery, but when Virginia seceded, he chose his state over his country. He did not regard blacks as equal to whites, and said so publicly even after the war, yet he often treated blacks as equals. He may have been a strait-laced Southern gentleman, but that didn't stop him from flirting with young, pretty women at every opportunity. As a general, he respected his men and sacrificed for them, yet his treatment of deserters was as harsh as that of any other general.

To some Civil War scholars, especially those of the South, Lee could do no wrong. When a battle was lost, it was always somebody else's fault, usually James Longstreet's. But Korda, while usually praising Lee, also doesn't hesitate to point out his errors, both military and personal. The author, who has written several other military books, including biographies of Grant and Eisenhower, neatly compares and contrasts Lee with other generals down through the centuries, including Napoleon. By reading Clouds of Glory, you know more not just about the Civil War but about military history in general.

Yet Korda, like Lee, is hardly perfect. He tends to repeat himself. Once he says something in a footnote, then repeats the same information in the text on the next page. He also contradicts himself. On the very same page he writes about Lee: "his orders were often unclear" and "his written orders are as detailed and clear as anybody could wish."

Korda writes, near the end of his book, "Lee lost nothing by being portrayed as a fallible human being." True enough. And Clouds of Glory loses nothing by being an imperfect biography of an imperfect man.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Two good questions

"And word count is obviously important. For a work of literary fiction," he said, "you need at least, I'd say, eighty thousand words. Really, it probably needs to be somewhere between ninety and a hundred thousand. One hundred ten thousand is too many, but if the book is really good, you might get away with it."

"I can think of a hundred exceptions," I said. "What the hell does word count have to do with quality? Shouldn't the story dictate the word count?"
Phillip Lewis, The Barrowfields

Twice in the past week I have happened across discussions of word counts in novels, especially serious novels. One of these is the one I've quoted above from The Barrowfields, the soon-to-be-published novel by Phillip Lewis. The speakers are two law students with literary aspirations. One of them thinks "literary fiction" must fall between 80,000 and 100,000 words. The other, our narrator, asks, "Shouldn't the story dictate the word count?" Good question. Both The Old Man and the Sea and War and Peace fall outside the 80,000-to-100,000 limit, yet both qualify as literary fiction. Stories do dictate word count. Yet there is more to be said.

Colin Firth and Jude Law in Genius.
The second discussion of the topic can be found in the 2016 movie Genius, which is about the relationship of wordy novelist Thomas Wolfe with his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins. Wolfe wrote mountains of prose, each word priceless to him, yet Perkins convinced him to cut out enough words, about 60,000 according to estimates, to make Look Homeward, Angel, something the public might actually be willing to read. The novel became a best seller, as did a second huge novel, Of Time and the River, yet Wolfe always resented the cuts he felt Perkins forced on him. Never mind that other publishers had rejected Wolfe's first novel, and only Perkins saw its literary potential.

At a key moment in the film, Perkins, played by Colin Firth, says about book editors, "Are we making books better, or just making them different?" That's another good question, one that editors of all kinds should sometimes ask themselves. Are they really making the work better?  It is the writers, not the editors, who get their names printed on book covers and in bylines on magazine and newspaper articles. How much input by editors is too much? And, for that matter, how much is too little?

No doubt there are Thomas Wolfe fans who, like the man himself, wish his mountains of prose had been left intact so they could savor every word. Others of us may wish thousands more words had been cut out.

For most of this movie, I assumed Thomas Wolfe was the title character. He is even referred to as a genius at one point. By the end, however, I realized the film was really about Maxwell Perkins. He was the genius, or at least as much a genius as Wolfe. And it wasn't just Wolfe that Perkins helped turn into a literary giant. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald also feature prominently in the movie. Perkins was also influential on the careers of such writers as Erskine Caldwell, Alan Paton, James Jones, J.P. Marquand, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Ring Lardner. That's a lot of literary influence by someone who was not himself a writer.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Helen MacInnes misfire

A few years ago Titan Books, a British publisher, began reissuing the espionage thrillers written by Helen MacInnes between 1941 and 1985. This should prove a blessing to old fans wishing to read books they may have missed or wish to revisit, a new generation of readers who may never have even heard the name Helen MacInnes and those, like me, who are old enough to have read MacInnes while she was still alive but never did.

Unfortunately the first MacInnes I chose to read, I and My True Love (1953) must surely not be one of her better ones. Part love story and part spy story, it fails to give satisfaction as either.

Yet the opening chapter is masterful. Sylvia Pleydell, the unhappy wife of a government man who works with secrets every day but seems just as secretive when he is at home, comes to the Washington train station to meet Kate, a young cousin moving to town to begin work at an art gallery. Also at the station is Lt. Robert Turner, a young Army officer with a crush on the older woman who observes Sylvia's brief meeting with Jan Brovic, whom she had met and loved during the war but who had returned to Czechoslovakia, now a Communist nation. And so we are are introduced to many of the novel's main characters and get a sense of the tension, both romantic and diplomatic, to come. And yet it never really comes.

Both the love story and the spy story seems to be conveyed at a distance, as when Sylvia, in the final chapters, reads newspaper stories about Jan's return to Czechoslovakia and about hints of a scandal in the State Department, while she herself is on a train to California.

Hollywood turned several MacInnes novels into movies, but not this one. It's easy to see why.