Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Coming of age

Larry McMurtry's The Desert Rose (1983) can be viewed as a coming-of-age story, never mind that the protagonist, a Vegas showgirl, is 39 years old. Some people just reach maturity later than others.

Harmony has been the most beautiful showgirl on the Strip since she was 17 years old. She has never been one to save money or to worry about the future. Everyone likes her not just because she is beautiful but also because she is always upbeat, always the one who lifts up others when they're down. Suddenly, however, things change. When she's in a bar with other showgirls, she realizes the men are looking not at her but at the younger women. She learns that Pepper, her lovely 16-year-old daughter, has been asked behind her back to become the lead dancer at the same casino where Harmony works. Further she hears, again not from Pepper, that her daughter has become engaged to a wealthy, middle-aged man.

The biggest blow of all comes when her boss tells her that her job will end on her 40th birthday. "Topless grandmothers just aren't what the public wants to see," he tells her.

Harmony knows little about anything other than being what she calls "a feathered beauty." If no other casino in Las Vegas wants to hire her, what can she do? To her credit, she rejects an offer to become a totally nude dancer, and she doesn't even consider asking her soon-to-be son-in-law for money. She finds answers not just by looking ahead, for the first time in her life, but also by looking back. She has a neglected husband in Reno whom she has not seen in years but whom, she learns, still loves her. Might there be a new life in a new town?

McMurtry has won much of his acclaim by writing about cowboys, most notably in Lonesome Dove. In a preface to my edition of The Desert Rose, he calls showgirls "the cowboys of Las Vegas." It might be interesting to approach this novel as a western featuring lonely showgirls rather than lonely cowboys. But I think I'll stick to seeing it as a coming-of-age story.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Words new to me

Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's historical novel The Confusion reads like something William F. Buckley Jr. might have read to strengthen his vocabulary.

At the beginning of the novel there are four pages of maps showing virtually the entire world and thus the places Jack Shaftoe visits on his long sea voyage late in the 17th century. During stops along the way in places like Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico, we get a sampling of words and phrases in the languages spoken there. Yet even the English words Stephenson throws about demand a glossary, which the author does not provide. Here is a sampling of what you are up against when you tackle this book.

chainshot - Often one can deduce from context what a word means, and that is the case here: " chainshot launched from a cannon." The word refers to small cannon balls chained together. This was at one time useful for destroying the masts of enemy ships.

insomniacal - Most of us know the word insomnia, but insomniacal? That was new to me. The story refers to "insomniacal horses and camels." According to the web, this is a word of recent origin, certainly not in use in the 17th century. It refers to someone who seems never to sleep.

obnubilated - This means obscured or covered by a cloud. Again the context helps: "Cherbourg's shore-batteries obnubilated by powder-smoke." Later there is mention of stars "frequently obnubilated by weather."

poniard - The context didn't help me here: "I seem to have lost my poniard -- have you seen it?" It is a small, thin dagger.

steganography - Once again the context helps: "...used some form of steganography in their letters." This is the practice of concealing one message within another. It is different from a coded message, which cannot be read without the code. With steganography, you can read a message, but not the message.

The speller on my computer questions each of these words, which suggests that I am not alone in not being familiar with them. I'll bet William F. Buckley Jr. was, however, with the possible exception of insomniacal.

Friday, October 21, 2016

A con-fusion of stories

"For confusion is a kind of bewitchment -- a moment when what we supposed we understood loses its form and runs together and becomes one with other things that, though they might have had different outward forms, shared the same inward nature."
Spoken by Eliza in The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson's 2004 novel The Confusion, the second part of his Baroque Cycle, seems aptly named, for readers may often find themselves confused. Its 815 pages contain numerous characters, some of whom travel around the world, and convoluted plot lines. Plus, it picks up a story begun in Quicksilver and concluded in The System of the World, both novels of comparable size. So keeping it all straight can be a challenge.

But the title actually refers to an early meaning of the word as a mixture or co-mingling or fusion. We find references to this idea at numerous points in the novel, including the fact that it consists of two stories, "The Juncto" (involving Eliza, mostly in France) and "Bonanza" (involving Jack Shaftoe on his round-the-world adventures). These stories may seem unrelated most of the time, yet eventually they become "con-fused," as Stephenson usually spells the word. Then, too, there are references to gold, coins and liquids being con-fused.

The great scientist Isaac Newton, although a minor character in the novel, actually lies at its center. Newton was also an alchemist and, for the last 30 years of his life, master of the Royal Mint. Stephenson "con-fuses" these two pursuits by imaging that Newton takes the job at the mint in order to gain access to the gold that passes through there. Alchemists and others in the late 17th century are convinced the gold once owned by King Solomon has special properties useful for alchemy. It is also believed that the gold Jack and his colleagues steal in an act of piracy is King Solomon's gold. Sooner or later some of that gold is likely to pass through the Royal Mint, and Newton wants to be there when it does.

One must read The System of the World to discover how this turns out, but in The Confusion Jack and Eliza have endless trials. He must survive, evade pursuers and somehow make it around the world and back, he hopes, to Eliza. Meanwhile, she becomes a French duchess, but is separated from her and Jack's son. As Jack is skilled at piracy, she is unusually gifted at financial affairs, and her complicated dealings gain, and occasionally lose, fortunes. She also contracts smallpox, which diminishes very little her astounding beauty.

The Confusion, if sometimes confusing, provides a wild ride.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Do writers write too much?

Do some writers write too much for their own good? I defended Ogden Nash against that charge, made by a literary critic, in my last post. But what about other prolific writers? Do any of them ever write too much? The question might be addressed according to several different topics.

1. The writer's income

Except for bestsellers, books do not make a lot of money for their authors. Therefore, for full-time writers struggling to support their families, the more books they can write, the better. Even bestselling authors strive to maximize their income by writing at least one book a year. Some writers produce new books faster than their publishers are willing publish them. Publishers usually don't want to put out a new book in hardback before the earlier book has been reprinted in paperback.. In that case, authors may use pen names to sell books to other publishers. Romance writer Kathleen Lindsay used at least 11 pen names. John Creasey wrote under 28 names other than his own. French mystery writer Georges Simenon wrote under a dozen different names. Such writers as Donald E. Westlake, Agatha Cristie and even Joyce Carol Oates have also used pseudonyms. Getting more books published is hardly the only reason for using a pen name, but it makes sense for some.

2. Long books

Some writers seem incapable of writing short books. I am thinking of Thomas Wolfe, Pat Conroy, Edward Rutherfurd and Neal Stephenson, among others. Their mammoth books may scare away some readers, but others are attracted to books with some heft to them. Why take two or three novels with you on your winter cruise when you could just take that 920-page Ken Follett novel I recently finished? But it has often been argued that Wolfe, for one, would have benefited from more ruthless editing. Writing long can indicate a lack of skill and discipline. Graham Greene, one of our better writers, says his publishers complained because his books were too short.

You might think an author could write two 400-page books instead of one 800-pager and thus double sales and royalties, but it is not that simple. Once you have developed a plot, created characters and done whatever research is necessary, writing a long book is much easier than starting over on a new book.

3. The number of books

Some people just write faster than others. I noticed that at the newspaper where I worked. Some reporters seemed to no more than return to the newsroom before their stories were done, while others struggled right up to deadline every day. Isaac Asimov, who wrote science fiction as well as nonfiction on a variety of topics, produced well over 400 books in his career. He claimed to be able to write as fast as he could think, and he rarely, if ever, rewrote anything. Would his books have been better if he had taken more time? Perhaps, but probably not. He wrote at the pace that worked best for him, and producing great literature was never his goal. He just wanted to entertain and inform, and he could do that just as well writing fast as writing slow. So he wrote lots of books. Barbara Cartland is said to have written 723 books, Georges Simenon more than 500, John Creasey more than 600 and L. Ron Hubbard more than 1,000. We might have more trees in this world if these writers had written fewer books -- or sold fewer books -- but I can't see how their high production rates were detrimental to them as writers. They might have benefited from more time with their family and friends, but that is another question.

4. Fans

I have been a Westlake fan for 50 years and read one or two of his books a year, yet there are still several of his books I have yet to read. I find this a trifle frustrating, especially since there are so many other writers I love who write books faster than I can can read them. Yet this wealth of unread books also seems like something of a luxury. It means that, while I may never catch up on my reading, I also will never run out of books I want to read.

5.  Literary quality

Most of the writers I have mentioned so far are not literary greats, although you could make a case for Wolfe, Oates, Conroy and Nash. When you are writing literature, as opposed to just telling a good story, it might be best to write deliberately and to re-write entire passages, or even entire books, on occasion. Some masterpieces have been written quickly, but usually they take time. Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, was published in 1992, and she has written just two novels since then. Is that why her books are so good, or is she just a slow writer? Joyce Carol Oates is someone who might be more highly regarded by literary critics if she wrote fewer books, but then maybe not.

In the end, writers write as they write, fast or slow, long or short, good or bad. Readers, both literary critics and the rest of us, just have to take them as they are and render our verdicts as they be.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Better in small doses

(Ogden) Nash has been applauded for his industry and his verbal ingenuities. Both are virtues, but they become vices with Nash. For one thing, he writes too much. At first his work seems amazing; then it becomes amusing; after too many repetitions of the same effects, it descends to the mechanical. The present volume contains almost three hundred pages; were it half as long it would be twice as good.
Louis Untermeyer, Saturday Review, June 4, 1938

I understand what literary critic Louis Untermeyer was talking about in his review of one of Ogden Nash's collections of light verse, but I disagree with him just the same. The problem was not that Nash wrote too much but that Untermeyer read too much at one time. Nash is one of those writers best appreciated in small doses.

This is why Nash's books are perfect for bedtime reading. By reading just two or three verses at a time before turning out the light and going to sleep, I find his poems delightful, as when he rhymes aristocrats with sophistocrats and clamoring with Gotterdammerung in I'm a Stranger Here Myself, which was published in 1938 and was probably the book Untermeyer was reviewing. Try to read more than that at one time and the poems gradually lose their charm, which is what Untermeyer found. Reviewing a book for a weekly publication, however, he couldn't very well have taken weeks to read Nash's book.

Ogden Nash sold his verses one at a time to various magazines, and every few years they would be collected into books. Untermeyer's complaint should have been with Nash's publisher, Little, Brown and Company, for waiting too long before putting a book together and thus making it too long for the critic's taste, not with Nash himself for making his living selling as many poems as possible to so many different magazines. For readers of those magazines, reading one Nash poem at a time was ideal.

But if Ogden Nash didn't write too much for his own good, what about certain other prolific writers? I'll get into that subject next time.

Friday, October 14, 2016

20th century history made simple

You could read a few history books to learn how the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian archduke led to the start of the Great War, how that war killed so many combatants, how the eventual peace treaty sowed the seeds for a Second World War, how the Russian Revolution resulted in worse oppression than that which the revolution was supposed to correct or how Prohibition in the United States fueled organized crime. Or you could read Ken Follett's massive, yet always interesting, novel Fall of Giants, the first volume of his Century Trilogy.

Follett explains these historical events through the lives of fictional characters in Great Britain, Getmany, Russia and the United States. Through their lives, we experience something of the lives of millions of people actually living during the years from 1911 to 1924, the span of time covered by Follett's novel. Real historical figures, such as Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill, also play roles in this drama.

Coincidences happen in real life, but not to the extent they happen in Fall of Giants, where main characters seem to be running into each other everywhere, even on the battlefield. As unrealistic as this may be, it does make the story easier to follow and eliminates the need for scores of additional characters. The scores we already have are plenty.

A more serious problem with the novel is that Follett attempts to turn it into a 920-page political tract. All of the characters portrayed positively share the same political ideas, as do all those portrayed negatively. In real life, there are intelligent and noble individuals at both ends of the political spectrum.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

When books become something else

Sometimes books are more than just books. Sometimes they become something else. During those periods of history when books have been piled high and burned, those books were symbols for hated people or ideas. Books can be used for decorative purposes or to give their owners an intellectual air, whether or not the books have ever been read. Books, unlike e-books, can also serve utilitarian functions. Last night, for example, my wife and I watched some slides from the 1970s, and I used a book to prop up the projector. Here are some other examples of when books become more than just books.

Books as a harem

James Salter
James Salter makes this suggestion is his introduction to Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves. He writes, "The bibliophile is, after all, like a sultan or khan who has countless wives already but another two or three are always irresistible." Of course, he could also have compared the bibliophile to the billionaire who just wants a few million more or the football coach with a 30-point lead with three minutes left in the game who wants another touchdown. Those who have want more. This analogy speaks to me as I consider my stacks and stacks of unread books yet still desire a few more for my harem, er, library.

Books as toys

"I like to play with my books, to mark them up, to give them a lived-in look," Joe Queenan writes in One for the Books. "I like to stack them up on the shelf and move them about and rearrange them according to new parameters -- height, color, thickness, provenance, publishers, author's nationality, subject matter, likelihood that I will ever read them. Then I put them back the way they were." I may not play with my books in the same way Queenan does, but still I know what he is talking about. Reading books are not the only way in which they give pleasure.

Books as sacred objects

Joe Queenan
Queenan also says this, "People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, and not merely an electronic version, are in some sense mystics. We believe that the objects themselves are sacred, not just the stories they tell. We believe that books possess the power to transubstantiate, to turn darkness into light, to make being out of nothingness." It is probably not a coincidence that most major, and even minor, religions have holy books. I wouldn't go so far as to call all books sacred objects, yet there can often be something mystical about them. Authors all die, yet their ideas, the images produced in their minds, live on in their books.

Books as friends and lovers

"A person's relationship with books does not remain static throughout his life," Queenan writes. A relationship? With a book? Well, yes. I can recall writing a couplet in college that went something like this: "My friend, the book/Holds my hand on cold nights." Not all readers are lonely introverts, but many are, and to them favorite books can be viewed as friends and/or lovers with whom one holds conversations.

Because of the relationship one forms with books, they can be hard to part with. But Queenan also observes, "Sometimes even the most loyal reader may feel a need to part company with a writer he once admired greatly. It is almost as if one is picking a fight, looking for an excuse to bit an old lover goodbye."