Wednesday, August 29, 2012

My 'Being There' moment

I finished reading Jerzy Kosinksi's 1970 novel Being There a few days ago. Like the movie of the same name that starred Peter Sellers, the book tells the story of Chance, a man who has spent his entire life in the same house and the garden of a very wealthy man. All he knows about the world is what he has seen on television, which he watches whenever he is not working in the garden. There is a hint that Chance may be the illegitimate son of the Old Man, who has kept him hidden away for decades.

When the Old Man dies, Chance is forced to leave the house. Dressed in one of the Old Man's discarded suits, he enters the outside world for the first time. Within a matter of hours, because of how well he looks in that suit, he is given a new name, Chauncey Gardiner, and a new identity, that of a successful businessman. The president of the United States, among others, comes to him for advice. He is interviewed on television. He may be an idiot, but his comments about the garden he knows so well are taken as great wisdom.

This brief novel reads like a fable or as a metaphor for modern times, or whatever. Surely in real life someone with such low intelligence could not fool so many people for so long. My own experience tells me otherwise. In my life I have known both a county official and a newspaper publisher whose IQs could not have been higher than Chance's.

The official inherited his office from his father, a long-time public servant who always won re-election handily. Because he had the same last name, the son also won his first election easily. His father had put together an excellent staff, who ran the office well even with a fool for a boss. In time, however, efficiency  deteriorated and enough voters met the son or heard him speak that he was voted out of office.

Family ties may have also been responsible for the publisher's rise in the newspaper business. Also, he looked uncommonly fine in a suit. As long as he kept his mouth shut, he certainly looked the part of a newspaper publisher. Those of us who worked for him, however, knew he didn't have a clue about running a newspaper. One day he did something so stupid, not to mention unethical, that even his corporate bosses had to recognize him for what he was, and he was fired.

My own "Being There" moment came when I was in college. I belonged to a group that often met informally at noon. One day there was a hot discussion about something, but I was daydreaming and not paying a bit of attention to what was being discussed. I was suddenly snapped out of my dreams when I heard someone say, "Terry, what do you think?"

I recognized there was no choice but to admit I had not been following the discussion, but what I said was, "What's the problem?" There was a long pause, then someone said, "You know, Terry's right. Until we really understand the problem, we won't be able to find a solution." From there the discussion took off again, but I never could figure out what they were talking about. I certainly didn't have the nerve to ask a second time for an explanation. I may, on at least that occasion, have been no brighter than Chance, that county official or my well-dressed publisher, but I left the meeting that day treated as if I possessed the wisdom of Solomon.

Most people, I suspect, are willing to think the best of others, especially if they come from prominent families or look good in a suit. In my case, it must have been my glasses. People wearing glasses really do give the appearance of being smarter than they really are.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Itt could bee worse

The spelling of many English words may be confusing and inconsistent, but it could be a lot worse. Before influences like dictionaries and printing served to produce unified spelling, words were spelled however writers thought they should be spelled. Thus, at sometimes appeared as att, be as bee, at as atte and not as nott. We can be glad, at least, that when spelling became more consistent, it was not those odd spellings that were adopted, at least not in most cases.

So why, you might wonder, did we get so many words with silent letters, words like knee and know? One possibility is that, at one time, those letters, now silent, were actually pronounced. The word knight, with all those extra letters, is believed to have once been pronounced with each letter enunciated. Over time it became a one-syllable word, while the spelling remained unchanged.

Those silent letters, while confusing to writers, make things easier for readers. We can tell at a glance the difference between knight and night, know and no and kneed and need (not to mention knead).

Friday, August 24, 2012

Reading as remedy

"We read to know we're not alone."

That line is heard at least three times in Shadowlands, the 1993 movie starring Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger at Joy Gresham, which I watched again last night. It's a neat line, but how true is it? Often we read because we are alone or we seek to find solitude so that we can read in peace. Yet just because we are around other people does not mean we cannot feel alone. I tend to feel lonelier at parties than I do when I am home by myself, especially if I am reading.

While in college I wrote a short verse that, I think, expresses something of what that line from Shadowlands says. As I remember it, it went something like this:

my friend, the book,
holds my hand
on lonely nights

With a book, one gets a physical presence, something to hold in one's hand, as well as, if it's the right book, a sense of community, of communication, of commonality. A book is not just an author's monologue. The reader engages in the conversation, too, even if one's thoughts never leaves one's own mind.

A particularly good book will express the reader's own ideas and observations better than the reader ever could. How sweet it is to read something that expresses one's own feelings perfectly. Sometimes that happens in everyday conversation, but usually not. When reading good books, that happens frequently.

Books are all about communication, and it is through communication that we know we are not alone.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mystery without murder

A mystery novel doesn't necessarily have to have a murder, but without bloodshed it helps to have humor and some intriguing characters to keep readers glued to its pages. That has been the secret of Alexander McCall Smith's successful No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Ian Sansom's Mobile Library series has yet to catch on - just try to find a copy of one of his books in stock in your local bookstore - but it deserves success, if the first novel in the series, The Case of the Missing Books (2006), is any indication.

Israel Armstrong, a bookish Londoner, takes a job as librarian in Tumdrum, a small town in Northern Ireland. There are just two problems, as he discovers upon his arrival. First, the library has been closed for economic reasons. Only a beat-up bookmobile or mobile library still exists. Second, all the books in the mobile library are missing. Israel's first task as librarian is to find those missing books.

He makes a terrible detective, and his ineptitude is part of the fun. Then, too, there are the many quirky townsfolk, who seem to take offense at everything Israel does while at the same time giving greater offense to him. Israel wants only to quit and return to London, but he is warned that unless he succeeds in finding those missing books, his temporary contract will be extended.

Sansom, who lives in Northern Ireland, comes up with some nifty sentences. Here are a few of my favorites:

"You wouldn't mind him driving your cab, but you wouldn't want to have to argue over the fare. Israel strongly suspected tattoos."

"'Mind if I smoke?' said Ted.
"'Not at all,' said Israel, although he did mind actually, but he couldn't say he did because he was a liberal ..."

"Israel reckoned he was probably the most politically correct person in about a hundred-mile radius at this very moment but even he couldn't help noticing her legs."

"... he was the sort of person, after all, who could get nostalgic about yesterday's breakfast."

Those lines can give one a pretty good picture of the kind of man Israel Armstrong is, and also the kind of book this is. I enjoyed it immensely.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Mark Twain on the Bible

A reader once complained to Mark Twain about the fact that Huck Finn uses the word sweat rather than perspiration in Twain's novel, stating that this was a bad example for children. The author replied that his book had been intended for adult readers and that he was distressed to learn children were being allowed access to it. He went on to say, "The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeaseable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of heaven."

Twain may have been having fun at the expense of his critic, but he was right on target. Anyone who complains too strenuously about youth's exposure to sex and violence in books, movies, electronic games or whatever, while at the same time urging them to read the Bible, is a bit of a hypocrite. As any teenager who has faithfully read the Bible knows very well, that book has an ample supply of sex and violence. And teens may know better than most adults where to find it.

Lately I have been working my way through I & II Kings, two Old Testament books I don't think I have ever read before in their entirety. Those kings of Israel and Judah were a rough lot. Somebody gets killed on practically every page, and it's usually bloodier than any murder mystery. Here are a few choice incidents found just in II Kings:

- The king of Moab sacrifices his firstborn son on the city wall. (3:27)

- During a severe famine, two women with infant sons make a pact. They agree to eat one woman's son one day and the other woman's son the next. They do eat one boy, but the second mother then hides her son, causing the other mother to complain to the king. (6:26-30)

- A man kills the king by soaking a thick cloth in water and holding it over his face. (8:15)

- Jezebel is killed when eunuchs throw her off a high wall and horses trample her. (9:33)

- All 70 princes are killed and their severed heads placed in baskets. (10:7)

- All the ministers of Baal are rounded up and slaughtered. (10:18-27)

- After her son's death, Athaliah attempts to destroy the entire royal family and nearly succeeds. (11:1-4)

- Menahem sacks Tiphsah and rips open all the pregnant women. (15:16)

The Bible shows mankind at its worst, as well as at its best. Is it fit reading for children? Well, yes, I think so, but then I wouldn't object to any child reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn either.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A change of meaning

Here are five words commonly associated with children that at one time meant something a little different than what they mean today:

naughty - If you read the King James Bible in the book of Jeremiah, you may come across a verse about a basket of "very naughty figs." How, you may wonder, can figs be naughty? The word naughty came from the word naught, which means "nothing." To call something naughty thus meant it was "good for nothing" or "worthless." Now we associate the word with bad behavior, even when it's done by those little darlings we value above all else.

spank - This word once meant "to move rapidly." A spanker was a person with a quick, lively step. To be spanky was to be lively or frisky. Somehow spank came to mean slapping a child's bottom, perhaps because the slaps were usually delivered rapidly.

tantrum - More than a century ago, a tantrum was a foolish fancy or whim. Today we use the word to describe a child's uncontrollable crying fit.

truant - Go back 500 years or so and a truant was a common beggar, not a child skipping school.

waif -- A pursued thief will sometimes throw away whatever stolen goods he is carrying. This discarded property was once known as a waif. Later the word came to be applied to an abandoned or lost child.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Real people, fictional murders

Making famous historical figures characters in murder stories has become a familiar gimmick of writers of mysteries, and I must admit I am a sucker for it. I rather like the idea of people like Ernest Hemingway and Groucho Marx being involved in murder cases. It's fun to imagine how real people whom we know a little something about might react in a life-or-death situation.

Stuart Kaminsky and Ron Goulart have both written mystery series in which historical figures play prominent roles. In Goulart's case, the real person, Groucho Marx, is the amateur sleuth. Kaminsky's narrator/hero is the fictional Toby Peters, but people like Mae West, W.C. Fields Joan Crawford, Albert Einstein and, yes, Groucho Marx always get mixed up in his murder cases.

The two novels I read recently, Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders (2001) and High Midnight (1981) are representative of the two series. Each is set in roughly the same historical period, the late 1930s in the case of Goulart's book and the early 1940s in Kaminsky's.

Another similarity is that both books are quite humorous, although the humor is very different. High Midnight uses situational and character-driven humor, while in Groucho Marx, the humor consists mainly of Marx one-liners, an average of about  one per page. One example: When a man introduces himself as "traveling with Willa Jerome's party," Groucho replies, "Ah, I wasn't aware she brought a party along. I wonder why I wasn't invited." Most of the novel's characters just ignore Groucho's wisecracks, and most readers probably will, too, after awhile.

As for the mystery, Groucho and narrator Frank Denby, the Doctor Watson of the duo, travel by train to New York, where Groucho is to appear on Broadway in a production of The Mikado. When two murders occur and a man Groucho believes is innocent becomes the prime suspect, he gets involved in finding the real killer. As a mystery, Groucho Marx and the Broadway Murders is entertaining enough, but nothing special. Unless one is a fan of Groucho Marx, as I am, one would do well to avoid it.

High Midnight, on the other hand, is a winner all the way. Toby's client is none other than Hollywood star Gary Cooper, who is being pressured by a gangster to make a movie called High Midnight (this is before High Noon) that Cooper doesn't want to make. Pretty soon bodies start piling up, and it is Toby Peters who is the innocent suspect. He must find the killer before he either gets killed himself or thrown into jail by his own brother, a Los Angeles cop.

Along the way, Peters bumps into Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway, the latter of whom gets involved in a gun battle along with Peters and Cooper, sort of a comic gunfight at the OK Corral.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Deflationary language

One of the late Victor Borge's funniest routines had to do with what he called "inflationary language." Because of inflation, wonderful became twoderful, before became befive, create became crenine and tenderly became elevenderly.

Something like this actually does happen, although it might more properly be called "deflationary language." Some words, over time, tend to mean less than they once did.

Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we seldom heard the word horrific. I, in fact, even wondered if it were a real word. I had to look it up in a dictionary. It sounded to me like one of those words we make up on the spot, like yummilicious to describe a particularly good dessert. On Sept. 11, words like terrible or horrible or tragic just didn't seem powerful enough. They had become devalued over time. We needed a more powerful word, and horrific seemed to fill the bill.

Since then, however, horrific has become a commonplace word. I noticed it twice during the Olympic broadcasts. One swimmer was described as having come back from a "horrific injury." According to the dictionary, the word means causing horror, terrifying or causing fear. The swimmer's injury may have been serious, painful or even terrible, but horrific?

A soccer announcer said a goal was scored on a "horrific strike." Terrific maybe, but horrific? Actually, terrific once meant what horrific meant after 9-11. It meant something that causes terror, but because of language deflation it is now a positive word. We might speak of a terrific movie or a terrific play by a second baseman, but not a terrific terrorist attack.

On the Web I have noticed other examples of horrific becoming devalued as a word. Forbes magazine has an article about "Ten Horrific Business Mistakes" -- things like "dreadful customer service and support" and "pathetic revenues."

A Yahoo headline reads: "Horrific 10 Percent Literacy Rate Prompts ACLU to Sue Michigan Schools."

A TLC page about knitting speaks of "horrific knits." I also found reference to a "horrific quiz" and a "horrific meal." What once were called "horror movies" are now frequently called "horrific movies," I've noticed. San Antonio plans a "Horrific Film Fest" later this month.

The next time something like 9-11 happens -- and unfortunately it will -- the word horrific won't seem adequate to describe it. Reporters and commentators will have to search for another word equal to the task. They may even have to make one up.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Meeting Pearl S. Buck

In the 1930s through 1950s, Pearl S. Buck was among the most respected of American writers. Not only were her books, especially The Good Earth, popular with the public, but they led to her winning both the Pulitzer Prize (1932) and the Nobel Prize (1938). Yet today few people still read her work. I admit that, until recently, I had never read anything by Pearl S. Buck, although I have two of her novels in my personal library.

Then this summer, Pearl S. Buck came to Ashland, Ohio, where I live. It wasn't really Pearl Buck, of course. She died in 1973. It was an actress portraying Buck in a summer Chautauqua series that also brought Peewee Reese, Joe McCarthy, Rachel Carson and Minnie Pearl back to life. I was impressed enough by the Buck presentation to read a few of her short stories.

These stories, although artfully written, are probably not ambiguous enough to satisfy the most elite literary critics. And Buck was partial to happy, or at least positive, endings, which may have pleased Saturday Evening Post readers but seem somehow dated today. Yet I enjoyed the stories very much.

In "A Certain Star," an atomic scientist who has ignored his family for years because of his work, takes his wife and reluctant teenage children on a Christmas retreat to try to reconnect with them.

Buck, although an American by birth, was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China and spent her childhood and youth in China. Yet she also lived in Japan for a time, and "The Beauty" is about a Japanese woman who decides to go to a bar to confront her husband, who spends every night there in the company of bar girls. Instead she engages in conversation with one beautiful bar girl with her own complaint about the woman's husband and about men in general. This conversation leads to a surprising solution to both women's frustrations.

"With a Delicate Air" tells what happens when a couple's son brings home a Japanese wife. This beautiful young woman, submissive both to her husband and his parents, enchants both of the men in the household, while upsetting her mother-in-law.

A Chinese story, "Parable of Plain People," is a simple tale about a man who would be very content with his life if not for oppressive overlords and their unceasing demands.

In "Enchantment," a plain housewife sees her husband in the company of a beautiful woman. It is all very innocent, but the incident momentarily staggers the wife's sense of security and love.

These are lovely stories that help explain why Pearl S. Buck was once one of America's best-loved writers.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Time-machine historians

"Blackout," a 2010 time-travel novel by Connie Willis, may be classified as science fiction, but because most of the story takes place during World War II, it is primarily a historical novel, and a very good one at that.

In  the 2060s, historians study the past by going back in time and actually witnessing history firsthand. Three young historians are sent on separate missions to England during the early stages of the war. Mike goes back in time to learn more about the British rescue at Dunkirk and, without meaning to, becomes an active participant. Eileen must study the evacuation of children from London and gets stuck tending two impossible kids. Polly takes a job as a shopgirl in a department story to observe how Londoners react to the Blitz and somehow becomes cast in a play. Coming from the future, Polly knows where all the German bombs are going to strike, so she should be able to stay out of danger. That is, if she returns to her own time on schedule.

Each historian's assignment is intended to be short-term. If they don't return as scheduled, someone is supposed to come looking for them. Once they get to 1940, however, time travel doesn't quite work the way it is supposed to, and their routes back to the future are blocked. Mike, in particular because of his actions at Dunkirk, fears the Germans could actually win the war, and that it will be his fault.

By the end of the novel, all three historians have found one another, compared notes and realized the seriousness of their situation. To find out what happens next, one must read the sequel, "All Clear."

Connie Willis writes as if she had traveled back to wartime England herself. She gives her readers a feel for the time and place more vivid than almost any history book could provide, even one written by time-travelers.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Unconsumed poetry

There seem to be more people who write poetry than read poetry.

I have made this comment to friends, only half in jest. There really do seem to be more people writing poetry than reading it. Now I have some evidence to back it up.

Robert Hendrickson, author of The Literary Life and Other Curiosities, cites sources suggesting that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,400 Americans regularly buy books of verse. His book is somewhat dated. It was published in 1981 and updated in 1994, but the figures probably haven't changed much in the past few years.

Meanwhile, a group called Poets and Writers says about 5,000 people have published at least 10 poems in at least three literary magazines. The New Yorker received 3,000 poems each week at the time Hendrickson's book was published, yet printed only about 150 poems a year. The Atlantic Monthly got 20,000 poems a year, printing just 50 or so. These numbers probably haven't changed considerably either. Thus, even those who consider themselves poets are apparently not buying poems written by other poets.

Very few of us have ever written or tried to write a novel, but almost everyone who has ever imagined he or she possessed a smattering of writing talent has written a poem or two. Novels, even bad novels, can take months or even years to write. A poem, at least something of the "Roses are red" variety, can be knocked off in a matter of minutes. I've written a few poems myself. Admit it, you have, too.

Unless we are really serious about poetry, however, few of us want to actually read somebody else's poems. Even if we do read poetry occasionally, we probably favor long-dead poets like Wordsworth, Keats or Frost over any contemporary poets. How many contemporary poets can you even name? (No fair counting songwriters.)

The poet W.H. Auden once said, "Poetry is the only art people haven't yet learnt to consume like soup." A few decades later, poetry is hardly being consumed at all. Yet, in case anyone's interested, it is still being produced.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Rereading Pauline Kael

I own seven collections of Pauline Kael's movie reviews that first appeared in The New Yorker. Every so often I take down one of these books with titles like When the Lights Go Down and I Lost It at the Movies and reread some of her reviews with pleasure.

Kael usually seemed to praise the movies I disliked and pan those I loved, so I'm not entirely sure why I enjoy reading her as much as I do. Perhaps it's just that she was a terrific writer who had a passion for films and who noticed things in them that I missed completely.

Recently I have been leafing through State of the Art, a book published in the mid-1980s. I see that Kael loved The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, a movie I still think about from time to time but didn't particularly enjoy the one time I watched it. Rereading Kael's review from 1984 makes me want to give it a second chance.

"I didn't find it hard to accept the uninflected, deadpan tone, and to enjoy Buckaroo Banzai for its inventiveness and the gags that bounce off other adventure movies, other comedies," she wrote. "The picture's sense of fun carried me along."

"Mostly," she added, "I laughed at John Lithgow, who brings the movie the anchor it needs. ... His scenes can make you crazy with happiness."

Then there is "Places in the Heart," a film I have watched numerous times with pleasure. Kael's review had little positive to say about it. She complained about the dinner-table grace that opens the movie, the too-white sheets worn by the Klan, Sally Field's performance and just about everything else, including the title. (I, too, have always disliked the title, which makes it sounds like a Hallmark Channel movie.)
I think Kael missed much that is good about Places in the Heart, including the terrific ending, but I have to admit that some of her nit-picking makes me like it just a little bit less than I once did.

Good writing doesn't always reinforce one's biases. Sometimes it challenges them. That's something Pauline Kael did every week in The New Yorker.