Friday, September 28, 2012

A forgotten novel?

Donald E. Westlake's Memory (2010) was said to be the last novel by that prolific, Edgar Award-winning author who died in 2008 (although The Comedy Is Finished was published this year), but it must also have been one of his first. The story is about a man's struggle to reclaim his memory after being struck on the head when he is caught in bed with the wrong woman. Once a self-assured Broadway actor, Paul Cole is now a reserved, apologetic man who can't remember who he is, let alone his next doctor's appointment.

I say Memory must have been one of the first novels Westlake wrote because of the cultural references in the story, especially the cost of things. Cole pays $75 a month for his New York City apartment. When he does make it to a doctor's appointment, it costs him just $8. This sounds like it might be the late 1950s or early 1960s. Westlake's first published novel under his own name was The Mercenaries in 1960, although he wrote several earlier books under the name Alan Marshall. Apparently Westlake wrote Memory at about that time, but it was not published until after his death.

Why it wasn't  published earlier is something of a mystery. It is an excellent novel, although quite different from most of Westlake's work. He was known mostly for crime novels, either the hardboiled variety like the Parker books he wrote under the name Richard Stark or comic caper novels like those in his Dortmunder series. Although Memory was published by Hard Case Crime and has a cover illustration that makes it look like a crime novel, it really isn't one, at least not after the initial violence.

Was no publisher interested in Memory because it was so different from Westlake's other work? Or didn't Westlake think it was very good? Or did he simply decide he didn't want to be known as a serious novelist because there was more money to be made in crime fiction?

Whatever the case, this novel is a gem that did not deserve to be forgotten.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Books aren't news

I have been reading A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, the 1995 book by John Allen Paulos, best known for his book Innumeracy. The book has a few useful insights, but over all I have found it to be disappointing. One chapter that did interest me has to do with the way books are covered in newspapers, which is virtually not at all.

"Every gritty detail of murders, drug deals, and other abuses makes the paper," Paulos writes. "Every TV program on every cable channel has a brief synopsis in a weekly or month guide. Every miniuscule variation in the stock price of hundreds of penny-ante companies is right there in the papers every day. I can't believe the readership for a daily stream of nationally syndicated, very brief reviews of new books would attract fewer readers than these features do. Besides, newspapers have a vested interest in a more literate reading public."

What he writes was true in 1995 and is even more true today. Even many of the larger newspapers have eliminated their Sunday book pages. For the same economic reasons, book publishers spend little to promote even their most significant titles, taking out ads in only the biggest newspapers. In most cases, it is left to the authors to promote and sell their own books.

Newspapers may write articles about local authors when a new book is published, but even that is no sure thing. With self-publishing so common today, there are usually more local authors with new books than papers can keep up with. Sometimes a brief mention of a book-signing is the best an author can hope for, and that may not even tell readers what the new book is about.

I reviewed books for a mid-sized midwestern newspaper for nearly 40 years and got away with it only because I was paid to peform other tasks, like reporting, editorial writing and copy editing for the newspaper and just wrote reviews on the side. In other words, the newspaper got local copy they didn't have to pay for. It worked. I got to write about books, something I love to do, while building up my library at the same time. Newspaper readers got a weekly book column. All the paper had to do was provide a little space each week.

Even then, I mentioned only about 50 books a year, just a fraction of the more than 50,000 that are published. Since I retired in 2010, nobody has stepped in to do even that much on behalf of books. There is, however, a column about fantasy football.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Wage, wager and wed

You will not be surprised that the words wage and wager are related. They look and sound similar, even if they mean different things. More surprising is the fact that the word wed is related to the other two words.

It seems that the concept the three words have in common is not money, as you might assume from the first two words, but a pledge. The Old English word weddian comes from the Germanic base of the Scots wed, meaning "a pledge." When couples marry, after all, they make a pledge to be true to one another.

The words wage and wager came from the same source. An employer pledges to pay a wage in return for labor performed. When a gambler makes a wager, he pledges to pay his debt should he lose.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The weakest link

Yesterday my wife and I stopped for lunch at a new restaurant. We both ordered something simple - just soup and salad. At least 30 minutes later, we finally got our meal. About halfway through our wait, our server came to our table and told us the salad was ready but she was still waiting on the soup. Later the manager came to our table and apologized for the delay, telling us our meal would be on the house. What was the reason for the delay? The printer wasn't working, he said.

The printer? Why would a malfunctioning printer delay a restaurant order? And why, if the salads were ready 15 minutes earlier, weren't they brought out while we still waited for the soup? We didn't ask those questions, of course. You don't argue about a free lunch.

Later I stopped in to have my car serviced. The man at the service desk had trouble getting his computer to print out an estimate for me to sign.

My wife mentioned that her recent purchase at an auto parts store was delayed because their printer was down.

Computers are wonderful things, and virtually every business now depends on them to get things done. They don't really save on paper usage, however, because every computer is hooked up to a printer, which seems to malfunction a good portion of the time. When they're working, those printers churn out an amazing amount of paper, much of which goes directly into the trash.

Purchase a pack of gum at the pharmacy and you will be given a long receipt that reports the store information, the purchase information, the date, the amount ( if any) you saved on your purchase, the amount you've saved by shopping at that store this year, a number to call to report on your shopping experience and possibly win a prize and a variety of coupons and discounts for future shopping. The store probably has a big trash can near their door where you can deposit that long receipt. And if that printer isn't working or needs paper, you will have to wait in the checkout line until the situation is corrected.

Even home computers are dependent on the printers they are hooked up to. I have one of those printers that has five ink cartridges - three colors and two blacks. It seems that almost every time I need it for something important, one of those cartridges needs to be replaced. Or the printer is jammed. Or it's out of paper.

At the newspaper where I used to work, we did our writing and editing on a computer system, yet reporters usually wanted a hard copy of their stories and copy editors wanted page proofs to find and mark errors. That meant we were all dependent on a single printer, which too often was out of paper or out of toner or worse.

I wonder how many of the manhours saved by computers are then lost by printers.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A who'llsolveit

Published in 1931, Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding is a classic British murder mystery that remains entertaining more than 80 years later. Francis Beeding, like contemporary mystery author Charles Todd, was actually two people - John Leslie and Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders. Together they penned a number of popular mystery and spy novels.

Eastrepps is a quiet English village until a serial killer goes to work, striking dead six of the town's finest citizens late at night over a period of weeks. The story actually has two mysteries. Other than the question of the killer, there is the question of who the hero might be. Who will be the person who actually discovers the killer's identity? There are several possibilities, including both local and Scotland Yard detectives. Some of these become temporarily prominent before fading into the background. Most mystery novels have heroes, but this one doesn't, at least not until the very end.

The answer to both mysteries comes as a surprise to the reader, making this novel doubly satisfying.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Knocking around

The primary definition of the word knock is "to strike with an audible blow," according to one dictionary. Yet in American slang, the word can mean any number of other things. Consider:

knock - to criticize, as when someone knocks a politician or a new movie

knock around - to loaf or to abuse

knock back - to drink in one gulp

knock someone's block off, knock someone's lights out - to hit very very hard or to beat severely

knock 'em dead - to impress

knocked out - intoxicated

knocked up - pregnant

knockers - breasts

knock for a loop - to unsettle severely

knock it off - stop doing something

knock off - to stop working, to kill, to delete, to arrest, to imitate, to rob, to defeat, to attain, to drink, among other possible meanings

knockout - an attractive person

knock yourself out - to work hard at something

knock someone's socks off or knock them in the aisles - to impress

knock together - to make something quickly

In other words, you can use the word knock to say just about anything. I knocked together this post in about 10 minutes. Don't knock it. It's the best I could do today.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Doctors, physicians and surgeons

We tend to think of the words doctor and physician as synonymous, although that is not quite true. There are subtle differences between those words, as well as the word surgeon.

While reading Joshua Kendall's The Man Who Made Lists, a biography of Peter Mark Roget, the man responsible for Roget's Thesaurus, I learned that the difference between doctors and physicians was even more important in the late 18th century than it is today. Roget received sufficient medical training to become a physician, not just a doctor. "In the late 1700s," Kendall writes, "physicians, who were the only doctors to receive extensive university training, constituted a small elite - just ten percent of all doctors."

Surgeons were in another classification altogether. "While physicians treated internal diseases (say, a fever), surgeons treated exclusively external disorders (say, a broken bone)," Kendall says. "Considered technicians rather than men of science, surgeons were addressed as 'Mister' rather than 'Doctor' -- a custom that continues to this day throughout the United Kingdom." Remember that at one time surgeons and barbers were regarded as one and the same thing, the red in the barber's pole representing blood.

Here's how the American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, defines physician, doctor and surgeon:

physician - 1. A person licensed to practice medicine; a medical doctor. 2. A person who practices general medicine as distinct from a surgeon.

doctor - 1. A person, especially a physician, dentist, or veterinarian, trained in the healing arts and licensed to practice. 2. A person who has earned the highest academic degree awarded by a college or university in a specified discipline.

surgeon - 1. A physician specializing in surgery.

Thus, all physicians are doctors and all surgeons are physicians, but not all doctors are physicians and not all physicians are surgeons.

When I worked as a newspaper copy editor, our style allowed only medical doctors to be given a Dr. before their names. The thinking was that because most readers associated that title with physicians, it would be misleading to refer to ministers or college professors as doctors. This always struck me as a little unfair to those men and women who had earned their doctorates in fields other than medicine, as well as underestimating the intelligence of our readers.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

More book than story

My problem with Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves is that there is more book than there is story. The story itself is intriguing. Robert Oliver, a prominent artist, is caught trying to deface a painting in a museum and psychiatrist Andrew Marlow tries to discover why he would do such a thing. Oliver, however, refuses to say a word. He just paints images of the same unknown woman over and over again.

So Marlow must look elsewhere for answers, first to Oliver's former wife, then his former girlfriend, whom Marlow falls in love with himself. He studies old letters, visits museums and travels as far as Paris to interview people who might be able to shed light on the mystery.

It's a good story. I'm just not sure there is enough there to justify such a long novel.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Three surprises

When in my early teens, I joined the Doubleday Science Fiction Book Club, like so many boys my age and older did in the late 1950s. Those science fiction novels and short story collections became the nucleus of my personal library, although by the time I entered college I was reading very little science fiction. That remains true to this day, although I have kept most of those book-club editions. Recently I leafed through one of those books, The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Ninth Series, published in 1959. I discovered three noteworthy things in this anthology, noteworthy at least to me.

1. The book contains two stories by creative writing instructors at Ohio University while I was a student there in the 1960s. The stories are "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes and "Far from Home" by Walter Tevis. Keyes later turned his short story into a novel, the one for which he is best known. The Tevis story is a delightful little thing about how a blue whale wound up in an Arizona swimming pool. Tevis, the only one of the two I had for a class, is best known for The Hustler, but he also wrote the science fiction novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. When I took that class under Tevis, I didn't remember that I had once read one of his stories.

2. There is a poem, An Expostulation, by C.S. Lewis. I had never heard of Lewis at the time I read this book, but I later read many of his books, including the Narnia Chronicles, The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy that remains in print more than half a century later. His poem laments the fact that so many sci-fi stories could just as easily be set in the Bronx, Montmartre or Bethnel Green. It is, he writes, the "same old stuff we left behind."

3. The anthology contains several feghoots. A feghoot is a contrived little story that leads to an outrageous pun. Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine regularly ran stories called "Through Space and Time with Ferdinand Feghoot" between 1956 and 1973. They were written by Reginald Bretnor under than name Grendel Briarton. The stories in the book ended with puns like "give 'em an Inge and they take a knell" and "the little fish is his herring aide."

These tiny sc-fi stories, never more than a few paragraphs long, are the reason elaborate puns like these are today often called feghoots. Check out another blog,, for some entertaining feghoots.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I could have done

If you read many books written by British authors or watch many British films, you will be familiar with sentences like these from Susan Howatch's novel Absolute Truths:

"You could have done, but you didn't."

"I would have done, but I never got that far."

Those lines always jar me a little when I come across them. That's because Americans omit the done in similar sentences. We would say, "you could have, but you didn't" or "I would have, but I never got that far."

So who's right? Do Americans leave out a word that should be there, or do the British insert a word that isn't necessary? I think you could make an argument both ways.

We Americans understand one another perfectly, so obviously the word done is not really necessary in those sentences. It is always implied, however. The British put the word in their sentences rather than just let listeners and readers assume it is there.

Here on the west side of the Atlantic we do use other verbs in similar sentences. We say, "it would have been" or "I could have gone." Sometimes we leave them out, but just as often we include them. Yet only the word done seems strange to us when we hear it or see it in print in these kinds of sentences. Or am I alone in this?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

An apology card

It's always welcome when a restaurant sends you a coupon for a free meal or a discounted meal for your birthday. Less a big deal is when a business sends you an institutional birthday card. Unless there is a handwritten note or at least an actual signature, why bother? It just seems like advertising in the form of a greeting card.

Around the time of my last birthday in early June, I received such a card from a firm that handles investments for me. It was worth opening, but hardly worth displaying with other birthday cards. It did not survive long before going into the trash.

Then in late August, on the same day my wife received her birthday greeting from the same company, I received a second birthday card. It drew a laugh, nothing more.

A few days ago I received a third card, not from the investment company but from the company that sends out those birthday cards for the investment company. This card, with "Sincerest Apologies" on the front, apologized for sending the birthday card that "was sent entirely too early." So they know they made a mistake, even if they are not clear what the mistake was.

The first card from this company was a trifle. The second one was silly. The third seemed somehow offensive. Perhaps the offense, if there was one, lay in destroying whatever illusion may have existed that the birthday greetings, even the erroneous one, were somehow personal, perhaps even sincere.

In a civilized world, we need our illusions. A "good morning" said to a stranger may be somewhat fraudulent but such things can nevertheless make our days a trifle brighter. If we were to say "good morning," then apologize by saying, "I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else," it would break the spell. It would also be rude in its own right.

Not every error requires an apology.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Shopping for books in Toronto

Whenever I visit Toronto, as I did last weekend, the bookstores are always a major attraction for me. Sure, I enjoy the shows, the restaurants, the museums and just about everything else about the city, but it's the bookstores I think about as I enter the city and as I leave.

Yet shopping for books there is always frustrating. The good news is a huge selection to chose from. Some of the stores are very large, including the one that calls itself the World's Biggest Bookstore. That may not be literally true -- Powell's in Portland seems bigger to me -- but it's close enough. Canada's Indigo stores are comparable to Barnes & Noble in the U.S. They're large, and their selection is magnificent.

These stores sell books from American publishers, as well as a broad selection of books from Canadian and British publishers that may be available in the U.S., but you are less likely to find them in any bookstore.

The frustrating part is, most of these books are terribly expensive. A mass market paperback that sells for $7.99 in the U.S. costs $9.99 in Canada. A book that sells for $12.95 in the U.S. is $16.50 in Canada. Most trade paperbacks now cost more than $20 in Canada.

This markup for Canadian shoppers may have made sense a few years ago when the rate of exchange favored Americans shopping across the border. You might once have gotten about $135 in Canadian currency for every $100 U.S. This is no longer true, and hasn't been true for several years. When I crossed into Canada last Friday, I got fewer Canadian dollars than I had American dollars. Yet Canadian booksellers must still charge more for books than U.S. booksellers do. So mostly I just wrote down the titles of books I craved, hoping to find them later in the United States.

Even so, there are bargains to be found in Canada, primarily when it comes to used and remaindered books. At a discount bookstore right next to the World's Biggest Bookstore, I found a wonderful selection of P.G. Wodehouse books selling for $6.99 or, in some cases, $8.99. The same books were selling next door for more than $20 each. I grabbed up several of them. They look new but do not have that black dot on them to indicate they are remaindered. At the same store I bought a trade paperback edition of Jar City, a mystery by Arnaldur Indridason, for $6.99.

At the World's Biggest, I bought a couple of nonfiction books at discounted prices - The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes for $9.99 (it had originally sold for $45 in Canada) and Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn for $5.99 (originally $32.50). Also I came out with a trade paperback of Railway to the Grave by Edward Marston, one in his Railway Detective series that, except for the first, I have never seen in the U.S. It cost $14.99, which I didn't think was bad for a book I may never see again.

So good book deals can be found in Toronto. It just takes a little work.