Monday, December 30, 2013

Slight, yet substantial

We expect multi-generational novels to cover hundreds of pages, yet Terence M. Green's St. Patrick's Bed, published in 2001, is just a skimpy 220 pages, and even then a number of those pages are completely blank. Yet the Canadian author's story, a sequel to Shadow of Ashland, involves three generations of the Nolan family, with references to some earlier ones. If the novel seems slight, it proves itself not insubstantial.

Narrated by Leo Nolan, who like his father before him works in the circulation department of a major Toronto newspaper, the plot primarily deals with what happens when Adam, Leo's 22-year-old adopted son, announces that he wants to meet his actual father, a man named Bobby Swiss, who lives in Dayton, Ohio. Bobby was the teenage boyfriend of Jeanne, Leo's wife, but she and Bobby never married, and they drew apart when Adam was born. Now Adam wants to find out what he is like.

Before Adam makes the trip to Ohio to meet Bobby Swiss, Leo decides to go himself to satisfy his own curiosity about his son's real father and about the man who gave Jeanne a child when he himself has been unable to do so.

That, in a nutshell, is the story, which probably wouldn't even take 220 pages except that Leo's thoughts frequently turn to his father, Tommy Nolan, who has recently died, and to his and his wife's courtship and marriage. These memories, relived with grace and style, fill many of those pages. Green also describes many of the details of Leo's drive to Dayton and back, which includes a stop in my own city of Ashland, Ohio. Clearly Green has taken this drive himself. And that drive is not the only part of the novel that feels like the real thing.

Friday, December 27, 2013

History in a bookcase

The contents of someone's bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait.
Anatole Broyard

Anatole Broyard
These words came to mind last night as my wife and I attended something of a wrap party hosted by the organist/choir director at the church we attend in Florida. He invited choir members to celebrate the winning Christmas Eve service of two nights before. As usual when in someone's home for the first time, I gravitated toward the bookshelves and, as Anatole Broyard suggests I might, found a history of the people, Arthur and Gretchen, who live in this beautiful home across the street from the Gulf of Mexico.

Several shelves of music books of all sorts certainly hinted at the presence of a musician within those walls, although the piano and organ in the same room suggested the same thing. Volumes in another bookcase told me these were people who valued good books and took them seriously. They were not people who simply discard books or donate them to a thrift store after reading them.

Books decades old, such as the novels by James Michener and Leon Uris, announced the library did not belong to a young person, although newer books, such as Water for Elephants, said these were not people who had yet abandoned reading for TV. These were what I consider to be quality books, the sort read by educated people with good taste and lively minds.

Although the decor of the house was exquisite, I did not get the sense the books were there for mere decoration, as one sometimes does in other attractive homes. The books seemed organized (biographies here, fiction there, etc.), yet not too organized. The library did not appear to exist for effect but for pleasure. Gretchen, a retired English teacher, later told me that most of the books are hers and that she cannot imagine ever parting with them.

Arthur showed me around the house, which he has owned for several decades. He said a contractor once recommended the building be demolished and replaced with a new home. Unable to afford a new home, Arthur made do. When he married Gretchen, she knew how to turn what had been a wreck into the showplace it is today.

One wall was covered with family photographs, not just the most recent ones but photos covering decades and telling the family story for several generations. At one point as if reading my mind, Arthur said to me that he believes every house reveals the history of the people who live there, as well as those who have lived there in the past.

Clearly there are many ways to tell one's story. Writing an autobiography is just one of them.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Truth in titles?

Each year at this time I complete the following questionnaire. The challenge is to answer each of the questions as truthfully as possible using only the titles of books I've read during the year. In other words, not very truthfully at all, but lots of fun (for me, at least). So here goes:

Describe yourself: Invisible

How do you feel today: On the Wrong Track

Describe where you currently live: Wherever I Wind Up

If  you could go anywhere, where would you go: The Bookshop

Your favorite form of transportation: The Future We Wish We Had

Your best friend is: A Fatal Likeness

You and your friends are: Imperfect Harmony

What's the weather like where you are: All Clear

What is the best advice you could give: Don't Lie to Me

Thought for the day: Please Look After Mom

How would you like to die: A Death in the Small Hours

Your soul's present condition: State of Wonder

I urge readers to try the questionnaire and send me the results.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas isn't always fair

While reading John Mortimer's short story Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas from his 1981 collection Rumpole for the Defence, I started thinking about just how many hundreds of Christmas stories have been written over the years and how much so many of them owe to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The Dickens tale was certainly not the first Christmas story -- the gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, get credit for that -- yet it is something of a granddaddy to the genre. So many stories set at Christmas share the key elements of the Dickens story: a Scrooge character, someone whose miserliness, deceit, depression or ill humor threatens the spirit of the season; a Tiny Tim character, some innocent who may be deprived of the happiness Christmas promises; and a dramatic change or, in some cases, a miracle, that sets things right.

Even John Mortimer's story, as different from A Christmas Carol as it may be, contains these elements. The story finds Horace Rumpole once again defending one of the Timsons, a family of small-time crooks who provide the London barrister with a steady income. His client this time is 17-year-old Edward Timson, but the charge is not theft but murder. Rumpole believes his client to be innocent, first because the Timsons have never been violent criminals and second because the key witnesses against him are members of the Dowd family, the Timsons' bitter enemies.

Rumpole, in the midst of a long string of losing cases, suggests to the barrister prosecuting the case that, in the spirit of Christmas, he should omit testimony about young Timson handling a sword before the crime. The sword was not the murder weapon, yet mention of it in the trial could, Rumpole fears, give jurors the wrong idea about his client.

And so Edward Timson is Mortimer's Tiny Tim, while the prosecutor (not the judge, as one might expect in a Rumpole story) is Scrooge. The dramatic change occurs, yet (I'll try not to give too much of the story away) it is not Timson and certainly not Rumpole who is the beneficiary of the prosecutor's renewed Christmas spirit.

Oddly, the story brought to mind a scene in Love Actually, that British Christmas film of a few years ago. A wife discovers a necklace in her husband's coat pocket, but then at Christmas gets only a Joni Mitchell CD from him. The necklace obviously was intended for some other woman. As in the Rumpole story, it's a reminder that a gift to one person can disappoint another. Not every child can get a pony. Some children, on Christmas morning, will get a lump of coal, or its modern equivalent, a pair of socks, a sweater or a set of underwear.

In the news recently have been reports about someone leaving Tips for Jesus, gratuities amounting to hundreds of dollars, to servers in various restaurants and bars. But, of course, the server at the next table or the server who usually has that table but happens to be off that day or the server in the establishment down the street may understandably feel a bit disappointed. Generous Christmas giving is wonderful, but it isn't always fair.

I can't picture any family sitting around the Christmas tree next Tuesday night listening while Father reads Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas. This story is no substitute for O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi. Yet it's a fine story that gives us an insightful variation on the Dickens model.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Into the Abyss

Memoirs written by authors posing as someone they were not form a small, but fascinating, subgenre in literature. I think of George Plimpton pretending to be professional football player and writing Paper Lion and John Howard Griffin artificially coloring his skin, living as a black man and writing Black Like Me.

About 110 years ago, Jack London posed as a poor, out-of-work laborer on the East End of London and wrote The People of the Abyss, a stirring indictment of the way the British government and the people of the upper and middle classes took advantage of and otherwise ignored the poor of that day. I had been looking for a copy of London's book, and when I got a new iPad recently, I chose to make The People of the Abyss the first book I would read on it. I was not disappointed.

The worst of the problems London describes so vividly may have been corrected in the past century, yet the book remains shocking. So many people went to bed hungry every night. So many others didn't even have a bed. Others shared a bed in shifts. So many died young. Even those who had jobs could not make enough money to get ahead.

Here is how London describes his first impression as he takes a hansom cab into the East End for the first time: "The streets were filled with a new and different race of people, short of stature, and of wretched or beer-sodden appearance. We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. Here and there lurched a drunken man or woman, and the air was obscene with sounds of jangling and squabbling. At a market, tottery old men and women were searching in the garbage thrown in the mud for rotten potatoes, beans, and vegetables, while little children clustered like flies around a festering mass of fruit, thrusting their arms to the shoulders into the liquid corruption, and drawing forth morsels but partially decayed, which they devoured on the spot."

"The Abyss" was, at the time London wrote his book, a popular slang term for the very bottom of society. The image it suggests is of sliding down into a a great, bottomless pit, from which there is no escape. London builds on this image. "The work of the world goes on above them, and they do not care to take part in it, nor are they able," he writes. "Moreover, the work of the world does not need them. There are plenty, far fitter than they, clinging to the steep slope above, and struggling frantically to slide no more."

We may have "safety nets" of various kinds to try to save today's homeless, impoverished, jobless, disabled and elderly people, yet sadly The Abyss, or what today we might call The Black Hole, remains to swallow up any who fall through the cracks.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Word mysteries solved

As I've mentioned before, Charles Finch's Victorian mysteries featuring Charles Lenox are usually treasure troves of historical and etymological information. His latest, An Old Betrayal, reviewed here last week, pauses three times in the solution of the murder mystery to offer readers word histories. The three words are these:

magazine - Lenox finds a stack of old copies of The Gentleman's Magazine, at which point readers are informed that this was the first publication to call itself a magazine. Finch explains that the word comes from the French word for "storehouse," "although now, oddly, the word had migrated back to Paris from London and come to mean 'journal' there, too." A magazine, therefore, was considered to be a store of information. According to Word Nerd, the word originally came from the Arabic word makhzan, which also meant "storehouse."

curate - In a church parish in England, the rector and the vicar received most of the offerings donated by parishioners. "The curate merely got a 'cure,' a small fee, and ended up doing most of the work of these two greater men."

hogwash -  Kitchen scraps were called wash in Victorian times, Finch says. They were collected each day and turned into food for pigs. Thus, hogwash.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Pleasant reading

An Old Betrayal (Minotaur), the seventh Charles Lenox mystery by Charles Finch, makes pleasant reading. This is a much better novel than A Death in the Small Hours, which I reviewed a few weeks ago after it came out in paperback.

Finch doesn't write pulse-pounding thrillers. His books are more low-key, more cerebral. Sometimes they can get a bit dull, as in the case of the previous book, but An Old Betrayal doesn't have that problem. The tale begins when Lenox, now a Member of Parliament and apparently out of the detective business, fills in for his protege, John Dallington, who is sick in bed. Dallington has received a note from a prospective client with a striped umbrella, whom the detective is supposed to meet in a cafe. Lenox goes in his place, but expecting to meet a man, pays little attention to the only person there with a striped umbrella, a young woman. The early chapters are taken up with trying to find this woman to discover what her problem may be. Her note suggests to Lenox that she may be in some danger.

It turns out that the woman is not the only one in danger. A series of murders follows, as does as threat against Queen Victoria's palace and, perhaps, the queen herself.

A couple of intriguing subplots add to the pleasure of this novel. Rumors are circulating in high places that Graham, his long-time secretary and aide, cannot by trusted, and Lenox finds his political career in jeopardy as a result. Then a mysterious lady detective opens a new agency that promises to use more modern and scientific investigative techniques than Lenox and Dallington have been using. This poses a threat of a different kind.

The plot gets complicated, as they often do in good mysteries, but it's fun watching Charles Lenox sort it all out.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The sign on the wall

Only KFC has so much tasty chicken, fresh from our kitchens, just for you.

Yesterday my wife caught me staring at the above words on a sign in a KFC restaurant in Georgia. Other husbands might get caught staring at other women. I get caught staring at signs. What, I wondered as I focused on the sign, is the point of that sentence?

The line makes a claim about both quantity and quality, yet I noticed that KFC places its emphasis on quantity. The company seems less proud that its chicken is tasty than that it has so much of it. They may not have the tastiest chicken -- at least the sign on the restaurant wall makes no such claim -- but at least they have more of it than anybody else.

The line also seems to be saying that it has more tasty chicken in its kitchens than anybody else does. It made me wonder: Why would anybody else have any chicken in KFC kitchens? Don't Chick-fil-A, Popeye's and Church's Chicken have their own kitchens?

Finally there is the sentence's final phrase: "just for you." As for me, I can rarely eat more than two pieces of chicken at one sitting, so I am less interested in quantity than quality. I just want my chicken to taste good. The irony of that bold statement on the KFC wall, claiming that it has more chicken than any of its competitors, is that while I had ordered two thighs in my two-piece meal, this Georgia restaurant had just one thigh ready in its kitchen. I was given a breast instead.

On the drive down from Ohio, from winter into summer, I had been thinking about my two grandchildren, ages 12 and 9, and about their respective talents and abilities. I wondered what kind of futures they may have, what kind of careers may lie ahead for them. My granddaughter, like her grandfather, loves to read and write. People with her skills, I should think, will always be in demand. KFC might even be able to use her right now.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A second home library

Now, renting another apartment to store books -- that makes sense.
Tom Raabe, Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction

What doesn't make sense to Tom Raabe is moving into a bigger house because that would mean packing up and moving all those thousands of books any true biblioholic (Raabe's word) owns. Who would want to go to all that trouble? Better, he argues, to spend the money you would spend on a bigger place to acquire a second place.

As we pack up to return to Florida for another winter (a couple weeks too late, it turns out, to escape winter weather), it occurs to me that what Raabe describes is, in effect, exactly what I have been doing. After three winters in Florida and two in our Largo condo, which is rented and not owned, I already have the start of an impressive library down there. I plan to haul a few more books down with me next week.

The condo is small, and there is not much space for books. Besides it is owned by someone else, and I am not exactly free to build shelves or even add bookcases. And we have use of the condo only temporarily, until the owners decide to retire there themselves, so those Florida books are going to have to be moved eventually. Still they do tend to multiply each winter.

As I get ready to drive south, I find myself thinking not of sandy beaches but of all the books I have waiting for me down there and all the bookstores I haven't visited in several months. I'm sure Tom Raabe understands, even if my wife doesn't.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Weird and wonderful words

We're told that 90 percent of all writing employs just 1,000 words. All the thousands of other words in the English language, therefore, make up the remaining 10 percent. And many of those other words are hardly ever used at all. I discovered a few of these words that few people even know and fewer still actually use while browsing through Barbara Ann Kipfer's Word Nerd. I challenge you to use three or more of these words in actual sentences before the day is up:

abracadabrant: marvelous or stunning

charientism: an elegantly veiled insult

disbosom: to reveal or confess

faineant: a person who does nothing, an idler

imbirferous: raining or bringing rain

matutolagnia: an urge to have sex in the morning

maulifuff: a woman without energy or one who makes a fuss but does little or nothing

noddary: a foolish act

predormition: the period of semiconsciousness before sleep

toploftical: haughty

My speller challenges each of these 10 words, which isn't surprising. None of them is used often enough to warrant including in most computer spellers. Some of the words, such as toploftical and disbosom, seem totally unnecessary. We communicate in English very well without them. Yet, whether most of us use them or not, I am very glad they exist. As with rare animals we never see, it's nice just to know they're there.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Double duty

Many words do double duty, or even triple duty or more. That is, they have multiple meanings, and sometimes those meanings seem unrelated to each other. You can, for example, draw a picture, draw a card, draw a bath, draw money out of your bank account and draw a gun. Or you can play chess to a draw.

Recently while reading two historical novels, both set in England, I came across a couple of words that were used in old, but now obscure, ways. Both times I was caught a bit by surprise because I did not remember ever seeing these words used in these ways before.

First, here's a line from the Charles Finch novel A Death in the Small Hours: "The third case was one of uttering, as it had long been known, or passing bad coin." Fortunately Finch explains what this use of the word uttering means, so it wasn't necessary to look it up in a dictionary, but I did anyway. The third definition of the word utter in my American Heritage Dictionary says it's a legal term meaning "to put (counterfeit money, for example) into circulation." A fourth definition of the word is "to publish." This makes perfect sense when you realize that even the first definition of the word is "to send forth with the voice," as in uttering a cry. Both spending bad money and publishing a book also involve "sending forth."

Then in Kept, D.J. Taylor's novel, I found the phrase "having spent half an hour recruiting himself over a copy of Punch." Just two pages later I read, "I was bidden to recruit myself with a glass of wine." Turning again to the American Heritage Dictionary, I find that the sixth definition of the word recruit is "to renew or restore the health, vitality, or intensity of." Again, this more obscure definition isn't really that far removed from the more standard one in use today. Armies recruit soldiers and teams recruit players to make themselves stronger. So someone might recruit themselves, or reinvigorate themselves, by reading a humor magazine or drinking a glass of wine.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Cities of light

The latest issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine makes two references to the City of Light, but the references are to two different cities: Paris, the city most often called the City of Light, and Taxco, Mexico.

I recall that Lauren Belfer's terrific 1999 novel called City of Light was set in Buffalo, N.Y., around the turn of the 20th century. Thanks to the power generated by Niagara Falls, Buffalo was among the first cities to light up at night with electric lights.  It seemed to me that other cities have also used the phrase "City of Light," so I did some checking.

According to a Wikipedia article, no less than 25 cities other than Paris have claimed the title. They include Alicante, Spain; Anchorage, Alaska; Aurora, Ill.; Baltimore, Md.; Be'er Sheva, Israel; Birmingham, Ala.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Eindhoven, Netherlands; Gwangju, South Korea; Johannesburg, South Africa; Karachi, Pakistan; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Lyon, France; Manresa, Spain; Medina; Miami; Mitford, Pa.; New Bedford, Mass.; Perth; Tehran; Quanzhou, China; Varanasi, India; Venice and Wolverhamptom, England.

Almost any city looks better at night. Even Detroit is beautiful after the sun goes down. At night one can't see all the signs of decay and misery. From a distance, you just see the lights. Enter Pittsburgh at night from the west through the tunnel and the sight can take your breath away. Toronto is another city that is gorgeous at night. Any nighttime skyline filled with the lights from tall buildings, bridges and other structures can be lovely.

The Eiffel Tower at night may be the main reason Paris is most widely known as the City of Light. Having it in the background can improve any nighttime photograph, although the Moulin Rouge is also striking. I was atop the Eiffel Tower at night and was a bit disappointed with the view. Not only was everything too far away to appreciate, the tower being so tall, but you can't see the city's most striking nighttime feature, namely the tower itself. I much preferred the nighttime view atop the Arc de Triomphe, which is an ideal height to appreciate the lights of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower and the dozen streets that meet there, like the spokes in a giant wheel.

We are entering that season of the year where, throughout the Christian world, almost any municipality, whatever its size, can justifiably lay claim to the title of the City of Light. Even December, an otherwise miserable month in the Northern Hemisphere, can be beautiful when the Christmas lights go on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving words

Cranberries, long a Thanksgiving dinner staple, were originally called crane berries. That was because the stalks of the plant, weighted with blossoms or berries, were thought to resemble the necks of cranes.

On Thanksgiving in America, people will eat turkey who never eat it any other day of the year. The wild turkey is one of those American species, like the buffalo and the robin, that were so named because European settlers got them confused with other animals. The original turkey was the African guinea fowl, which at one time was thought to have originated in Turkey.

We were told by my sister-in-law, who is hosting Thanksgiving this year, that dinner could be served at either 1 or 4 p.m., depending upon when everybody could get there. She ultimately settled on 1. When I was growing up, Mom always served dinner at noon. Today we normally eat dinner at around 6. When I was in Paris, I noticed that the sidewalk cafes really didn't get busy until around 10 p.m.  I was interested to learn that the word dinner comes from the Old French desjeuner, meaning "to break fast." In other words, you can eat a meal at any time of day and call it dinner.

After dinner there may be pie. The word comes from magpie, a bird known to collect just about anything to build its nests. In the same way, pies can contain just about anything, including pumpkin.

The word stuff first referred to the material used for making clothes. Rag dolls were probably stuffed before turkeys were. After dinner we may all feel stuffed, although the more polite term is sated. Oddly enough, both sated and satisfied come from the same Old English word, sadian, from which we also get sad, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories.

After dinner (or before or during) many of us will watch football played on what is sometimes called a gridiron. We get this word, of course, from the grill commonly used for cooking, especially on outdoor barbecues. From this, we also got griddle and gridlock.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Odd, but interesting

A few modern novels set in the Victorian Age read like they might have actually been written during that period. D.J. Taylor's Kept (2007) is one of them. Taylor, better known as the biographer of George Orwell and William Thackeray than as a novelist, shows a gift for writing in a Victorian voice.

Of course, this Victorian voice does make his book a bit of a challenge for modern readers. Two oddities about the novel add to the difficulties.

1. The story has no protagonist. The title refers to an attractive widow who is being held against her will in a spooky country home belonging to to man whose main interests are collecting bird eggs and raising vicious dogs. This man, James Dixey, eventually falls in love with his prisoner, Isabel Ireland. Yet neither of these characters, nor anyone other character in the novel, can really be called the main character. There is no main character. The plot shifts from scene to scene, from character to character, making it difficult for readers to find a high point from which to view the whole story.

2. Most fiction is told either from an omniscient, third-person point of view or from a limited first-person point of view. In other words, the narrator either knows everything or only what one particular character in the story happens to know. In Kept, Taylor strangely employs both points of view at the same time. Phrases like "it seems to me" and "I think" abound throughout the novel, suggesting that the story is being told by some close observer of events. Yet a few sentences later this narrator is revealing characters' thoughts and private actions, things only an omniscient narrator could know. It's a bit bothersome not knowing who this first-person narrator is or how he happens to know so much about a story that involves so many different locales and so many different characters.

Despite these difficulties and these oddities, I found Kept to be enjoyable reading

Friday, November 22, 2013

Truth by metaphor

When C.S. Lewis died 50 years ago today, hardly anyone noticed. Another death that same day, in Dallas, claimed most of the headlines for days afterward, and it was some time before even the British writer's most ardent admirers heard the news.

In a cover story in this month's issue, Christianity Today remembers Lewis's life and legacy. The article hit home with me even before I had begun to read it. A Lewis quotation in large type is spread across two pages: "All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor."

Lewis himself was a master of metaphor. His books remain popular, and understandable, today in large measure because of the strength of his metaphors. He put this one in one of his letters: "The pleasure of pride is like the pleasure of scratching. If there is an itch one does want to scratch; but is is much nicer to have neither the itch nor the scratch." That is typical Lewis.

Just as he used metaphors to express complex ideas in understandable ways, so people in all walks of life use them to make things simpler. Preachers put stories in their sermons. Scientists talk about the Milky Way, the Big Bang, black holes, string theory and wormholes. In the world of history and politics, we have such metaphors as the Dark Ages, the Iron Curtain, New Deal and New Frontier. In economics there is talk about price bubbles, hiring freezes, fiscal cliffs, skyrocketing stocks, mountains of debt and overheated economies. Most truth, it seems, really is won by metaphor.

I happened to be in the midst of a book called I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like by Mardy Grothe when I was asked to speak at a graveside memorial service for my father-in-law last month. Bob had made it clear he did not want a funeral or any formal marking of his passing. So instead of a minister, I was asked to speak. What would I say that would be meaningful to those who knew him? I finally decided to just say it with metaphors. I read a few metaphors from Grothe's book that seemed to apply to Bob, then added my own comments and invited comments from those gathered at the northwestern Ohio cemetery. Somehow it worked.

One of the metaphors I read was from actor Danny Kaye: "Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can." Bob Savage certainly threw a lot of paint on his canvas, as did C.S. Lewis.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Black umbrellas and red wine

Among the secondary pleasures to be found in reading a Charles Lenox mystery, authored by Charles Finch, is the somewhat obscure information that Finch tosses in as he tells his story. Most of this stuff, usually about the English language or about life in Victorian England, may be trivial, at least as far as the story is concerned, but it is interesting trivia. Here are a few examples from A Death in the Small Hours, the book I reviewed here on Monday.

John Wayne in London
Why are umbrellas black? Even today men carry mostly black umbrellas, although women's umbrellas have become more colorful. But how did black become the norm? Finch explains that it had to do with the coal smoke so common in London at one time. "Even every Englishman's favorite accessory, the tightly furled black umbrella, had become that color largely to guard against the discoloration of the polluted air that a white umbrella in London invariably suffered," Finch writes.

Why are some red wines called port? At one time, Finch explains at one point in the story, England made a trade agreement with Portugal stipulating that England buy only Portuguese wine if Portugal bought only English cloth. Portuguese wine, shortened to port, was for many years all that could be found in England. In the United States today, I learned elsewhere, all port wines do not necessarily come from Portugal.

What is corn? Finch writes, "The word corn, here in Somerset, referred to any kind of grain -- oats, barley, wheat." Corn, at least at one time, was the dominant crop in a particular region. If farmers, as around Somerset, grew oats, barley and wheat, then that was called corn. In the New World, maize proved to be the dominant crop, so American farmers called it corn. Today that's what most people think of when they hear the word. In Word Nerd by Barbara Ann Kipfer, we read that the word corn derives from a Latin word meaning "grain." "To American colonists," she writes, "corn meant any common grain."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Over too quickly

When a fictional detective announces he has solved the case barely halfway into the book, you know there must be a few surprises still to come. The problem with A Death in the Small Hours (Minotaur), the new Charles Finch paperback, is that there aren't nearly enough surprises. The second half of the novel, filled with details about a speech in Parliament, wedding plans and various domestic affairs, isn't nearly as interesting as the first half. What we have, essentially, is a 100-page denouement.

Ah, but that first half makes fine reading. Charles Lenox, Finch's Victorian gentleman hero, finds himself so busy after becoming a member of Parliament that he no longer has time for his first love, solving difficult criminal cases. He has a major speech to prepare for, so he flees London with his wife, Jane, and baby daughter, Sophia, to his uncle's country estate, where he thinks he can find enough isolation to finish writing the speech.

But the village of Plumbley has been plagued with a series of unusual cases of vandalism, and Charles is asked to look into the matter. When a young police officer is murdered, Charles really gets interested. He thinks the murder and vandalism are related.

Charles sorts things out with surprising quickness, wrapping up several crimes all at once. Yet he hasn't quite solved the entire mystery, and this loose end leads to yet another murder.

Charles Lenox fans will want to catch this installment in the series. Other mystery readers might want to give it a pass.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Writing lessons

In her charming little book Survival Lessons, reviewed here on Wednesday, Alice Hoffman has almost as much to say about writers as she does about cancer survivors. Today I want to give a few quotes on writing from her book, then add my own comments.

"It's possible that I became a writer because of my mother's fear of being alone after her divorce. A novelist, after all, is never alone."

Oddly enough, this is true, although it certainly doesn't seem true. Writing seems like the loneliest of professions because it is best done in isolation with the door closed and the radio off. Hoffman speaks about the novelist's many characters, which become real and constantly present during, and perhaps before and after, the creation of a book. Then there are the writer's eventual readers. This blog has very few readers, and I have no idea who they might be, yet they are always on my mind as I write.

"If I could, I would invite the Brontes and Edgar Allan Poe. They would be my first choice for dinner guests. I would want to know about their minds and his life. I would also want to invite Emily Dickinson ..."

I, too, if I could invite anyone from history into my home, would have writers high on my guest list. Wouldn't it be fun sitting at a table listening to the conversation between Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis? Add Hoffman's dinner guests, and Hoffman herself, and you would have a perfect dinner party. I guess we would need one more man to balance things up. How about Ernest Hemingway, to add a little zest to dinner?

"In my family, a book was a life raft."

She is speaking here again about loneliness. Reading, like writing, can be a cure, though it is something that also is best done alone.

"All writers should be made to knit a hat before they start writing a novel. It would help with understanding the importance of revisions, and that the process is what can bring you the most joy."

Knitters knit because they enjoy the knitting, not just because they like the hats, sweaters or whatever their final product might be. The same goes for writing, although I think most writers already know that. Still, if knitting a hat were a prerequisite for writing a novel, there would be a lot fewer novels to choose from.

"When I couldn't write about characters that didn't have cancer and worried I might never get past that single experience, my oncologist told me that cancer didn't have to be my entire novel. It was just a chapter."

"Write what you know," novice fiction writers are told, as if they need to be told. To a great extent, they have no choice but to reproduce their own life experiences and the people they have known into their stories. And when one particular experience, such as a battle with cancer, is so overwhelming, it may be difficult for writers to write about anything else. Perhaps this explains why some war veterans who have written great war novels, say Joseph Heller or James Jones, were unable to write anything else as powerful. The advice from Alice Hoffman's oncologist seems wise to me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A survival guide

Who better to write a survival guide for persons with life-threatening illnesses than a survivor? And if that survivor can write as beautifully as Alice Hoffman, all the better.

Many of the novelist's fans, myself included, were unaware that Hoffman battled breast cancer in the late 1990s. A naturally shy woman, she hasn't had much to say about her ordeal. Her website bio barely mentions it. She did, however, use her advance from Local Girls to start the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., and her advance from her first work of non-fiction, Survival Lessons (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), will support the same cause.

She writes in Survival Lessons that during her treatment she longed for some kind of guide for those in her situation. "I needed to know how people survived trauma," she says. Like novelist Ann Patchett, who has said she writes the books she wants to read, Hoffman decided to write her own survival guide.

In one sense, there isn't much here. The new book is just 83 pages long, many of those pages filled with photographs (taken by the author herself), poetry, a brownie recipe and even four and a half pages on how to knit a beehive hat. Yet Hoffman actually says a lot in her skimpy book, and for her target audience, it is probably just the right size.

Those facing the very real possibility of premature death may think they have about run out of choices. Hoffman, having had a few years to think it over, begs to differ. Her book offers a series of choices those struggling with serious illness can and should make. These include: Choose your heroes, choose to enjoy yourself (this where the brownie recipe comes in), choose your friends, choose how to spend your time, choose to accept sorrow, choose to make things beautiful and many others.

Survival Lessons may not add even one minute to anyone's life. That's what we're trusting doctors and hospitals to do. It will, however, add value to whatever years or days one has left, whether one faces serious illness or not.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jose can you see

The mistakes we make with language often have particular names for them, especially when those mistakes amuse others. A malapropism occurs when we unintentionally use the wrong word or phrase. If the wrong word sounds like the correct word, like "duck tape," it is called an eggcorn. If we persist in using the wrong word even after being corrected, that's termed a mumpsimus. When words, usually in a song, produce unintended meanings when translated into another language, that's called a soramimi. When we simply say the wrong word or name because our minds are focused elsewhere, it's usually just called a Freudian slip.

Then there is the mondegreen, which is like an eggcorn but is more specifically what happens when we mishear the words to a song, a poem or something like the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord's Prayer. Children have a unique gift for coming up with amusing mondegreens, a staple of the Family Circus comic for decades, but adults often make the same kinds of errors, often when listening to popular songs where the lyrics are not clearly enunciated.

The word mondegreen was coined in the 1950s by Sylvia Wright in Harper's magazine. She recalled that as a little girl she misheard a line from the 17th century ballad The Bonnie Earl of Murray. She thought she heard, and thus repeated:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o' Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

The last line of the stanza actually reads "And laid him on the green."

Jim Bernhard, in his book Words Gone Wild, tells of a minister who found his five-year-old son burying a dead robin. Before placing the bird in the hole he had dug in the ground, the boy prayed, "Glory be unto the Father, and unto the Son, and into the hole he goes."

Gavin Edwards remembers that as a boy he thought the line "life is but a dream" in the song Row, Row Your Boat" was "life's a butter dream."

Some mondegreens have become almost legendary:

"Double, double, toilet trouble," from Macbeth.

"Scuse me while I kiss this guy," from Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze. (Actual words: "kiss the sky.")

"Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life," from the 23rd Psalm.

"Round John Virgin," from Silent Night.

"Glory, glory, Honolulu," from the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

"Bringing in the sheep" or "bringing in the cheese," from Bringing in the Sheaves.

Sometimes a mondegreen can actually replace the original line. This happened with The Twelve Days of Christmas, long a popular holiday song. The line "four colly birds" (meaning black birds) was sung so persistently as "four calling birds" that eventually publishers of the song just gave up and printed "four calling birds." It is said that both Jimi Hendrix and John Fogerty (whose line "There's a bad moon on the rise" from Bad Moon Rising was often heard as "There's a bathroom on the right") actually sang the misheard lyrics in later concerts.

The title of one of the most read novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, stems from a mondegreen. The poet Robert Burns wrote "Gin a body meet a body/coming' through the rye," but it is commonly heard as "Gin a body catch a body/comin' through the rye."

Friday, November 8, 2013

The right track

If you prefer mysteries to be more fun than frightening, you'll be on the right track if you read Steve Hockensmith's On the Wrong Track (2007). The second book in his Holmes on the Range series makes amusing reading, while at the same time presenting a compelling, fast-moving murder mystery.

Old Red and Big Red, actually Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer, are a couple of aspiring detectives in the Old West. More accurately, Old Red (so-called simply because he is the eldest of the red-headed brothers, while Big Red is the tallest) is the aspiring detective, a devotee of Sherlock Holmes. Big Red plays his Watson, the guy who goes along, provides some muscle and then writes about the adventures afterward.

This time the brothers get jobs on the Pacific Express, a train heading West. The Southern Pacific Railroad has been plagued by a gang of outlaws known as the Give-'em Hell Boys, and the railroad wants extra protection. Of course, the gang shows up, but there appears to be a conspirator and, indeed, a murderer aboard the train. Old Red, who happens to get motion sickness on trains, is determined to solve the case anyway. As for Big Red, he seems more interested in protecting a certain young woman, who may not be quite whom she pretends to be.

Hockensmith writes some amusing lines and throws in some slapstick situations, but there's plenty of suspense, too.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It's English to us

You may speak no language other than English, but even so you are probably more multilingual than you think. That thought came to me as I read A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi" by Chloe Rhodes. The 175-page book contains scores of words and phrases from other languages that English speakers know and, in many cases, use on a regular basis.

We probably know such Latin phrases as bona fide, ex libris, et cetera, carpe diem, ad hoc, ipso facto, in loco parentis, in camera, habeas corpus, modus operandi, quid pro quo, status quo and vice versa.

If you ever say a la carte, deja vu, esprit de corps, en masse, faux pas, fait accompli, femme fatale, menage a trois, tour de force, savoir faire, nom de plume or haute cuisine, then you speak at least a smattering of French.

You probably also know a little Greek (ho polloi), Mandarin (feng shui and gung ho), Yiddish (klutz and kosher), German (wanderlust and wunderkind), Hawaiian (kahuna) and several other languages. Of course, most of these words and phrases have been used by English speakers for so long that they not only seem English but, in fact, are English. The English language regularly swallows up useful vocabulary from other languages and makes it its own.

One must be careful when trying to use these foreign words and phrases in foreign countries, however. As Rhodes explains, many of them are pronounced quite differently in the original languages, and many of them mean something quite different from what they have come to mean in English. In the United States a la mode (or more commonly alamode) means "with ice cream." In France it means "fashionable." The phrase c'est la vie (that's life) is now considered old-fashioned in France, so it's probably best to avoid it. If you say coup de grace the way most Americans say it, by leaving out the final "s" sound, it means "neck of fat" in France. The phrase double entendre, so popular in the United States, is considered obsolete in France, where they prefer double sens or double entente to mean the same thing.

One of the oddest things in the book has to do with the phrase art nouveau, a popular term in the U.S. to refer to new art. In France, however, Rhodes says they use an English phrase "modern style" to mean the same thing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The puzzling Miss Julia

Ann B. Ross writes her Miss Julia novels, I would imagine, primarily for female readers, especially women who live in the southeastern United States and who can fully appreciate the characters and humor found in her books. I am a man who lives in the north, at least most of the year, yet I have read most of these novels with great pleasure. I recently read, or rather reread, Miss Julia Throws a Wedding (2002), which is not among the best novels in the series but worth a second read just the same.

Julia Springer, a conservative Southern matron, was married for more than 40 years to Wesley Lloyd Springer, a very successful businessman. When he dies suddenly, in the first book in the series (Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind), she is left with more wealth than she ever imagined, but no children and no idea of what to do with the rest of her life. Then an attractive young woman named Hazel Marie, with a little boy in tow, knocks on her door and explains that she was Wesley Lloyd's mistress and the boy, called Little Lloyd, is his son. They were left with nothing when the man died. Instead of slamming the door on Hazel Marie, Miss Julia's first impulse, she invites her and the boy inside, and that act provides the springboard for the other Miss Julia novels. Suddenly she has something to live for, something to do with all her money and, for the first time in her life, a child to care for.

Miss Julia makes a wonderful character, opinionated, set in her ways, yet impulsive and ready to take on anybody when she thinks something needs to be done or some wrong needs to be righted. Yet in every book, two things about Miss Julia bother me.

1. How is it possible that her personality changed so dramatically after Wesley Lloyd's death? By her own admission, she was a passive, stay-at-home wife. She entertained and she volunteered for church committees, but not much else. Yet suddenly, with her husband's death and a knock on her door, she becomes a whirlwind, forceful to the point of being obnoxious. Personalities do change, I suppose, but so dramatically, like the flip of a switch?

2. Why does everybody like Miss Julia so? I love her as a character, but I don't think I would want to be around her much. I certainly wouldn't want to pursue her romantically, as retired attorney Sam Murdock does in Miss Julia Throws a Wedding. (He marries her in a subsequent novel.) Virtually every character in the novels is devoted to her and willingly cooperates with her in her schemes, some of which seem like they could have been thought up by Lucy Ricardo. Even nice people don't attract that much devotion. She is rich, but Ross offers no suggestion that that is the reason she has so many friends. People just like her. I don't know why.

Friday, November 1, 2013

With wild hogs, rules do not apply

An article called A Plague of Pigs by John Morthland in the January 2011 issue of Smithsonian magazine caught my attention. Who knew there are as many as six million wild hogs in the United States and Canada, mostly in Texas? I was especially intrigued by these lines early in the story:

"Few purebred Eurasian wild boars are left today, but they hybridized with feral domestic hogs and continue to spread. All are interchangeably called wild or feral hogs, pigs or boars; in this context 'boar' can refer to a male or female. (Technically, 'feral' refers to animals that can be traced back to escaped domestic pigs, while the more all-encompassing 'wild' refers to any non-domestic animals.)"

Morthland, you'll notice throws in a lot of terms -- purebred, hybridized, feral and wild, for example -- and then says they all mean pretty much the same thing when you're talking about wild hogs. Even the word boar applies equally to both male and female wild hogs.

A Wikipedia article on the subject goes further: "The term 'boar' is used to denote an adult male of certain species, including domestic pigs. However, for wild boar, it applies to the whole species, including, for example, 'wild boar sow' or 'wild boar piglet.'"

I find it interesting that the author of the Wikipedia article refers to wild boar as a separate species, even though most of them, as Morthland writes, are either runaway domestic hogs or hybridized with the few purebred boars.

Even the words pig and hog seem to mean something different when talking about wild boar. In domestic agriculture, a pig becomes a hog when it reaches 120 pounds. Also in domestic agriculture, a boar is an uncastrated male. Among wild boar, however, all are boars, all are both pigs and hogs, all are both wild and feral and all, at least according to Wikipedia, belong to their own distinct species.

Wild hogs are apparently so wild that the usual definitions just don't apply.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Delusional reading

It's not necessary to read it immediately. Just having it on the shelf, the biblioholic is deluded into thinking, may help one grow intellectually.
Tom Raabe, Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction

I am not so certain this kind of thinking is limited to those of us who love books and crave more and more of them. Sports fans seem to believe that just wearing a jersey to a game makes them part of the team. Many students are convinced that just taking their homework home with them means it's as good as done. Some people think that owning an apron and a new set of pans makes them chefs or having a good set of tools makes them carpenters. Such illusions, it seems to me, are not that unusual.

Yet book lovers are certainly not immune to this delusional thinking. If I am honest with myself, I must confess I own books, many books, I will probably never read, but I believe deep down that having them on my shelves somehow makes me smarter. Books like Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America and St. Augustine's City of God certainly fit into this category. I have owned these books for decades without ever getting close to actually reading them. Most likely I never will read them. I feel better having them around anyway.

I have numerous other books that seem intellectually intimidating, dull or just massive, but at least I can look at them occasionally and feel more intelligent. Among these are The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas (more than 800 pages long), Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer (900 pages about "four British folkways in America), Ruby V. Redinger's biography George Eliot: The Emergent Self and Witold Rybczynski's Looking Around: A Journey Through Architecture.

I read Lolita for a college class and again this year, so I know Vladimir Nabokov to have been a gifted writer. Even so I am put off by his other novels such as Pale Fire, Look at the Harlequins! and King, Queen, Knave. I usually pick up a murder mystery instead, preferring to get my Nabokov through some kind of osmosis.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Pausing during a murder mystery

Detectives all have private lives, but you wouldn't always know it by reading some mystery fiction. I'm thinking of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer series, which reveals only sparse information about its main character. At the other extreme we have the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, which can be found in the mystery sections of most bookstores but in which the mystery is always secondary to the story about the detective, her friends and family.

Somewhere in the middle we find Milan Jacovich, hero of the terrific series of mysteries set in Cleveland and written by Les Roberts.Roberts keeps his focus on the mystery, yet there are frequent intermissions, usually just a sentence or two long, that remind readers Jacovich is a real, albeit fictional, person who isn't always chasing bad guys.

I reviewed the latest Milan Jacovich novel, Win, Place, or Die, last Friday, and I previously wrote about one of those "intermissions" in the story in my Oct. 11 post ("Scrabble, with coffee and tea"). Today I want to comment on two others, one I reacted to in a positive way and another I responded to negatively. First the one that bothered me:

"Hiram College came to being in 1850, thanks to the Disciples of Christ Church -- a liberal church back then, if anyone alive today even remembers those two words were sometimes used in the same sentence."

Now what do you suppose that means? The "two words" the author refers to are apparently "liberal church," a phrase that is probably heard as much today, especially in conservative churches, as ever. I'm a Presbyterian, a denomination still losing thousands of members yearly because so many people consider it a hopelessly "liberal church." Do a Web search and you will find plenty of references to "liberal Catholic Church," "How to Be a Conservative in a Liberal Church," etc. Roberts may not have heard the phrase "liberal church" lately, but that doesn't mean it's no longer in use.

Now here's a line from the novel I enjoyed: "Had two cups already," he said, a small lie; he'd had four cups of coffee and a cinnamon bun at Panera before he began his drive and had already stopped once at a McDonald's to use their facility on the way." This sentence actually refers to Jacovich's associate, K.O. O'Bannion, not to Jacovich himself, and it clearly has absolutely nothing to do with the mystery at hand. So why do I like it?

For one thing, I appreciate the details: four cups of coffee, a cinnamon bun, Panera and McDonald's. I also enjoy the phrase "use their facility." "Use the facilities" happens to be one my own favorite euphemisms, and when I stop at McDonald's while traveling, it is rarely to buy anything to eat. So I found this very amusing. It's an aside that humanizes the detective without boring the reader. After that sentence, Roberts returns immediately to the mystery. That strikes me as good writing.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Murder at the track

I have read quite a few of the 17 Milan Jacovich mysteries written by Les Roberts, but the new one, Win, Place, or Die (Gray & Company), is a bit different from the others I've seen. This time both the author and his hero need a little help.

This story is set in the world of harness racing, something Roberts concedes he knows nothing about. So he gives co-author credit to Dan S. Kennedy, a Cleveland businessman with a lifetime interest in the sport. As for the private investigator, Jacovich now has an assistant, K.O. O'Bannion, a brawny military vet. He has hired O'Bannion because he figures he's getting too old to take any more beatings or to sustain another concussion in the line of duty. So guess who gets beaten up and gets another concussion?

One of Jacovich's friends, Glenn Gallagher, a wealthy horse owner and sometimes driver, dies at the track right in front of the investigator. Gallagher has a history of heart trouble, so nobody suspects anything unusual and the body is cremated. Then Gallagher's son, a professor at Hiram College, begins to have doubts and hires Jacovich to snoop around at the track. He suspects his father may have been murdered. And since Jacovich wonders whether Gallagher, on the night of his death, had been about to hire him to look into something, he takes the case.

When a second death occurs at the track, this one much more suspicious than the first, Jacovich and O'Bannion know they must be on to something.

The novel is an enjoyable romp, even more so for anyone familiar with the Cleveland area. Roberts fills his story with numerous references to places, people and events that readers from northern Ohio will eat up.

The novel's title seems a bit lame, however, especially with such other great titles in the series as Full Cleveland, The Indian Sign and King of the Holly Hop. There have been several other mysteries with the same or a similar title, including one featuring Nancy Drew. Surely Roberts could have found something more original than Win, Place, or Die.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book learnin' 4

Here are a few more things I've learned about our language lately.

Deceit of lapwings: In Lynn Shepherd's novel A Fatal Likeness, Charles Maddox remembers as a boy asking his father why a gathering of lapwings was called a deceit. It seemed like such an awful word for such pretty birds. His father explains that the word had originally been desert, but that it had been corrupted over time to deceit. "Because parent lapwings will abandon their nest to lead predators astray -- protecting their young in the very act of appearing to forsake them." Of course, as Charles observes, that makes deceit also a very fitting term.

Penguin: Henry Hitchings explains in The Secret Life of Words that the word penguin is a composite of two Welsh words meaning "white" and "head." This is odd, he observes, because penguins have black heads.

Whisky: The Gaelic word usquebaugh was "viley corrupted" by the Saxons into the word whisky, A.J. Cronin writes in his memoir Adventures in Two Worlds. I have used the spelling of the word Cronin uses in his book.The Oxford American Dictionary tells me the word is spelled whiskey for American and Irish products, but whisky for Scotch and Canadian products. Cronin hailed from Scotland, although he lived a good part of his life in England and the United States.

Sleep tight: This odd expression, which so many of us have used, especially when putting children to bed, dates from the era of feather beds, which tended to sag to the point where they became a lot less comfortable than they looked. To correct the problem it was necessary to tighten the lattice of ropes under the bed. Bill Bryson reports this in At Home.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Shelley mysteries

All historical novels are not the same. Most of them simply use history as a setting, giving their characters a particular time and place for their story. Sometimes authors weave real historical figures into their plots, usually just as minor characters, or attempt to recreate real historical events. Other historical novels actually engage history, sticking as close as possible to known events, while attempting to solve lingering historical mysteries.

Melanie Benjamin did this in her 2010 novel Alice I Have Been about the strange relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, the girl who became the model for Alice in Wonderland. Benjamin follows known history as far as it takes her, then fills in the blanks. The result is a story is still fiction, but it is convincing enough to at least stand a chance of being true.

Lynn Shepherd does the same kind of thing in A Fatal Likeness (Delacorte Press), a novel about poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the women in his life, especially Mary Godwin Shelley and Claire Clairmont. Shepherd's novel doesn't stray far from what is known about these people and their turbulent relationships, but it does suggest possible answers to some of the lingering mysteries, such as whether two of then women in Shelley's life really committed suicide and whether the deaths of his children might have been murder.

To try to solve these mysteries, Shepherd invents two fictional detectives, or thief-takers as they would have been called at the time. One is Charles Maddox, a contemporary of Shelley's, who does an initial investigation but then gets a little too closely involved, and the other, years later, is his nephew, also named Charles Maddox, who is hired by Mary. She and Claire remain bitter rivals years after Shelley's death, and Maddox gets thrown into the middle of their conflict. He must also try to figure what his uncle, still living, learned but has remained silent about.

This is a complicated novel, often fascinating but sometimes just dull and confusing. Those with a keen interest in Shelley's life (the question of whether Mary Shelley or Shelley himself wrote Frankenstein is also addressed here) will be ones most rewarded by reading this novel.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Gone but forgotten

My home library contains an 1894 textbook by Mildred C. Watkins called American Literature. It's a tiny thing, smaller than a typical mass market paperback of today and just 224 pages long. Watkins writes in a preface that her objective was "avoiding on the one hand the verbiage of the larger manuals for schools, and on the other the prattle of the so-called first books for children. Brevity rather than condensation has been sought ..." Basically it is a literature primer unencumbered with actual literature, other than a few brief excerpts here and there.

One thing in American Literature that I found interesting is a chapter on "a group of minor writers." Watkins writes, "There is one common feature several writers of this period (before 1850) possessed: they did not fulfill the brilliant promise they seemed to give." In other words, they were popular in their own day but, by the end of the 19th century, were largely forgotten.

James K. Paulding
She lists three reasons for their fall into obscurity: 1) they were overrated to begin with, 2) they turned their attention to other things and 3) "we demand more to-day from writers than was demanded of them then." In other words, literary tastes change. Some writers, like Herman Melville, gain in reputation in the years after their deaths, while others fall into obscurity.

The writers Watkins mentions in this chapter, mostly poets, include James K. Paulding, Joseph Rodman Drake, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Samuel Woodworth, George P. Morris, Nathaniel P. Willis, Peter Parley, Washington Allston, John Howard Payne, Richard Henry White, Francis Scott Key and Clement C. Moore. Except for the latter two men, whom we remember for writing the Star-Spangled Banner and A Visit from St. Nicholas, respectively, these writers ring no bells with me.

Some of those Watkins mentions as significant writers in 1894 are, like Paulding, Drake, Halleck and the others, also mostly forgotten today. These include Bayard Taylor, Josiah Gilbert Holland, Helen Hunt Jackson, Margaret Preston, Frank R. Stockton and Edward Payson Roe.

In one chapter, Watkins discusses several then-contemporary novelists, admitting "it is hard to tells whose books will be read twenty or even ten years from now, and whose will be forgotten." Some she mentions, such as Henry James, William Dean Howells and Rudyard Kipling, are still remembered. Others, like F. Mason Crawford, Frank R. Stockton, Brander Matthews and Thomas A. Janvier have, in fact, been forgotten.

Having one's name on the cover of a book is no ticket to immortality, not even if that book happens to be a best-seller. Which of today's writers will still be remembered a few decades from now? As Mildred C. Watkins understood, there is just no way to know.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to pretend to be intelligent

Obfuscation is power!
Tom Raabe, Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction

Tom Raabe is being a little facetious, but only a little. In his witty book Biblioholism, Raabe argues it's not enough just to own a lot of books. "You must be able to talk about them with a reasonable similtude to intelligence," he says. In other words, when discussing literature, it's not important that you actually be intelligent as long as you sound intelligent. Thus, obfuscation is power.

He offers what he calls the "Impenetrability Phrase Finder" to aid his readers in sounding intelligent when talking about books. You take, at random, one word from column one, one from column two and one from column three. String them together and you get phrases like "sentimentalized epiphanical verisimiltude" and "bourgeois neoclassical textuality" that sound like they might actually mean something. They also sound like complete nonsense, but what listeners are going to dare question them? To do so would be to admit that they don't understand what you are saying. They aren't likely to take that risk.

Do you remember Professor Irwin Corey, a comedian whose heyday was the 1960s and '70s? Pretending to be an authority on everything, Corey would say things like, "... we all know that protocol takes precedence over procedures. This Paul Lindsey point of order based on the state of inertia of developing a centrifugal force issued as a catalyst rather than as a catalytic agent, and hastens a change reaction and remains an indigenous brier to its inception. This is a focal point used as a tangent so the bile is excreted through the panaceas."

Professor Corey, who as far as I know is still alive although he is nearly 100 years old, has a website ( that is worth checking out. Corey's routines satirize those pompous types who use big words to sound more intelligent than they really are.

Obfuscation can be used not just by those who talk and write about books but also by those who write them. In a book called A Reader's Manifesto, B.R. Myers rails against writers like Annie Proulx, Paul Auster and Cormac McCarthy who, like Irwin Corey, string together a lot of nonsensical words and metaphors to make themselves sound more intelligent than they really are. These are some of the writers most praised by literary critics, who, Myers says, don't want to admit they don't understand what they are reading.

In the back of his book, Myers suggests "Ten Rules for 'Serious' Writers," which work something like Tom Raabe's "Impenetrability Phrase Finder." Follow these rules and your audience will think you are more intelligent than you really are. Among the rules are Mystify, Keep Sentences Long, Pile on the Imagery, Bore and Play the Part. Why bore your readers? Because if they are enjoying themselves, they will assume you can't be very good. And if they understand what you are saying, they will assume you must not be very intelligent.

These are the writers who win the big prizes and get the rave reviews, even though they have relatively few readers. But many of them have secure jobs teaching creative writing at prestigious universities, so you might say, "Obfuscation is power!"

Monday, October 14, 2013

Worth rereading

I no longer underline interesting passages in my books the way I once did. I now don't like to mar them in anyway, yet I don't altogether regret the underlining I did decades ago. Now I can just leaf through those old books and immediately find the lines that were most important to me back then.

I see it has been nearly a year since I last posted something about underlining in books. (See Worth underlining, Oct. 17, 2012.) Here are a few more passages I have been rereading lately in old books about such topics as psychology and economics.

From The Pliant Animal: Understanding the Greatest Human Asset by George Weinberg (1981):

"Freud overlooked the possibility that even if we are the same over a period of time, such constancy may not indicate that we are victims of our personalities, but that by routine choices a person may unknowingly copy himself and thus remain the same."

"Continued violation of one's personal ethic reduces guilt over the activity. The very behavior that originally produces the guilt seems to have the opposite effect after a while."

From The Strong and the Weak by Paul Tournier (1963):

"The weak allow themselves to be crushed because they believe in the strength of the strong, not seeing that it is a cloak for weakness. The strong crush the weak in order to gain assurance from their triumph."

"As La Bruyere wrote, it is those who waste their time who complain of not having enough."

From The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism by Michael Novak (1982):

"The rich are useful because their odd tastes prevent our architecture from being monotonously bureaucratic."

"As an idea, socialism has been forced by its own failures to retreat from the field of economics to the high ground of morality."

From Reflections of a Neoconservative by Irving Kristol (1983):

"Being frustrated is disagreeable, but the real disasters in life begin when you get what you want."

"No society can be utterly indifferent to the ways its citizens publicly entertain themselves."

Interesting stuff. Maybe I'll hang on to these books a little while longer.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Scrabble, with coffee and tea

The December issue of Games magazine, now on newstands, includes a six-page article called "The Evolution of Scrabble" by Julie Harris. An unemployed architect named Alfred Mosher Butts got the initial idea for a word game in 1931. He hoped to capitalize on the crossword puzzle craze. He called his game Lexico. It didn't catch on.

Butts kept tinkering with it and a few years later came up with a game he called Criss Cross Words. It didn't catch on either. Finally an investor named James Brunot came to Butts's rescue, made a few revisions in the rules and changed the name to Scrabble. a word meaning "to scratch, grope or claw about frantically." He found a manufacturer for the game, but it still didn't find success until 1952 when Jack Strauss, an executive at Macy's, played the game while on vacation, loved it and wondered why his department store wasn't stocking it. He placed a large order, which sold quickly, and Scrabble was finally on its way to becoming the classic board game it is today.

Reading that article reminded me of what Bill Bryson writes about coffee in At Home. The word coffee, like the game Scrabble, evolved over time. In the 17th century, the then new and exotic hot beverage was variously called coava, cahve, cauphe, coffa and cafe before everyone finally agreed upon coffee.

At about the same time, according to Bryson, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that he had just tried another new hot beverage called tea. He called it tee.

Mystery writer Les Roberts has his detective, Milan Jacovich, make a wonderful aside about tea in his new novel Win, Place, or Die: "Why is it, that, in most places like this, they'll refill your coffee at least ten times without a murmur; a tea drinker might get more hot water as often as he wants, but if he desires a fresh tea bag, he has to pay extra for it? That's one of those mysteries of life I've never been able to crack."

As a tea drinker, I well understand what Jacovich (or Roberts) is saying. Tea, I've found, is often treated like a back-of-the-bus beverage. I found that true a couple of times during our tour of the West last month. At an otherwise wonderful place in Jackson, Wyo., called The Bunnery (their motto is "Get your buns in here," although I might have gone with "Get thee to The Bunnery") I noticed a selection of teas on the menu. Some of them were clearly herbal, however, and because I despise herbal tea I asked our waitress if a particular tea with an unfamiliar name was "real tea." She assured me it was. As soon I opened the tea bag and got a whiff, I knew it was herbal. (I should have just read the package.) I complained to the waitress, who told me all the teas were herbal. I started to argue with her, then just ordered Earl Grey and enjoyed the rest of my meal.

Earlier at a Sante Fe hotel, where we stayed two nights, a full breakfast buffet was included. Well, it wasn't quite full. They offered just about anything you might want for breakfast, including a variety of coffees and juices. While my breakfast plate cooled, I looked around for the tea, but couldn't find any. When I asked for some, I was told that would be $1.95. Everything else under the New Mexico sun was included, but tea was extra.

At most restaurants you can get all the iced tea you want for one price, but as Roberts/Jacovich writes, more hot tea comes with a penalty. Sometimes my wife and I both order tea, and instead of one pot we get two, both of which get cold at the same time.

There are exceptions to this discrimination against tea drinkers, I am happy to report. At Boone Tavern in Berea, Ky., where we spent a night in July, I ordered tea in the morning and was given a big pot of hot water, plus a basket full of a wide variety of teas. Some Bob Evans restaurants do the same thing. Good for them.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

True gold

True gold can be found in the love of a good woman.

That, in a nutshell, summarizes Sierra, Richard S. Wheeler's entertaining 1996 novel about the California gold rush, which follows the trail of two men to the gold fields in the late 1840s.

Stephen Jarvis actually arrives at Sutter's Mill before the discovery of gold. He's a Mexican War veteran looking for his future when he spies a beautiful Californio girl. Although he and Rita cannot speak the same language, each is smitten with the other. He determines to makes a success of himself, then return to ask for Rita's hand. He finds enough gold to establish a business supplying goods to other miners and soon accumulates more wealth than all but a few of the gold seekers. Then he learns Rita has been forced to marry another man.

Ulysses McQueen already has a pregnant wife, Susannah, and a farm in Iowa when he gets gold fever. He leaves both his farm and Susannah in the care of his father and brothers, then heads for California with dreams of riches. He arrives after the richest gold strikes have already been made, and he struggles to make enough money just to survive. He has failed to write a letter to Susannah all this time, not wanting to write until he has good news to tell her. Meanwhile, impatient with not hearing any news about Ulysses, Susannah, with her baby, takes off to California to find him.

Wheeler specializes in the non-traditional western. That is, he writes more about the West as it really was than about gunfighters and train robbers. This may be why his books can be so hard to find, at least east of the Mississippi. I did find a few last week in a wonderful little bookstore in Jackson, Wyo. To me, that seemed like true gold.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A book to fly west with

One of the books I read, mostly on airplanes, during my recent excursion through the Rocky Mountains was one called The Hollywood West: Lives of Film Legends Who Shaped It, edited by Richard W. Etulain and Glenda Riley. The 2001 book, a collection of short biographies of actors and, in the case of John Ford, a director, most responsible for how most of us picture the Old West in our minds.

I liked the book, in part, because it describes some of the places we visited on our bus tour, most notably Monument Valley, where Ford filmed Stagecoach and several other pictures starring John Wayne, another of those written about in The Hollywood West. Our tour guide mentioned that if you pay close attention you'll notice the stagecoach going past some of the same scenery again and again. Most of us don't notice it, however. Our son appears as an extra in The Shawshank Redemption (it was his summer job one year when he was in college), yet when my wife and I watch the movie we often miss him, even though we are watching for him, because it is so hard not to focus on the actors with the speaking parts.

Another thing I liked about the book is the obscure bits of trivia the various authors toss into the mix. For example:

-- Max Aronson (silent film star Bronco Billy Anderson) got his start in westerns by lying about being an expert horseman. When he tried to mount a horse for the first time on screen, however, he approached the horse from the wrong side and was thrown.

-- Tom Mix, who played a hero in so many western movies, went AWOL from the Navy and was officially a "deserter" throughout his lifetime.

-- As a girl, Dale Evans (Francis Octavia Smith) fantasized about marrying Tom Mix one day. Instead she married another movie cowboy, Roy Rogers.

-- You can tell the good guys from the bad guys in Gene Autry movies by how characters refer to the hero. Friends call him Gene. Enemies call him Autry.

-- Barbara Stanwyck, who feminized the Hollywood western, was afraid of horses.

-- Jay Silverheels played the Lone Ranger's trusty Indian sidekick Tonto in 221 television episodes, but his real name was Harold J. Smith. He didn't legally change his name until 1971.

This rather obscure little book also covers such people as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood, Katy Jurado, Iron Eyes Cody and Williams S. Hart. It's a good way to pass the time while flying west.

Monument Valley

Friday, October 4, 2013

One blog post I had to write before I die

The August 2010 issue of MAD magazine (I am always behind in my reading) contains a beautiful satire on, which writer Scott Maiko calls I don't find the magazine as amusing as I used to, but this two-page spread is an exception. The fake web page focuses on a book called 1001 Escalators You Must Ride Before You Die, complete with customer reviews and suggestions for other books anyone who buys this book might enjoy, such as 1001 Ambient Noises You Must Hear Before You Die, 1001 McDonald's Drive-Thrus You Must Visit Before You Die, 10001 Parking Meters You Must Park in Front of Before You Die, 1001 mg of Cyanide You Must Ingest Before You Die and 1001 '1001 ... Before You Die' Books You Must Buy Before You Die.

I found this to be even funnier when I surfed to the actual Amazon site and read the titles of some of the actual books in this vein. Here are a few of them:

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, 100 Things 49ers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die, 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die, Fifty Places to Ski and Snowboard Before You Die, Fifty Places to Bike Before You Die, 100 Things to Do in St. Louis Before You Die, 300 More Beers to Try Before You Die, 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die, 101 Places Not to See Before You Die, 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die, 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, 1001 Dream Cars You Must Drive Before You Die, 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die, 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die, 101 Places to Have Sex Before You Die, 1001 Golf Holes You Must Play Before You Die, 100 Lies to Tell Before You Die and, believe it or not, 1001 MAD Pages You Must Read Before You Die.

Obviously, writing books like this is a little too easy. Reading any of them is among the last things I want to do before I die.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Words from the West

Grand Canyon
I returned yesterday afternoon from a week-and-a-half bus tour of the American Rockies, from Sante Fe to Yellowstone. Along with hundreds of photographs, most of which are just like the photographs everyone else takes who visits these places, and countless memories, I brought back a few tidbits, mostly language-related, to share in this blog.

On our first day, Phil, our tour guide, explained that the lavatory on the bus was a "Las Vegas restroom -- what happens there, stays there." In other words, don't use it anymore than necessary because it won't be emptied or cleaned for
the duration of the trip.

An Ohio farmer on our tour objected when Phil used the word mud. "Mud," she said, "is disrespectful to soil." She also objected to the word dirt.

Less sensitive were the people of the Navajo Nation, whom Phil said preferred to be called Indians, not Native Americans. On a board outside a Navajo high school were the words, "Home of the Redskins."

The so-called Navajo code talkers helped win World War II simply by communicating messages in their own language, which the Japanese could not understand. An excellent museum dedicated to the code talkers can be found, of all places, in a Burger King in Kayenta, Ariz. We got the chance to visit it only because our bus broke down in Kayenta. The Navajo language didn't have words for certain things, so here are some examples of what the code talkers used instead: battleship - whale; submarine - iron fish; destroyer - shark; America - our mother; Australia - rolled hat; January - crusted snow; October - small wind.
Bryce Canyon

Also in Kayenta, there stands an example of a Navajo sweat lodge. The sign outside the sweat lodge begins, "The scares' resource in the desert is waster."

Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon. Monument Valley, where John Ford made so many westerns with John Wayne, isn't really a valley.

Garfield County in Utah is among the largest counties in the United States, yet it has but one traffic light and one lawyer.

Western towns often place a large letter on a nearby mountain to guide travelers toward their town. A big B on a mountainside, for example, promotes Beaver, Utah.

Antler arch in Jackson, Wyo.
A local guide for a tour of Salt Lake City told us that when she was a volunteer at the 2002 Winter Olympics held in Salt Lake City, she confiscated a handgun from Mitt Romney, president of the organizing committee. Romney congratulated her, explaining that he was carrying the gun to test whether security personnel were strictly following the rules. When he asked for the gun back, she refused. Still following the rules, she turned the gun over to the FBI.

Is it Jackson, Wyo., or Jackson Hole, Wyo.? You see it both ways on signs, advertising, newspapers, etc. Phil explained that the city itself is Jackon. Jackson Hole refers to the area, or the valley around Jackson. Early trappers referred to valleys as holes because they had to go down into them to do their trapping.