Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reading with low expectations

When Daniel Woodrell was the featured author a week ago at the Writers in Paradise conference in St. Petersburg, he had this advice for readers: "Every fourth or fifth book, read something you don't think you'll like." It was by doing this, he said, that he discovered James Salter, a writer he didn't expect to like, but did.

Reading books you don't expect to enjoy is a lot to ask of any reader, but especially those of us who can't find enough time to read more than a fraction of the books we do want to read. Books require a big investment of time, and sacrificing this time to read anything that's not on our personal must-read list seems like a waste.

Yet Woodrell does make a good point. Just because we don't expect to like a book doesn't mean we won't like it, and reading books outside our comfort zone can expand that comfort zone and introduce us to new writers who may become favorites. And just because we start a book doesn't mean we are obligated to finish it. If you don't like a book after 50 pages, chuck it and turn to something you know you will enjoy.

As a book reviewer for many years, I have frequently found myself reading books I really did not want to read -- and sometimes enjoying them. I think, for example, of Gene Logsdon's 2008 novel The Last of the Husbandmen. Logsdon writes primarily about farming and gardening, and his few novels have gotten little attention. I did not expect to like The Last of the Husbandmen and was surprised when I did.

I think Woodrell's advice is especially good for those readers stuck in a particular groove -- those who read only mysteries or only romances or only nonfiction or only best sellers. These people need to broaden their horizons a little bit and try something different once in awhile.

I know a man who reads a lot and enjoys talking about books, but he confessed to me once that he never reads anything written by a woman. That seems outrageous to me. For starters, I think he should try Candice Millard's The River of Doubt, a book about Theodore Roosevelt's trip to the Amazon, which nearly cost him his life. I can't imagine him not liking that book, despite his bias against female writers.

No doubt there are also women who avoid books written by men. I knew a prolific writer named Robert Liston who once told me he also wrote romance novels under a woman's name. He refused to divulge his pen name for fear that women would no longer read them if they knew they were written by a man. Maybe he was right, but having a man's name hasn't seemed to stop Nicholas Sparks from being a best-selling romance writer.

Occasionally reading a book we don't expect to like is probably a good idea for all of us, even if it accomplishes nothing more than confirm for us that we were right in the first place.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Every moment changes the world

At various points throughout Michael Frayn's novel Spies, reviewed here a few days ago, the narrator Stephen Wheatley makes comments like "Everything has changed once again, and changed forever" and "The world has changed yet again." Profound things are happening in the life of the boy he was when these events occur, and each one restructures the world as he knows it.

I am inclined to believe that even seemingly minor actions can and often do restructure the world. Perhaps the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil cannot really cause a tornado in the American Middle West, or whatever "the butterfly effect" supposes, but I do believe that small things can have widespread consequences. This idea is explored in the German film Run Lola Run. When Lola runs around rather than through the middle of a group of nuns on the street, it impacts differently both her own life and the lives of the nuns. Little things really do mean a lot.

Several years ago my wife and I found this to be dramatically true twice during a drive to Toronto. While on Interstate 90 in New York, we were passed by a flatbed truck carrying a weed trimmer. As it was going around us, the truck hit a bump in the road and the trimmer flew up into the air. When it came down, the truck was no longer there. It hit the pavement and bounced into our lane, barely missing us. Had we been traveling only slightly faster, it would have hit us.

Hours later as we approached Toronto on the multi-lane Gardiner Expressway, I glanced into my rear-view mirror and saw a red sports car careen from one side of the highway to the other and back again, somehow not hitting anyone (that I could see) despite the rush-hour traffic. Had we been moving only slightly slower, it would have struck us.

Our actions have ripples that change the world, or at least our own little part of it. Meanwhile, our lives are being rocked by the ripples caused by the actions and decisions of others. Just living is a heavy responsibility.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A character of another sort

"People want you to be what you write about," novelist Daniel Woodrell commented during his public presentation Wednesday night at the 9th annual Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. He knows this from experience. Woodrell, the author of Winter's Bone and other novels about  poor, white people in the Ozarks, is often confused with his characters. Sometimes, he said, devoted readers will even give him jugs of whiskey at book signings.

Yet if he isn't really as rough-edged as most of his characters, it may only be by the grace of God. He grew up in the Ozarks (and lives there now), and the people he writes about are often based on people he has known, even members of his own family.

Woodrell read the opening pages of The Maid's Version, his next novel scheduled for publication in September. He said the book is based on stories his grandmother, once the illiterate maid for a prosperous family, used to tell about a tragic explosion at a local dance hall in which many of the town's young people were killed or terribly injured. The cause of the blast was never determined, but his grandmother always suspected that her employer had something to do with it. An investigation into the explosion was called off, Woodrell said, when the panel seemed to be getting too close to the truth. His novel will offer a fictionalized version of what happened that night.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Writing the missing book

When she was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop, Ann Patchett said, "I wrote like I fell in love." She was passionate about writing and about those short stories she turned out. But just as a passionate romance can, ideally, turn into a durable marriage, so writing should, with time, become less emotional and yet more rewarding. "Now writing is really my job," she said at a Writers in Paradise event in St. Petersburg. "Both of these things (writing and love) get much better over time."

Patchett no longer writes short stories, but novels, including the best-selling State of Wonder. She gave up short stories, she said, because "I wasn't in a short-story amount of trouble." She was then working at a TGI Fridays and realized short stories were not going to be her ticket to the writing life she desired. "If I had an idea that good," she said, "I wouldn't blow it on a short story."

And although she is now the author of several well-received novels, Patchett said she realizes they all really tell the same story. "My story is a group of strangers who are thrown together to make a family," she said. She expects she will keep on telling that same story over and over again because it is her story, perhaps the only one she has to tell.

If that is the story she writes, perhaps it's because that's the story she most wants to read. Asked by novelist Dennis Lehane if she pictures a particular reader in her mind while she writes, she said no. "I guess my ideal reader is myself. I write the book I think is missing."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The cell phone problem

"I don't know how to write a novel in which characters have cell phones."

Novelist Ann Patchett made that rather surprising comment the other night at the opening of the annual Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. It turns out, she was serious. In every novel she writes, she said, she must find a way to separate her characters from their cell phones. Things like drama, mystery, tension and suspense often require isolation, and how can a person with a working cell phone be truly isolated?

Patchett said she visited remote parts of the Amazon to research her most recent novel, State of Wonder. She was horrified to discover that even in one of the most isolated areas of the world, there was still good  phone reception.

Two other authors at the conference, Dennis Lehane and Andre Dubus III, echoed her feelings about cell phones.

Might cell phones help explain the growth in popularity of historical fiction? Are many of our most gifted writers setting their stories in earlier times expressly to avoid having to deal with cell phones?

As we read contemporary fiction, it might be interesting to watch for references to cell phones. How do writers make use of them and how often do they invent ways to neutralize them (sort of in the way the bad guys in stories used to cut telephone lines)?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Child's play

You wouldn't think that a story about two boys at play could turn into such a nail-biter, especially when neither child is ever in any real danger. Yet Michael Frayn's 2002 novel Spies reads like a thriller.

Certain odors can take us back to faraway places and long-ago times, and it is a smell that causes an old man, Stephen Wheatley, to remember a particular summer during World War II when he was growing up in a new neighborhood in London.

Stephen is a quiet boy, preyed on by bullies, whose only friend is Keith, also a loner. In their relationship, Keith is always the leader, Stephen always the follower. Keith invents the fanciful games they play. One day Keith announces, "My mother is a German spy." And so the boys, doing their patriotic duty, closely observe Keith's mother to try to learn her secrets.

It turns out that his mother, if perhaps not a spy, nevertheless does have secrets, and what the boys discover shakes up their lives and the lives of others in the neighborhood.

Frayn is marvelous writer, and Spies really is hard to put down, just like a more conventional thriller.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Inviting confusion

I recall a rundown motel, reportedly favored by prostitutes, that called itself Holiday Inc. It seems unlikely that any travelers ever thought they were staying at a Holiday Inn, but the motel's name still never seemed quite kosher. Reputable businesses usually select distinct business names and product names that will stand apart from the competition, not lead to possible confusion.

And this brings me to the two major newspapers in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. For years,  the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times struggled for dominance, with the Times winning that struggle year after year. Then a year ago, in an apparent attempt to seal the deal, the Times became the Tampa Bay Times. It said it wanted to make it clear that it served, not just St. Petersburg, but the entire Bay area, but as I complained at the time in my previous blog, the change, rather than making anything clear, invited confusion with the Tampa Tribune.

Now the Tribune has struck back. A few days ago it launched an edition distributed on the other side of the Bay called the St. Petersburg Tribune. So now if you want the St. Petersburg paper, you have to look for the one that says Tampa at the top, and if you want the Tampa paper, you have to seek out the one that says St. Petersburg at the top.

This is an area with a great many winter visitors, so I can imagine that a lot of people are buying newspapers without knowing which one they are actually buying.

Holiday Inc. was an amusing name for a motel, but I doubt it ever actually fooled anybody. Fooling people, however, seems to be the whole point of the Tampa Bay Times and the St. Petersburg Tribune.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Where was the editor?

Perhaps it's my background as a newspaper copy editor, but I tend to stop, reread and then reread again whenever I come across a piece of writing that doesn't make sense to me or that simply seems like poor writing. I try not to just assume the writer is wrong. As often as not, I am simply reading it wrong, and reading it again will make things clear to me.

While reading Michael Korda's Ike: An American Hero at breakfast this morning I read this sentence: "The only thing that could go wrong -- the only thing over which the supreme commander had no control -- was the weather." OK, that makes perfect sense. Yet at the bottom of the same page, Korda writes, "Only two things could stop the invasion." The second thing he mentions is the weather. The first is the possibility that the German might discover where and when the landings would take place. And Gen. Eisenhower would have had some control over protecting the Allies' D-Day plans. So perhaps technically the two statements are not in opposition. Still they seem wrong, especially when placed so close together. Although I am still less than 50 pages into Korda's book, I must say that I am otherwise very impressed with it. I think he is a terrific writer.

Then last night I found this sentence in Liza Picard's Victorian London: "They could be vast  -- a dream for a maker of 'antiques' nowadays." Now what does that mean? She is writing about the large wardrobes popular in Victorian England, but why would they be "a dream for a maker of 'antiques' nowadays"? Why the quotation marks around antiques? Is she suggesting something about phony antiques that are manufactured and made to look much older than they really are? I don't think so because later in her discussion she sometimes puts quotation marks around antiques and sometimes not. She even later refers to "newly made antique urns and pillars and busts" -- no quotation marks. She seems, rather, to just be writing about Victorian furniture and furnishings that may be antiques now, but certainly weren't at the time they were made.

Unlike Michael Korda, Liza Picard does not impress me as a particularly good writer, although she has several books to her credit. In the middle of her discussion of Victorian furniture, I found this definition of feather beds: "what we would call mattresses: what you lie on." If she could take the trouble to explain what mattresses are, something that should be obvious to most readers, I wish she would explain what she means by "a maker of 'antiques' nowadays."

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why national anthems?

I like the 'Marseillaise.' It was the only one of the national anthems I liked to listen to during the War. It made you want to go and fight. 'God Save the King' was a funeral march.

That's Ebenezer Le Page giving his assessment of national anthems he heard during the Great War in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, a novel by G.B. Edwards. I find his words amusing, but they do make me wonder: What is the purpose of a national anthem, anway? Is it, as Ebenezer supposes, to make a soldier want to fight? In wartime, that might not be such a bad idea.

Today we hear national anthems mostly at athletic events -- before ball games and during medal ceremonies. Do they make athletes play harder? Are they nothing more than the equivalent of a school fight song? If so, what's the point if both teams have the same fight song?

Singing the national anthem before a ball game has always seemed a trifle inappropriate to me, but if not at sporting events, then when would most of us ever sing or even hear our anthem? But if sporting events, then why not concerts, lectures or, heaven forbid, church services?

I think one's national anthem should instill a feeling of pride and, perhaps, bring a tear to the eye. Some anthems do that better than others. The United States anthem calls attention to the nation's flag and and to an important moment in its history, which also seem like worthy objectives for an anthem.

A website ( ranks anthems according to how beautiful they are. The top 10 are, in order, Peru, France, Spain, Chile, Italy, United Kingdom, United States, Greece, Cyprus and Russia. In peacetime, and especially during the Olympic Games, beauty may just as important as any other reason for having a national anthem.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A dip in the pool

What does a car pool, a gene pool or a typing pool have to do with chickens? Mark Forsyth tells the story in his book The Etymologicon. In medieval France, it seems, gamblers would sometimes bet on who could be the first to hit a chicken with a stone. It was a cruel game, but perhaps not as cruel as chicken fights and dog fights, which still attract gamblers in some areas.

Had these gamblers been English speakers, they would have called this a game of chicken. Instead they called it poule, which is the French word for chicken. The winner won the pot, or what they called the jeu de poule. The term spread to cards and other forms of gambling, where the money at stake became known as the poule. When English visitors returned home, they took the word with them, but they spelled it pool. Billiards became known as pool because players commonly bet on the game.

If gamblers could pool their money, then why couldn't others pool other kinds of things, such as genes and typists?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Uncut pages

At a used book sale more than three decades ago I bought a complete set of the works of Mark Twain. The books were old, but in good condition and very cheap. I have never read any of them, although I have read a few books by Twain since then.

I soon discovered that a red residue from the covers of these books stains one's fingers, clothing and anything else the books touch. Also, most of the pages in these Twain volumes were still uncut, indicating that the previous owner or owners never read the books either.

At one time book publishers routinely left pages uncut, leaving it up to the first reader to do the cutting. Some readers found this to be one of the pleasures of reading. When you are the one to cut open the pages, you know with certainty you are the first to read that particular book. I believe some collectors are willing to pay more for old books with uncut pages.

On can still find books with pages that have ragged edges, as if someone had just cut them. Doubleday books used to be like this, and maybe they still are. I've always liked the look and feel of ragged book pages, as opposed to the smooth edges one usually finds.

Reading Liza Picard's Victorian London recently, I was interested to learn that newspapers sold in England at that time had uncut pages. Newspaper readers carried knives, with which they would cut open the pages of their newspaper as they read.

Friday, January 4, 2013

General information

I have long known that the plural of major general is major generals and that the plural of attorney general is attorneys general, but I had never given much thought to why one is pluralized differently than the other. Why would an s be added to general in one case but not both?

Patricia T. O'Conner explains it very nicely in her helpful book Woe Is I. She says it's because in a military rank, it is the general that is the key word, while in attorney general, it is attorney that is the key word. In the latter instance, the word general is a modifier, not a noun. It is the noun that gets pluralized.

This brought to mind C. Everett Koop, who was surgeon general of the United Stated back in the 1980s. Koop took to wearing a military-style uniform that seemed rather amusing at the time. It is even more amusing now that I realize that the general in surgeon general is just a modifier. Koop was not a general in any sense, but just a general surgeon. That is an important position, but it hardly justified wearing a military uniform.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Man and woman

The words man and woman are primarily nouns representing the adult of each sex in the human species, but the two words have other uses, as well.

Man is frequently used as a verb, as in "man the barricades" or "man the telephones," meaning to have someone, not necessarily men, doing a particular job. I don't recall ever hearing woman used as a verb.

The term "man cave" has become popular in recent years to refer to a place where a man can watch a football game, drink a beer or work on a hobby with minimal interruption or interference. There are probably other examples of man being used as an adjective, but I can't think of any. The word woman, on the other hand, is often used as an adjective, even when the word female would be the better choice. There is a National Association of Collegiate Women Athletes and an association called Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. The Contra Costa Times reported in November, "The U.S. Senate is on track to have an all-time number of women members."

I find it interesting that man and woman, as words, have somehow gone off in slightly different directions.