Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The half slice of pie

The lunch menu at the Largo rehab center, where my wife is recovering from a broken femur, listed "1/2 slice of pumpkin pie" as the dessert one day last week. It is indicative of the differences between my wife and me that she expressed concern about getting only a half slice of pie, while I expressed concern about the very idea of a half slice of pie. Is there such a thing?

You  can have a large slice of pie, a small slice or an even smaller slice, but if you cut a slice in two, don't you have two slices, not two half slices?

I was reminded of the oft-repeated story usually attributed to Yogi Berra. Asked by a waitress if he wanted his pizza cut into four slices or eight, Yogi is reputed to have opted for four because he wasn't hungry enough to eat eight. All slices are not created equal.

You can cut a cup of flour or a tablespoon of butter in half, and you know what you are getting. These are more precise measures. But what does it mean to have a half pinch of salt, a half piece of chocolate or even a half glass of water? There are shot glasses, juice glasses and table glasses of all sizes and descriptions. In a recent novel set in Victorian England, there is a passage where beer is poured into a thin glass about three-feet tall, then handed up to a coach driver so he doesn't have to climb down to get his beer.

I'm sure my wife would have been much happier with a whole slice of pie, even if it had been no larger than the half slice she was served. For very different reasons, I would have been happier, too.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A Sunderland wonderland

The first book recommended by Nancy Pearl in her book Book Lust to Go (see last week's post) that I sought out and read was Bryan Talbot's graphic book Alice in Sunderland (2007). "Reading this was one of the richest experiences of my life," Pearl says. I wouldn't go that far, but it is a stunning book.

Although the Wikipedia entry describes Alice in Sunderland as a graphic novel, it really isn't a novel. Exactly what it is is hard to say, but essentially it is a tribute to Talbot's hometown, Sunderland in the northeast corner of England. Talbot thoroughly mixes history, biography, legend, fantasy, literature and humor into a pleasing, if sometimes confusing, stew.

Talbot explains that both Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, had Sunderland connections. He goes further to suggest that Carroll probably had Sunderland in mind when he came up with the title of his classic book.

There's a lot about Alice in Wonderland, its author and Alice herself in Alice in Sunderland. But Talbot also discusses numerous others with ties to Sunderland, including George Washington, George Orwell, stage performer George Formby, novelist Sheri Holman, the cartoon character Andy Capp and even the Lampton Worm. He claims the electric light bulb was invented in Sunderland by Joseph Swan, not by Thomas Edison. The book has so many diversions it's easy to lose sight of what the main theme actually is, but the diversions, as in a Dame Edna monologue, are where the fun lies.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Preparing for uncertainty

I was in the audience last night when retired Admiral Eric T. Olson spoke to several hundred people in Clearwater. The former head of the United States Special Operations Command, as well as the first Navy SEAL to earn four stars on his uniform, Olson had much to say about his nation's military, the changing faces of America's enemies and leadership in general.

Near the end of his presentation, he made a distinction between training and education that may be worth a comment. "Training is for certainty," he said. "Education is for uncertainty." SEAL training, so difficult that 80 percent of those who begin fail to finish, prepares SEALs to cope in a great variety of circumstances. In addition to the training, however, they still need to be educated to know when and how to employ those skills they acquired in training. It is training that hits a target. It is education that should determine whether to fire the weapon.

This training-education distinction could be applied to almost anything, I suppose. I will apply it to writing. Training involves acquiring such skills as learning to read, learning to spell, learning grammar and, in today's world, learning to use a keyboard. But what do you say once you know the basic skills? That's an uncertainty that requires some education, whether in a classroom or not.

What I liked best about majoring in journalism in college was that there were so few journalism courses. Many of these could be described as training -- basic news reporting, typography, etc. Journalism majors were encouraged to take a variety of electives, and this is what I did. I took courses in history, philosophy, meteorology, geology, statistics, criminology, experimental psychology and other things. In my career, I used something from most of those classes.

I recall that one day during a fine arts class it struck me that the varied subjects I was studying were all somehow connected. They all related to each other, even if that relationship may not be readily apparent. Learning history helped me understand art, for example. Studying art taught me something about psychology. That's the kind of insight that would probably be less likely to occur in training than in education.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reading for travelers

When I toured Europe twice during the past decade, I made it a point to take along books that related in some way to the countries I visited. While in Ireland, for example, I read Joseph O'Connor's novel Star of the Sea, which gives a perspective on the Irish potato famine, the signs of which one can still find in Ireland more than a century later.

Nancy Pearl doesn't mention that particular book in Book Lust to Go (2010), but she recommends hundreds of others for both actual and armchair travelers to Ireland and elsewhere. As in the other volumes in her "Book Lust" series, the idea is very simple. Pearl, a former Seattle librarian, suggests books in various categories. She gives the impression of having read almost everything, and her recommendations are varied and exhaustive. She offers something for everyone's taste -- romantic novels, mysteries, histories, sports books, travel books, comics, poetry and so forth.

I was pleased to note that so many of the books Pearl recommends I have already read and enjoyed. Among them: Loving Graham Greene (Algeria), The Coffee Trader (Amsterdam), England for All Seasons (England), Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show (Ireland), Dark Star Safari (Africa) and River of Doubt (the Amazon). If she,  too, liked these books, then I am more inclined to accept her suggestions for other books. As I read Book Lust to Go, I made a list of books to watch for. Here are a few of those on my list:

The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield. I've read a number of Garfield novels -- he is the author of Death Wish -- but not this history of World War II in the Aleutians.

The Last Night at the Ritz by Elizabeth Savage. Pearl calls this book, set partially in Boston, one of her top five all-time novels. That's  good enough for me.

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin. Larkin stops at various places Orwell visited while he was in Burma and relates his time there with books like Animal Farm and 1984.

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw by Will Ferguson. This book of essays about Canada are written in the style of Bill Bryson, Pearl says.

Confessing a Murder by Nicholas Drayson. I really liked Drayson's A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, and his novel set in Oceania sounds pretty good, too.

When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put by Vivian Swift. A travel book about not  traveling? This sounds just odd enough to be interesting.

Monday, April 22, 2013


 "I am in the middle of the last Holmes story, after which the gentleman vanishes, never never to reappear. I am weary of his name." -- Arthur Conan Doyle in a letter to his mother, April 6, 1893

Spy Hard, the Leslie Nielsen spoof of the James Bond films, was made in 1996. I got around to watching it last week. In the movie, which is sometimes hilarious and sometimes just silly, Andy Griffith plays Rancor, the villain. Rancor may be a comic villain, but he is still the villain, and I imagine that, after decades of being identified so closely with Andy Taylor of Mayberry and Madlock, Griffith relished the opportunity to play against type.

Actors are not alone in disliking typecasting. Most of us probably resent being identified with one thing -- a job we used to hold, the person we are married to, an athletic feat we accomplished way back in high school, etc. -- when there are so many other facets to who we are. I think it is this aversion to being pigeonholed that explains Arthur Conan Doyle's love-hate relationship with his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle wrote much other than his Sherlock Holmes stories during his long writing career. He wrote many kinds of fiction, plays, poetry and a variety of nonfiction works, including histories of both the Boer War and World War I. He considered most of his other work more interesting and more important than the Holmes stories. Yet it was Holmes who brought him the most fame and the most income, and it is the Holmes stories that are most read a century later.

Doyle, despite what he wrote in 1893, did write many more Sherlock Holmes tales, as well as a couple of Holmes plays. He wrote most of these not because he was forced to by his fans or by economic necessity, but because he wanted to.

Reading Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters recently, I noticed that Doyle often protested too much. In his letters, most of them to his mother, Mary Doyle, he would come down firmly on one issue or another, then change his mind a short time later. When rumors began to circulate that he might be offered a knighthood, he insisted repeatedly that he would never accept it. He didn't think it was proper for a writer to accept a title. Yet when the knighthood was actually offered, he did accept it, claiming that not to do so would insult the monarchy. He insisted, however, that he would never use the title, but he did anyway when he campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament a short time later.

Doyle probably came to like having a Sir in front of his name, just as he enjoyed the popularity of Sherlock Holmes. He would have appreciated a bit more respect for the other things he accomplished in his life, but in that he was only being human.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Too many murders

Too Many Murders is the title of one of Colleen McCullough's novels, one that's still somewhere in my stack of unread books. This title, it seems to me, would be suitable for most murder mysteries and most thrillers. They have too many murders, more than is necessary for a good murder mystery.

I recently finished Charles Todd's 2011 Bess Crawford mystery A Bitter Truth. Bess is a British nurse in France during the Great War. While home for a Christmas leave, she becomes drawn into the affairs of another family, affairs that include an abused wife, unceasing mourning for a little girl who died years previously and the discovery of an orphan in France who looks amazingly like the dead girl. And then the murders begin, one after another. This is actually a pretty good novel, but I couldn't help wondering if multiple murders were necessary to build sufficient mystery and suspense. Wouldn't one have been sufficient?

When is the last time you read a mystery in which there was just one murder? When I look back at the mysteries I have read so far in 2013, I find that "too many murders" seems to be the rule, rather than the exception. Full Dark House, Nemesis, The Forgotten, A Beautiful Blue Death and The Disappearance at Pere Lachase all have two or more murders. The same goes for a couple of books now in progress.

Serial killers are nothing new in fiction. Last year I read the 1931 novel Francis Beeding's Death Walks in Eastrepps, which is about a vicious serial killer. Old-time mystery writers like Agatha Christie usually did very well with just one murder per book, however. In her classic story Murder on the Orient Express, Christie has multiple murderers, but just one murder. That was plenty.

It is, unfortunately, not just in fiction that we see inflationary murder. Killing people in bulk seems to be an almost daily occurrence in the world we live in today. Do you suppose there could be some connection? Homicidal people, like homicide writers, want to attract attention, and in the world we now live in, one murder is apparently not enough.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Words out of confusion

What do the words pea, cherry and sherry have in common? Each of these words is unnecessary. Each resulted from a mistake, a misunderstanding, a confusion of sounds.

At one time the English word for pea was pease, as in "pease porridge hot." The word was singular, but it sounded plural. And so pease became pea, the plural of which is now peas. What was the plural of pease? Presumably it was also pease. Some words, like sheep and fish, are the same in both singular and plural forms.

We got the words cherry and sherry in the same way. We got cherry from the French word cerise, which is singular but sounded plural to English speakers. So they invented the singular cherry, even though cerise itself is singular.

Sherry is a Spanish wine called Xeres, with the x pronounced with a sh sound. Again somebody thought this sounded plural, so in English it became sherry.

John McWhorter writes about how confusion over how words sound can lead to the creation of new words in his book What Language Is. He comments about how many young people now use all to mean said, as in "I'm all, 'What does that mean?'" He speculates that at some point in the future, this could conceivably lead to three new words in the English language: maw, raw and zaw. "I'm all" could become "I maw." "You're all" could become "you raw." "He's all" could become "he zaw."

"In the English of the distant future, speakers would have started hearing the sound before all as part of the word -- a perfectly natural process, after all -- and after a while people wouldn't even process the words as connected with all," McWhorter writes.

This may sound ridiculous, but at one time somebody probably thought the words pea, cherry and sherry sounded ridiculous, too.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Medicine on the frontier

Reading Lotions, Potions, and Deadly Elixirs by Wayne Bethard, I was struck less by the seemingly outrageous remedies used in frontier medicine -- things like gunpowder, manure and actual snake oil -- than by the many medicines that really worked and are still in use today. How did they discover the healing properties of things like cocoa butter, alum and slippery elm? How did someone learn to turn plants into medicines?

Bethard, a Texas pharmacist, uses his professional training to analyze frontier medicines, explain how they were prepared and describe how they worked or how they were supposed to work. If you want to know about  the history of castor oil or sarsaparilla or iodine, here is the place to look. Coca-Cola, Bethard writes, was first intended as medicine, to stop and prevent nausea. Water lilies were used to treat everything from sore throats to saddle sores. Nearly half of the book is a series of explanations of these and other frontier medicines.

Most of the rest of the book consists of stories about frontier medicine, such as one about a man who supposedly infected himself with a tapeworm before an international trip so that he could eat and drink anything without fear of becoming ill. Upon his return, he had the tapeworm removed. Another story tells of a woman who was pregnant for 80 years. The woman had suffered from recurring cramps throughout her life and had never been able to have children. An X-ray in 1979 revealed a calcified fetus in her womb, the result of her first sexual encounter as a girl in 1899.

Bethard knows his stuff and is an entertaining writer, yet somehow his beautifully illustrated book fails to be totally satisfying. It is more a collection of interesting facts and stories than a unified whole.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Literary babies and bath water

Ezra Pound
The other night on television I caught a few minutes of the reality show Baggage, hosted by Jerry Springer. A young man had to choose among three attractive women on the basis of the baggage each of them carried. One of the women, for example, was a heavy smoker and a former drug addict. The man, of course, had some baggage of his own that was revealed at the end of the show.

All of us carry around baggage, those things that make us less than ideal lovers, friends, employees, neighbors, whatever. Sometimes our decisions about other kinds of things are influenced by baggage, too. Do you avoid Mel Gibson movies because you don't like how he behaves when he's had too much to drink? Have you trashed your Barbra Streisand records because you dislike her politics? And what about writers? Is your choice of reading affected not just by what writers write and how they write it but also by how they lived their lives? Are there deal breakers in your reading life? And should there be?

Thomas Lynch poses this question in his book The Undertaking. Speaking of the poet Ezra Pound, who moved to Italy and both embraced fascism and supported Hitler, Lynch asks, "But ought we be kept from "The River-Merchant's Wife" by his mistaken politics? Should outrage silence the sublime?"

One person who doesn't think so is Nancy Pearl, who in Book Lust to Go writes, "One of my favorite writers, Edith Wharton, visited the country in 1917 and wrote In Morocco about her time there. What took away from the delight of reading a previously unknown -- to me -- Wharton book was the anti-Semitism that creeps in a bit here and there throughout the text." Pearl recommends the book just the same and continues to regard Wharton as one of her favorites. Even so, the new knowledge about Wharton affects how she views the great writer. How can it not?

This kind of thing is one of the dangers of reading about the lives of famous writers.  Just like the guy on the reality show, you are likely to learn some things you don't really want to know. And then you have to decide.

Friday, April 12, 2013

What is historical fiction?

"It is a funny thing that our idea of an historical novel is always something at or before the Jacobite times, simply because that was Scott's idea of one. We forget that a longer interval separates us from Napoleon than separated Scott from Prince Charlie." - Arthur Conan Doyle in a letter to fellow writer James Payn, April 11, 1895

How exactly should one define the term historical novel? At the time he wrote that letter, Doyle was in the midst of writing a series of stories set during the Napoleonic Wars. Apparently some of his contemporaries thought of Napoleon as too recent to be considered historical. Doyle begged to differ. Napoleon died in 1821, or more than 70 years previously.

Even today there seems to be some confusion about what makes a historical novel. Thomas Mallon has just published a novel called Watergate set, of course, in the 1970s. It is not being described as a historical novel in the same way that a book set in Doyle's time, Victorian England, would be. But should it not be? And what about a novel set in the 1980s or '90s? How about one set in 2012?

I would argue that even a novel written in 2013 and set in 2013 can, in a sense, be term a historical novel. Every story reflects the language, the morals, the attitudes, the customs and the technology of the time in which it was written.

I just finished rereading Donald E. Westlake's comic novel The Fugitive Pigeon, published in 1965. When I first read the book decades ago, it seemed very cool and contemporary. Now, although still as entertaining as ever, it reads like a historical novel. I was struck by one scene where Charlie Poole, a young man on the run from Mafia hitmen, observes as these men, sent to kill him, call their boss from a phone in their car. Charlie has read a lot of science fiction, and this sight strikes him as something out of one of those futuristic stories. That, no doubt, is how it struck many of us who read this novel back in the 1960s. Today, at a time when most people carry phones in their pockets or in their pocketbooks, it seems quaint, still amusing but in a different way than Westlake intended.

When Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories, they were set in the England he lived in. Today we read them as historical fiction. I recently read the David Baldacci thriller The Forgotten. It is very modern, very contemporary. If the novel is still read a century from now, it will seem as antiquated as those Holmes stories do today.

Every novel is a historical novel -- or will be eventually.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book learnin'

My recent reading has taught me a number of things about the English language I hadn't known before. Here are some of them:

Humble pie: Umbles was the term used for the innards of a deer. This was the worst part of the deer, so naturally it was what the servants ate after the rich folks were served the best parts. When we say we had to eat humble pie, it is a reference to the umbles meat pies once eaten by the lower classes in England. I learned this from The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth.

Cemetery: From John Ortberg's Who Is This Man? I learned the English word cemetery comes from a Greek word for a dormitory where people would sleep. Early Christians, with their belief in resurrection, adopted the word for burial grounds.

Victorian slang: The letters of Arthur Conan Doyle (A Life in Letters) contain much of interest (I'll have more to say about this book later), but I particularly enjoyed some of the slang terms that were popular 100 years ago and more. Among those Doyle used in his letters are "Reginald has plenty of spondulick" (money); "cheerful as sandboys" (a carefree state of happiness), "I am beginning to get the fidgets" (anxious); "I count those three as two bulls and an outer" (two good stories and one not so good).

Monday, April 8, 2013

A poet looks at death

Thomas Lynch is both a poet and, like other members of his Michigan-based family, a funeral director. It may not be a common combination, but perhaps each job inspires the other. His 1997 book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, is not a collection of his poetry but rather a series of essays reflecting on his day job.

The book avoids the grisly details of what he calls "the dismal trade." Rather these essays are more philosophical, even poetical. Here are a few of his most notable observations:

"Just as we declare the living alive through baptism, lovers in love by nuptials, funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters. It's how we assign meaning to our little remarkable histories."

"The flush toilet, more than any single invention, has 'civilized' us in a way that religion and law could never accomplish."

"Now they are both dead and I reckon a fixture in my father's  heaven is the absence of any of his children there, and a fixture in my mother's is the intuition that we will all follow, sooner or later but certainly."

"When we bury the old, we bury the known past, the past we imagine sometimes better than it was, but the past all the same, a portion of which we inhabited. Memory is the overwhelming theme, the eventual comfort."

"We need our witnesses and archivists to say we lived, we died, we made this difference. Where death means nothing, life is meaningless. It's a grave arithmetic.

"No member of my generation: that demographic aneurysm called the Baby Boom, should miss the hapless irony that the first generation to plan its parenthood, to manage and manipulate its fertility, may well be the first generation to have our deaths planned for us, our mortality managed and manipulated by our own children, those who survived the gauntlet of our choices."

Friday, April 5, 2013

Keeping it simple

We all know children can learn languages much more easily than adults can. What I didn't realize is that the difficulty adults have learning language is the reason some languages are more complex than others.

Columbia University linguist John McWhorter explains in his book What Language Is that languages spoken by relatively few  people in isolated places tend to be much more complex than languages spoken by large groups of people in areas where adults often come from elsewhere. Children can pick up these complex languages with ease and speak them throughout their lives. Adults can't.

When adults learn a language, they tend to change that language, McWhorter says. They simplify it by ignoring many of the complexities, and these simplifications catch on with native speakers. The more adults learning a language, the simpler that language becomes.

England has been conquering or visited by many outsiders over the centuries, including Vikings, Romans and Normans. Then the British Empire spread the English language around the globe. Millions of people learn English as a second language. All these influences make English, as complicated as it may sometimes seem, one of the easiest languages to learn. This, in turn, encourages its spread to still more people.

The English language has no genders. French, Spanish, Latin and some languages have words that are either masculine or feminine. Nasioi, a language spoken by a few people in New Guinea, has about 100 genders. Ket, a language spoken by a handful of people in Siberia, has 11 cases. In English we have the words here and there. To be more precise, we can add modifiers such as up here, down here and over here. In Kikuyu, a language spoken by Eskimos, there are 12 very different words meaning here or there, or more than the seven words McWhorter says Eskimos actually have for snow.

Languages, McWhorter writes, are like bathtub rings. Look at them under a microscope, and you can see that those rings are "complex, teeming slices of biology." Yet all this complexity serves no purpose. It doesn't make your bath any better. In the same way, complexity in language serves no purpose. It doesn't make communication any better, and that is why we have language in the first place. Children don't mind the complexity, but it tends to isolate those who speak these languages because adults have a disincentive to learn them.

Travel and immigration, along with their other virtues, help keep our language simple.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Beating the odds

Stewart O'Nan's novel The Odds may not seem like a love story, but it is. It's about a middle-aged couple, Art and Marion Fowler, who have been married 30 years, raised a family and now are on the edge of divorce. They've lost their jobs and are about to lose their home. In desperation, they head from Cleveland to a Niagara Falls casino to wager everything they've got left on the theory that bankruptcy, if they lose it all, couldn't be much worse than their present situation.

Art was unfaithful 20 years before, something that still drives the couple apart. Marion had her own affair, but she has never confessed it. Art still loves his wife and hopes to romance her during their getaway and persuade her stay with him. Marion is hard to figure and hard to please. Everything he tries seems to fall flat. Like many a young man on a date, he thinks his chances are better when she's drunk.

As the title suggests, this story is all about odds. Each chapter begins with the odds of this or that happening, such as the odds of a band playing My Funny Valentine on Valentine's Day (1 in 1). O'Nan proposes that life itself is a game of chance. Often you lose, but sometimes you can beat the odds.