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.