Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books are like the night

Among the many pleasures to be found in Masha Hamilton's The Camel Bookmobile, reviewed here a couple of days ago, are the observations, generalizations and insights various characters have about books. I thought I would collect a few of them here, adding a few comments of my own.

"Books allowed her vicarious tastes of infinite variety, but they didn't supplant the need to venture out into the big and messy. In fact, just the opposite. Books convinced her that something more existed -- something intuitive, beyond reason -- and they whetted her appetite to find it."

It may be easy enough for readers to bury ourselves in our books, to find our romance and adventure there and to learn all about the world we care to know. Or, as with Fi in Hamilton's novel, our reading can send us out into that world, better equipped and more inspired than we might otherwise be.

"The books are like the night for you, aren't they" she said. "You can hide in the stories, and grow there, and come out different."

Ideally that is the case. It may depend, of course, on what it is we are reading.

"I realized right away that books could take us out of ourselves, and make us larger. Even provide us with human connections we wouldn't otherwise have."

Many people, of course, believe just the opposite. How many young introverted readers have been accused of burying themselves in their books when they should be out playing with other children? Yet books can give these same children something to talk about and more confidence to express it when they are around others. They can even help them seek out those who may share their interests and points of view.

"Books, it occurred to her now, were enduring, even immortal."

A good book, anyway, will outlive most of us.

"My girls need the bookmobile. They need the possibilities it brings."

I like that image, that a bookmobile carries not just books, but possibilities.

"As she read, she became fully human again."

I have always found something restorative about reading. At the very least, it can take one's mind off one's troubles, but perhaps any mediocre TV show can do that. Yet while I may sometimes feel guilty after watching a mediocre TV show, I don't feel that way after a mediocre book.

"But the children were all around and Mr. Abasi was calling out and motioning for her to come, and anyway, he knew now, if he hadn't known before, that there were limitations to words -- words in the air or on a page."

Ah, yes, words do have their limitations. Even the best writers must sometimes feel frustrated in their attempts to say all that they feel. How much more difficult it is for the rest of us.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Overdue library books

In The Camel Bookmobile (2007), Masha Hamilton weaves a fascinating, multi-layered story about some overdue library books. This isn't an ordinary library, however. The books are, in fact, packed on the back of a camel and taken to remote villages in Kenya, where most of the people can't even read, let alone read English, which is the language most of the donated books happen to be in. The camel bookmobile is viewed differently by different people in these villages. To some it represents progress, the way into the modern world. To others it represents evil, a threat to old ways and old wisdom.

Fiona Sweeney, an idealistic 36-year-old American woman, commits herself to this project, and she particularly enjoys visiting Mididma, an isolated village of semi-nomads which includes a teacher, an old woman and her granddaughter who are literate and treasure books, almost any books Fi happens to bring on the camel.

Among the library patrons is a teenager called Scar Boy since being attacked by a hyena and badly disfigured. When the bookmobile returns to Mididma, Scar Boy refuses to return the books he borrowed, thus threatening the village's future as a stop on the bookmobile's schedule. This is a problem even for those who object to the bookmobile because of the shame it will bring to the village. Everyone begins pressuring Scar Boy to return the books, but it turns out he could no longer return them even if he wanted to.

Much else happens in Hamilton's story. The teacher's lovely wife falls in love with Scar Boy's father, while Fi and the teacher discover a strange attraction to each other. The little girl who loves books decides she wants to follow Fi to America to become a teacher, and Scar Boy is discovered to have a rare talent nobody knew about. Meanwhile a drought threatens the very existence of the village.

The camel bookmobile really exists, and has since 1996. Hamilton's novel, besides telling a delightful story about the power of books, brings our attention to that fact and makes us wonder about some of the true stories it must have inspired.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Hitchcock's kind of story

I happened to finish reading Past Perfect, the 2007 novel by Susan Isaacs, soon after starting Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies, a 2008 book by Donald Spoto. So naturally I couldn't help thinking about Past Perfect as a Hitchcock movie and Katie Schottland as a Hitchcock heroine.

Spy stories, especially those in which ordinary people (often ordinary women with extraordinary beauty) get caught in dangerous situations) were a Hitchcock staple, from The 39 Steps to Torn Curtain. That's what happens in the Isaacs novel. Actually Katie had worked for the CIA, writing mostly routine reports, in her early 20s, but then 15 years ago she had been fired without explanation. Now she writes a successful television series called Spy Guys, but the unfairness of her termination still rankles. So when she gets a call from Lisa, a former CIA colleague, asking for her help and, as bait, promising to reveal the truth about why she was canned, Katie is hooked. But then Lisa never calls back.

Katie wonders if something might have happened to Lisa, but mostly she just wants to get to the bottom of her disgrace of 15 years before. So, her son off to summer camp and her husband preoccupied with his work, she begins making contact with people she worked with at the agency, including her former boss with whom, like many other women in his department, she had had a brief fling. Though a novice at actual espionage, Katie keeps digging until she uncovers the whole complicated truth, nearly at the cost of her life.

A 40-year-old Jewish mother may not seem the ideal Hitchcock leading lady, but Katie is vibrant and sexually appealing enough to have drawn the director to this story. And given his apparent delight in placing his actresses in unpleasant circumstances, such as by keeping Madeleine Carroll handcuffed to Robert Donat for long hours each day during the shooting of The 39 Steps, he might have relished the opportunity to place his Katie in some Florida brambles as she tries to elude a killer.

Susan Isaacs writes her thriller with humor and gradually building suspense. We will never discover what Hitchcock might have done with this story, but we can certainly enjoy what Isaacs does with it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

New versions of old stories

Last night I caught a few minutes of The Muppet Christmas Carol on television and marveled once again at how the story written so many years ago by Charles Dickens keeps getting told and retold in so many different forms. A year ago in this space I observed that even the John Mortimer short story Rumpole and the Christmas Spirit, so different from the Dickens tale, can nevertheless be seen as a variation on the Dickens formula. What might Dickens have thought had he been visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future and allowed to see how his creation would evolve over time?

Other classic stories similarly get retold in so many different ways. I am thinking particularly of the Greek myths and the Grimm fairy tales, but there are plenty of other examples. And at Christmas we must also mention the original story, the Nativity, which is still reenacted thousands of times each year at this time, usually with children in the starring roles.

The December issue of Christianity Today includes an article by Sarah Arthur called "Have Yourself a Merry Kitschy Christmas" about the many variations on the basic Nativity set that have been created. Some might strike purists as sacrilegious,  such as those featuring superheroes or, in the Meat Nativity, bacon and sausages on a bed of hash browns. This doesn't bother Arthur, however. Whether Wonder Woman or a little girl in her bathrobe portrays Mary doesn't really matter. What's important, as in the case of A Christmas Carol performed by Muppets, is the story itself.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The importance of a good title

Many a new novel has sunk without a trace because it has a dull, unmemorable title.
Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

My wife volunteered to become the librarian at the condominium complex where we are living in Florida. What this means in practice is that I do 90 percent of the work of sorting, organizing and shelving,  while she gets 90 percent of the credit.

The books on our shelves have all been donated by residents, and the most popular authors clearly are   James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel and a handful of others. While trying to find room for all these books on our shelves I have noticed how dull so many of the titles are. Steel has written Matters of the Heart, Remembrance, Bittersweet, Silent Honor and Sisters. Nora Roberts wrote Change of Heart and Happy Endings. Patterson did Double Cross, Honeymoon and Swimsuit.

Contrast these titles with some by less prominent authors: What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin, The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf, The Patchwork Marriage by Jane Green and The Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Stedman.

I do not question Susan Hill's conclusion about the importance of a good title, but good titles do seem  to be much more important for beginning writers and writers who have never gotten high on best-seller lists. When you have reached the stature of a James Patterson, Nora Roberts or Danielle Steel, apparently, titles don't matter so much. It is the author's name on the cover that sells the book. I do wonder, however, how fans of these authors can remember which of their books they have read and which they haven't.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Strength out of weakness

In her eulogy for Pauline Kael, her daughter, Gina, said, "Pauline's greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and a critic." It's an interesting idea, that one's strengths may be attributable to one's weaknesses, but I think it may sometimes be true. It may even be true in my own case.

Kael, who at one time was the most influential film critic in the country, certainly had her weaknesses. Among these was her treatment of her own daughter as a virtual slave, depending upon her to type her reviews, run her errands and provide her transportation, while denying her the freedom to live her own life. Kael's friendships so often depended upon those friends agreeing with her and, at least in the case of other movie critics, not becoming as prominent as she. She allowed herself to be courted by directors and others in the movie business, always insisting a favorable review from her could not be bought, even when so many of her reviews suggested otherwise.

Brian Kellow mentions many other Pauline Kael weaknesses in his 2011 biography Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, yet the book hardly qualifies as a hatchet job, for his emphasis lies with her significant strengths. She was, whether you agreed with her opinions or not, a terrific writer whose prose jumped off the pages of The New Yorker. Although she rarely wrote about anything other than movies, her reviews managed to be commentary on the times, as well. They were also surprisingly autobiographical. Once urged to write her memoirs, Kael replied, "I think I have."

Writing here a few months back I compared the movie criticism of Kael with that done by novelist Graham Greene back in the 1930s. I noted the similarity in their writing styles, while noting that Kael, at least from her reviews, seemed to be better read than Greene. From her biography I learned that in her youth Kael admired Greene's film criticism and was influenced by his work at the start of her career. As for her reading, I learned that when she heard a movie was going to be based on a novel, she made it a point to read that novel before seeing the film. How many other movie reviewers would go to that much trouble?

Kellow's book nicely summarizes Kael's most important and controversial reviews and articles over the years, yet I think he too often inserts his own opinions about these films, faulting Kael when her opinions don't match his own, which seems to be what he criticizes Kael for doing.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Our body's literary needs

I now realize that it is a diary that I have been looking for all over the house ...
Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

Susan Hill devotes a couple of consecutive essays in her book to her search through her house for a book she wanted to read that day. She had no idea what that book might be until she came across some diaries, specifically The Journal of  Sir Walter Scott. That, she decided, is what she had been looking for all day without realizing it. "I have found my book," she announces with satisfaction.

Earlier in the day I had been reading Masha Hamilton's wonderful novel The Camel Bookmobile (I will probably have more to say about this later) when I came across, much as Hill did that particular diary, the line where Hamilton's character Fiona Sweeney reflects on the knack so many readers have for finding just the right book at the right time: "Fi was convinced that instinct could determine a body's literary needs, just as physical cravings pointed to dietary shortfalls."

Many of us have probably experienced the same sort of thing, in libraries or bookstores if not in our own homes. We search and search for the right book, and then suddenly, there it is. I have the same kind of experience when I am looking through my DVD collection for just the right movie to watch. Am I in the mood for a drama or a comedy? Am I wide enough awake for a foreign film, where one must read as well as watch and listen? Eventually, like Scott's journal, one movie will jump out at me and I will know that this is the one. It almost always turns out to the best possible choice.

Not every book is the perfect book for every occasion. I wonder about people who read only romances or only mysteries or only self-help books. To me it sounds like having the same thing every day for lunch. How do they meet their "body's literary needs"?  Of course, there really is no such thing. Yet like Fiona Sweeney and Susan Hill, I would like to believe there is.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Slow reading

Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one's ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted. Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-made meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition.
Susan Hill, Howard's End is on the Landing

I am not so sure the internet deserves all the blame for what Susan Hill so aptly calls "mental malnutrition." It seems to me there are plenty of other distractions that make it difficult for us to focus our attention on just one thing: ringing telephones, interruptions by children or spouses or others, other pressing tasks that require our attention, the siren call of our television sets, even computer solitaire. Long before the internet, newspapers and magazines were breaking down information into small pieces.

For many years I wrote in a noisy newsroom, where ringing phones and loud conversations constantly made it challenging to stay focused on one's subject. With a deadline pressing, one simply has to train one's mind to focus. Years later when the number of newsroom personnel had shrunk dramatically, I found the unnatural quiet just as distracting as the noise had once been.

When it comes to reading books, which is the subject at hand in Hill's book, I suspect most of the blame for my own short attention span is my practice of reading several books at one time. I may read but one chapter, or even just a couple of pages in one book before putting it down and picking up another, then doing the same thing with it. There are some books, Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing being one of them, where this kind of reading may be acceptable, even advisable, but most books, whether fiction or nonfiction, deserve longer periods of focus.

Hill writes that by rationing the internet she was able, within a few days, to increase her attention span and tackle difficult long books. "It was like diving into a deep, cool ocean after flitting about in the shallows, Slow Reading as against Gobbling-up," she writes.

It comes down to disciplining ourselves, sort of like learning to write news stories, columns and editorials amid the bustle of a lively newsroom.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Reading from home

Recently I started reading Susan Hill's 2009 book Howard's End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. I can see immediately that Hill is going to inspire a lot of reflection on books and reading, so I propose to take her book slowly and use it as a springboard for commentary on this blog over the next few weeks.

I will start with Hill's reason for writing her book in the first place. Looking for one particular book in her home, she found many other books instead. Some she realized she had owned for years but had never read. Others she had read years ago and decided it was time to revisit. She resolved to give up purchasing any new books for a whole year and devote her reading to books she already owned. What follows is a series of short essays about these books and about her reading life, both past and present.

Novelist Susan Hill is a contemporary of mine, just a couple of years older,. At about the same point in life when she decided to focus more attention on her personal library, I was doing much the same thing. I have not taken the step of swearing off new books as Hill did. If anything, I have increased the number of book purchases in recent years. But rarely, except in the case of books sent to me to review, do I ever begin reading a book immediately after acquiring it. Usually I let it age on the shelf for a few years, sometimes 20 years or more. So in one sense I have always been doing what Hill did for her book.

More recently, however, I have been rereading more books I enjoyed a number of years before. This hasn't seemed to decrease my reading of first-time books because, since retirement, I have been able to devote more time for reading. So I have revisited Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote and Jesse Stuart's The Land Beyond the River, among several other books.  Not only have I enjoyed these books a second time, but it has made me feel justified in keeping them for all these years. Some people like to ask, "Why keep books you have already read?" Well, this is why. (Another reason, of course, is reference.)

Thanks to my membership on LibraryThing, I have also, like Hill, spent a lot of time reconsidering every book in my library in the act of cataloging them all for the website. Quite a number of them I decided I really didn't want any more, so I was able to open up some shelf space. Other books surprised me because I had forgotten I even had them. Many books, once I held them in my hands, made me want to open them and start reading again.

I think I am going to like reading about reading in Susan Hill's book.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Missing the key words

It annoys my wife when I ask her to repeat something she has just said to me. She thinks I am getting deaf, although if that is true, I have been getting deaf for many years without actually becoming deaf. Part of the problem, I think, is that when my mind is focused on one thing, a book or a football game perhaps, it takes awhile to refocus on something else, namely whatever it is she is saying to me. I have suggested she first make sure she has my attention before telling me something important.

Lately, however, I have come up with a new theory. I usually hear most of what she says, but not the one or two words that would convey the most important information. I might hear the verb but not the noun or, sometimes, the noun but not the verb. Then I noticed I am often missing the key words people other than my wife are saying.

Listening to someone on radio or television (I forget which) count down the top-grossing movies of the weekend, I noticed I could clearly hear almost every word she said except the titles of the movies themselves. The volume of her voice seemed to go down a few notches every time she said a movie title, and it was the titles that were important.

A day or so later I heard another woman, also talking about movies, say, "If you're like me you are obsessed with the movie ...." Again I could clearly hear everything she said except the name of the movie. Later in the conversation, thankfully, I was able to catch the word Frozen, so I finally knew what she was talking about. A few days later I watched Frozen for the first time. It is a wonderful film, although I can't imagine anyone becoming obsessed with it.

Anyway, I am still wondering. Is there something wrong with my hearing or do some people, perhaps even most people, lower their voices slightly when they say key words, as if they are sharing some kind of secret?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Take care with commas

He, the pilot and three others had been belted into their seats when the plane went down but two of the passengers had been gripped with hysteria at the first sign of trouble, leaping up and trying to break into the cockpit in their panic.
Arnaldur Indridason, Operation Napoleon

The use of commas, more so than with other kinds of punctuation, has always been a matter of individual preference. Some writers will use a comma in certain situations, while other writers will leave it out. A case in point is when a sentence lists a series of things. Some writers will write "a lion, a zebra and a gorilla," while others, probably a majority, would write "a lion, a zebra, and a gorilla." Most of the time it matters very little. In the newspaper business we always omitted the comma before the and because it was unnecessary and took up space and, when you are on deadline, time.

The above sentence at the bottom of the first page of Arnaldur Indridason's Icelandic thriller Operation Napoleon caught my attention because its missing comma actually makes a big difference.  How many people on the plane were belted into their seats, four or five?  The missing second comma makes it clear there were five people wearing their belts and a total of seven people on the plane when it crashed into a glacier. It also makes it clear the man being referred to as he was not the pilot. Were there a second comma we could not be sure about any of this. Commas, both their presence and their absence, can make a huge difference in the meaning of a sentence,

Later in the same sentence, before the word but, Indridason again omits a comma that other writers might have chosen to stick in. It makes little difference either way, but then why use punctuation that doesn't serve a purpose?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Art and meaning

Art is a private matter; the artist does it for himself; any work of art that can be understood is the product of a journalist.
from The Dada Manifesto
That idea, popular with so many early in the last century, gets much less support today. Even so, many do believe that art cannot be easy. If too many people understand it, it must not be any good. Perhaps isn't even art at all. Thus, in the world of painting, the likes of Norman Rockwell and Thomas Kinkade get very little credit. In literature, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch must not be much of a novel because it was a best-seller for so long earlier this year. The fact that many people were never able to finish reading the book they paid $30 for doesn't mitigate the fact that so many others read it and loved it. Popularity lessens artistic value in the eyes of elitists.
My own view is that true art means different things to different people. The best art has an entry level meaning assessable to just about anyone. This is nothing more than simple beauty. A beautiful painting or a beautiful piece of music or a beautifully written novel needs nothing more to justify its existence. If the masses enjoy it, that takes nothing away from it as a work of art.
At the same time, the best art has other levels of understanding that open up to those who may be more perceptive, more intelligent or more experienced. Each reader or observer may find something different. Scholars continue to find new meaning in the works of writers like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, which were popular with the masses at the time they were written. Much of this meaning may have never been intended by the authors themselves, which means not that the meaning is false but that these novels are true works of art.
The test for The Goldfinch, or any other novel, lies not in how many people bought it or read it or loved it, but rather in how many different levels of meaning will be found, over time, within its pages. The same is true with any work of art.

Friday, November 28, 2014

An insult to P.G. Wodehouse

Sebastian Faulks does P.G. Wodehouse no favors in Jeeves and the Weddings Bells. Intended as an homage to Wodehouse, the first Jeeves and Wooster novel since Wodehouse's last, Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (or The Cat-Nappers), in 1974, seems more like an insult. It lacks the ridiculously complicated plot Wodehouse was known for. More seriously, it lacks the wit.

Sometimes Faulks finds a word or a phrase that sounds authentic, as when he writes "Jeeves shimmied in with the tea tray," but rarely a paragraph or even a complete sentence. As for his chapters, they are too long and never seem to end with any incentive to begin the next one. Jeeves and Wooster novels were never dull, until now.

The early premise of the story is actually quite good. Circumstances oddly call for Jeeves, the manservant, to pretend to be an English lord, while poor Bertie Wooster must play his servant, a wonderful changing of roles that, unfortunately, Faulks never manages to milk for all of its potential humor. The plot, such as it is, involves Bertie trying to aid one of his chums in winning the love of his life and, of course, making a mess of it. Leave it to Jeeves to sort things out in the end, although the resolution seems like something Wodehouse would have never concocted had he written a hundred Jeeves and Wooster novels.

As I've written before, Faulks did a nice job when he paid a similar homage to Ian Fleming in his James Bond novel Devil May Care. His latest tribute novel fails to deliver. But perhaps this is really an homage to Wodehouse after all. It demonstrates that not just anyone, not even a writer as gifted as Sebastian Faulks, can do what he did.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Short book about a long silence

There's not much to A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France, as its young author, Miranda Richmond Mouillot, concedes with this summary on the very last page: "Armand and Anna fell in love, bought a house and never spoke again." Her 263-page book details her efforts to discover why Armand and Anna, her maternal grandparents, never spoke again.

There is a bit more to the story. Armand and Anna, both Jews, survived World War II in France, although other family members did not. They saw little of each other during the war. Afterward they married, bought that house and lived together long enough to have a daughter. Then Armand became a translator at the Nuremberg Trials, where he learned firsthand what the Germans did to the Jews. After that, silence. Armand stayed in France. Anna moved to the United States, where years later Miranda was born. Why her grandparents never spoke, yet in some odd way still seemed to love one another, weighed on her mind while she was growing up. Eventually she found that ruined house, spent time with her grandfather and began to piece together the story that neither grandparent wanted to talk about.

Because this story really doesn't amount to much, Mouillot fills out her book with details of her own life, including her romance with and eventual marriage to a Frenchman. She's a fine writer. Not everyone could make so much out of so little and still make it worth reading.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A revolution at the movies

As in the case with most Academy Awards ceremonies, there was less symbolism to be extracted from the evening than morning-after analysts might have imagined, and even that applied only to the Academy's taste in movies, not to the country's.
Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

The above quotation, found near the end of Pictures at a Revolution, a fascinating 2008 book about the five movies nominated for best picture in 1968, seems like an odd thing for Mark Harris to say, given that his entire book focuses on the symbolism of those five movies and the 1968 Academy Awards. His thesis is that what he calls New Hollywood began to take over from Old Hollywood that year. All five movies nominated -- In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Doctor Doolittle -- were American-made, following a long period of British dominance at awards ceremonies. Younger, liberal, independent film makers, greatly influenced by European directors, began to replace older, conservative studio heads.

The ceremony in 1968, which was delayed by the death of Martin Luther King, reflected the struggle of the two camps, according to Harris. The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde very much represented New Hollywood, while Doctor Doolittle, the only one of the five films to never break even, represented Old Hollywood. In the Heat of the Night, which won the award for best picture that year, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, were mostly Old Hollywood, but they both starred Sidney Poitier and both dealt with race relations, a timely topic even if the latter film was considered out of date by the time of its release.

Harris goes into exhaustive detail about the making of all five of those movies. Much of his information may be gathered from other sources, yet much of it is also based on his interviews with those involved in the productions. Among the tidbits he shares:

-- French directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard both considered directing Bonnie and Clyde. Instead Arthur Penn made the movie and got a nomination for his efforts. It may be a good thing Godard didn't take the job because he wanted to make the movie, set in Texas and surrounding states, in New Jersey in January.

-- Among actresses considered for the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate were Doris Day, Jeanne Moreau, Patricia Neal and Ava Gardner. Anne Bancroft ultimately got the part. And the Simon and Garfunkel song Here's to You Mrs. Robinson was originally written to mention Mrs. Roosevelt.

-- Spencer Tracy's monologue at the end of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner took six days to shoot. Tracy was so ill at at the time he could work just a few hours each day. He died before the movie was released.

--Bosley Crowther, the longtime New York Times movie critic, lost his job because he panned Bonnie and Clyde again and again and again. He loved Cleopatra. Meanwhile, Pauline Kael got her job as film critic at The New Yorker because of an article she wrote praising Bonnie and Clyde.

Oliver!, made in Great Britain, won the Academy Award for best picture the following year, but it was the last British film to win until 1982 (Chariots of Fire). New Hollywood had taken over.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Naming the states

That so many place names in the United States, especially the names of states and rivers, were derived from indigenous American languages, rather than European languages, seems surprising. Sure we have state names like Rhodes Island, Virginia and Pennsylvania with obvious European roots, yet so many others were taken from Indian words, however corrupted those words may have been in the process.

Ohio River
My own state, Ohio, got its name from an Iroquois word meaning "good river." Michigan comes from a Chippewa word meaning "great water." Massachusetts comes from an Algonquian word, the meaning of which remains unclear although "great hill" is often mentioned. Connecticut got its name from Quinnehtukqut, which means "beside the long tidal river." Oregon may have gotten its name from an Indian name for a river, the Ouragon. Continuing the theme of naming states after Indian words referring to rivers, Mississippi comes from Misi-ziibi, meaning "great river." Idaho was supposedly named for a Shoshone word meaning "gem of the mountains," but this was later found to be a hoax. It was just a made-up word. Oklahoma comes from a Choctaw phrase meaning "red people."

And so it goes. Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Alaska and Alabama are among other states whose names had Indian origins.

One of the oddest state name stories may be that of Wyoming, which Elizabeth Little says in Trip of the Tongue "comes from the same language that was spoken in and around what is now New York City." It was first used as a place name in eastern Pennsylvania, where there are towns named Wyoming, Wyomissing and Wyomissing Hills. At least a dozen other states have Wyoming as a place name, as do Ontario, Canada, and New South Wales, Australia. The popularity of the place name, Little writes, has to do with a poem by Thomas Campbell, which contains the line, "On Susquehanna's side, fair Wyoiming!" The word means either "at the big river flat" or "large prairie place," depending upon whom you believe.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The remembered victim

It was the crime that people remembered, not the victim.
Laura Lippman, I'd Know You Anywhere

When I started reading Laura Lippman's 2010 novel I'd Know You Anywhere, I wondered how she was going to make a story -- and knowing Lippman, a riveting story -- when the crimes in question (the abduction and murder of a series of teenage girls) happened years before and the killer sits on death row awaiting his execution. I needn't have worried, for the author pulls it off beautifully, and without relying too heavily on flashbacks.

The key to Lippman's story is that one of Walter Bowman's victims survived. Elizabeth Lerner, now Eliza Benedict, is married and has two children of her own, including a troubled daughter about the same age as she was when she stumbled upon Walter burying one of his victims. He grabbed her and took her with him on his travels. Trying to survive, she cooperated in every way, even to the point of not attempting to escape when she had the chance and aiding in the abduction of another girl, Holly Tackett. Her testimony helped put Walter on death row, where he has been for the past 20 years. But now he has found her again and hopes he can manipulate her as did years before, this time to save his life.

Eliza, who had thought her role in Walter Bowman's murder spree had long been forgotten, finds herself not just pressured by Walter but also caught between two women with opposing agendas. Trudy Tackett, Holly's mother, still blames Eliza for living when her own daughter died, and she wants to make sure Eliza does nothing to keep Walter from his appointment with death. Meanwhile Barbara, a woman who devotes herself to helping violent convicts, pushes Eliza to go along with Walter's scheme. In an author's note at the end of the novel, Lippman writes, "I did my best to make sure that every point of the (death penalty) triangle -- for, against, confused -- was represented by a character who is recognizably human." That she does very well, and all three women are flesh-and-blood characters you can understand, whether you agree with them or not.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Good stories vs. true stories

Good stories trump true stories. What happens with gossip also happens, more often than we might think, with history and the nightly news. Stories are told not necessarily because they are true but simply because they make good stories, which often means they conform with a particular bias.

Elizabeth Little comments on this power of good stories as it applies to language in her enchanting book Trip of the Tongue. The city of Puyallup, Wash., not far from Tacoma, obviously got its name from the Puyalllup Indian tribe from that area, but what does the word actually mean? The popular explanation is that the word means "generous people," and it is easy to see why that story would be popular. You can imagine what the local Chamber of Commerce might be able to do with it.

Yet Little found with a bit of research that the word actually means "bend at the bottom" or perhaps "bottom of the bend," which nicely describes where the city of Puyallup is located along a river. In other words, Puyallup, Wash., means about the same thing as South Bend, Ind. It's just harder to spell and harder to say and, because it is not an English word, opens the door for a better story.

Another example cited by Little has to do with the Chinese word for crisis. For years I have heard speakers point out that this word also means opportunity, the lesson being that a crisis, viewed in the right way, can also be an opportunity for positive change. That's a wonderful story, but Little points out that it's just not true.

Ambrose Burnside
Little's comments made me think of a couple of common words that have both been attributed to Civil War generals: hooker and sideburns. The popular story is that the men serving under Major Gen. Joseph Hooker spent so much of their off-duty time in brothels that prostitutes came to be called hookers. Not true. The slang term has been in use at least since 1845, several years before the Civil War.

As for sideburns, the story has this word going back to Gen. Ambrose Burnside, known for the prominent whiskers on the side of his head. Happily, this story turns out to be true, showing that sometimes, at least, a good story can also be the true story.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Who's in control?

I don't have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking.
Joan Didion

The notion that characters, in some sense, write their own stories is probably familiar to anyone who has listened to writers talk about their work. Usually there is at least one novelist at any gathering of writers who reflects on how characters tend to run away with the plot, taking it in new directions the author had never intended.

No less a writer than Jorge Luis Borges has said, "Many of the characters are fools and they are always playing tricks on me and treating me badly," suggesting that writing stories becomes something of a wrestling match in which the characters usually manage to pin the author.

I never realized this was a sensitive issue with some writers until I heard novelist Ann Patchett speak at Kenyon College a couple of weeks ago. She made it clear that, for better or worse, she writes her own stories. Her characters are her own creation and they speak only the words she puts into their mouths.

I have since found a couple of quotations from other writers who, more heatedly, say much the same thing.

John Cheever said, "The legend that characters run away from their authors -- taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president -- implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. The idea of authors running around helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible."

Vladimir Nabokov put it this way, "The trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is a old as the quills. My characters are galley slaves."

During her Kenyon lecture, Patchett rebelled against another notion that someone or something other than the author might be responsible for the final product. She told the story, also told by novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, about the time the two of them, close friends, were discussing works in progress. Patchett was at that time working on State of Wonder, and Gilbert mentioned she had abandoned her own novel set in the Amazon. When Patchett asked what Gilbert's story was about, Gilbert outlined a plot eerily similar to Patchett's own, about a medical researcher in Minnesota, having an affair with her boss, who must travel to the Amazon.

Gilbert's explanation for this uncanny coincidence was that good ideas travel around the globe looking for receptive minds to bring them to fruition. The Amazon idea first landed on Gilbert, who ultimately rejected it. So the idea moved on to Patchett, who turned it into a great novel.

Patchett cannot explain how she and her friend both had the same idea, but she finds Gilbert's explanation silly. If two people have the same idea at the same time, perhaps it is "an incredibly banal idea," she thought at the time. That can sometimes be true. I recall that back in the early Seventies, two novels about fires in skyscrapers came out at about the same time. They were The Tower by Richard Martin Stern, which I reviewed at the time, and The Inferno, by Thomas M. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. The two novels were later combined into one movie, The Towering Inferno, which won some Oscars.

In science and discovery it is not that unusual for ideas to strike different people at the same time, as in the case of the invention of the telephone and the theory of evolution. Even so, Patchett and Gilbert both conceiving the same plot for a novel does seem astounding. Perhaps suggesting that ideas travel through space looking for a home, like believing characters write the story themselves, is just a way of explaining the unexplainable.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The ideal reader

Read as many of the great books as you can before the age of 22.
James Michener

Last Friday in a post called "A skeptic's view of literature," I observed that for most of us, if we have read the great books or the classics at all, it was likely back when they were assigned reading for high school or college classes. We read them because we had to read them. After our formal education ends, if we read at all (and many college graduates never again open a book) it is much more likely to be something by Michener than Shakespeare or Tolstoy.

Yet two quotations, including the one from James Michener above, make me consider that there may be more to our reading of classics in our youth than just the reading required for English classes. A few days ago while reading an essay on despair by Joyce Carol Oates in the book Deadly Sins, I found this line, "Perhaps the ideal reader is an adolescent: restless, vulnerable, passionate, hungry to learn, skeptical and naive by
turns; with an unquestioned faith in the power of the imagination to change, if not life, one's comprehension of life."

Both Michener and Oates suggest those years before full adulthood may be the best time to read important literature, the best time to absorb it, to be influenced by it and inspired by it. More importantly, it may be the time in our lives when we are the most open to it, the most willing to read these books even when they are just recommended reading, not required reading.

Go into any large bookstore and you are likely to find a table of important books, both old and recent, that seems to be there primarily for adolescent readers. It is probably located in the young adult section of the store. These are not necessarily books that have been assigned in area schools. More likely they are just books adolescents, more than adults, will be drawn to.

I recall that it was in those years before graduation from college that I read so many books that were not necessarily great books but were nevertheless books I had heard about and wondered about, books I thought it might be valuable to read. These included such books as Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World and most of the works of Steinbeck and Salinger. Perhaps it was then, more than any other time of my life, when I was, as Oates suggests, the ideal reader.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Sin in the city

The first notable thing about Gary Krist's new book, Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, may be its subtitle. The main title speaks of sin, yet between sex and murder lies jazz. Jazz?

Well, yes. It turns out that when reformers tried to clean up New Orleans early in the last century, their first target was not prostitution, gambling, booze, corruption or even gangland murders, but dancing. They didn't want women, at least not white women, in places where that new music, sometimes called jazz and sometimes jass, was being played by black musicians. Jazz, played by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and a still very young Louis Armstrong, drew white audiences to clubs where black musicians played, and reformers found this as objectionable as anything else that was going on in Storyville.

An editorial in the Times-Picayune called "jass" a "form of musical vice" and said, "Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great."

Storyville, named for Sidney Story, a New Orleans alderman, was a district of the city where vice was officially tolerated for a number of years. There was also a smaller area that became known as Black Storyville, but black musicians and a few black prostitutes were permitted in Storyville, just not black clientele. The area flourished and fortunes were made by those who owned the businesses, but Storyville was eventually crushed by those seeking reform. Prohibition, which became federal law at the close of World War I, put the final nail in Storyville's coffin. This did not end the sin in New Orleans, of course. It just went into hiding.

Most of the best jazz musicians fled New Orleans, finding more tolerant audiences in Chicago and elsewhere.

As for murder, there was plenty of that in New Orleans at the turn of the century, much of it associated with Italian mobsters. The most feared murderer at the time, the so-called Axeman, was never caught, and his identity remains a mystery to this day, although Krist suspects those killings, too, were mostly gang-related. A burly man broke into homes in the middle of the night and attacked people in their beds with an axe. Most, but not all, of the victims were Italians who owned small grocery stores.

Books about sin and the city have a lure, just like sin and cities themselves. I am thinking particularly of Karen Abbott's Sin and the Second City and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, both about Chicago. Krist himself wrote City of Scoundrels, also about Chicago. And just a couple of days ago I saw a similar book about Steubenville, Ohio. Empire of Sin may not be the best book of this kind, but it does make fascinating reading.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A skeptic's view of literature

I have been listening to a lecture series from The Great Courses called The Skeptic's Guide to the Great Books by Grant L. Voth, professor emeritus in English and Interdisciplinary Studies at Monterey Peninsula College. Voth's idea is that the so-called Great Books, while they truly are great and worthy of study, intimidate most readers. If we have read them at all, chances are it was because they were assigned reading in high school or college classes. Few of us feel up to tackling them voluntarily.

So Voth suggests alternatives. Instead of reading Tolstoy's daunting War and Peace, try Gogol's Dead Souls, he says. Gogol's book is shorter, easier to read and more fun, yet its rewards are similar to those offered by Tolstoy, including giving an understanding of Russian history.

In the same way he proposes reading Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men in place of Joseph Conrad's greatest novels or Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita instead of Faust.

Voth goes further and advocates reading some popular fiction as serious literature. He specifically talks about Death of an Expert Witness, a mystery by P.D. James; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a spy thriller by John LeCarre, and Yann Martel's runaway bestseller Life of Pi.

Voth raises the question of what is literary fiction anyway. There are those who seem to believe books need to be old, in some cases very old, to be any good. Popular fiction is not worth even mentioning in a college classroom or serious literary journal. Yet the novels of Charles Dickens were popular fiction in their day. So were the works of Sir Walter Scott, Anthony Trollope, Mark Twain and others whose books are now poured over by literary scholars.

I recall reading recently in The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings that William Shakespeare deliberately tried to make his plays accessible to ordinary people. Some of his contemporaries frowned on him for, in effect, talking down to his audience. That these plays seem difficult for modern readers and audiences to follow says more about how the English language has changed through the centuries than about Shakespeare's writing itself. "(I)t was not the playwright's instinct to be difficult," Hitchings says.

If I may bring up Ann Patchett one more time this week, as a prelude to last week's Kenyon Review Literary Festival the review conducted a month-long online discussion of Patchett's State of Wonder. This discussion, mostly by literary scholars such as David Lynn, the editor of The Kenyon Review, makes fascinating reading for those of us who have read the novel and makes clear that, perhaps despite being one of the biggest bestsellers of the past few years, State of Wonder is also serious literature worthy of study and reflection. It is more than just a good adventure story.

Stories that cause us to think, that offer a variety of interpretations and that give us new pleasures and insights each time we reread them can be regarded as literature, even if they also happen to be popular fiction. That is Grant L. Voth's skeptic's view, and I agree with him.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Squashing butterflies

Ann Patchett compares writing novels to squashing butterflies. That surprising yet, when she explained it. apt analogy came last Saturday night in her lecture at Kenyon College as part of the Kenyon Review Literary Festival, where the author of State of Wonder was the star attraction.

While working on a book, she said, the ideas, characters and plotlines float around in her head like butterflies floating around in a garden. They seem beautiful and perfect. Yet if you capture a butterfly, kill it and tack it to a board for display, much of the beauty it showed in life is gone. So it is, she said, when ideas are transferred to paper. They never seem as beautiful as they seemed in her head.

"I am able to forgive myself for not being as much as I want to be," Patchett said. She simply moves on to the next book, rarely looking back at a book once it is published. Squashed butterflies don't interest her.

The gist of her lecture, which was open to the public but which was aimed primarily at students in Kenyon College's writing program, was that writing has more to do with hard work than either talent or inspiration. Real writers, she suggested, don't wait for the muse to strike before beginning to write. They just write. Real writers don't sit around complaining about not being as gifted as others. They write.

If you want to succeed, work, she said. "We control the outcome of our own life."

Monday, October 27, 2014

The book evangelist

Author Ann Patchett will be honored next week in New York with the 2014 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. Patchett honored the Kenyon Review last weekend with her presence at the Kenyon Review Literary Festival in Gambier, Ohio. I was there for half a day Saturday and got a double dose of the engaging writer.

That afternoon at the Kenyon College Bookstore, she participated in a panel discussion on the future of independent bookstores with other bookstore owners and managers. In addition to being a full-time writer and the author of such books as State of Wonder and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn.

Patchett said she usually comes in every other day for a few hours and is the only unpaid staff member. No need to feel sorry for her, however, as so many of the store's customers stop in primarily to see her, to buy her books and to get her to sign them. Thus, owning a bookstore promotes her primary career as an author.

She describes herself as a "book evangelist," someone who is quick to promote certain books she regards highly. Among the books she said she lately has been advocating for are Marilynne Robinson's novel Lila and Station Eleven, a science fiction novel by Emily St. John Mandel.

In addition to urging customers to buy certain books, she also, unusual for a bookstore owner, tries to talk them out of buying certain other books. "I am somebody who is always taking books away from people," she said.

As successful as her Nashville store may be, Patchett said she has no interest in expanding the size of the store and adding a second location. "My goal is to not succumb to 'bigger is better,'" she said. "The point of success is not getting bigger." Growing too big without having people at the top capable of managing a business of that size was the main reason way Borders failed and why Barnes & Noble may be in trouble, she said. The problem for large book dealers is not the lack of customers but the lack of proper management, she said.

Nor is Patchett interested in selling gift items or anything other than books in her store. "I want nothing to do with the coffee business," she said.

Next time I will share what Patchett said about writing in her lecture later that day at Kenyon College.

Friday, October 24, 2014

One startling adjective

I hadn't expected to return to the subject of adjectives so soon after my discussion a week ago (see "Generically kind," Oct. 17), but then I happened across the following quotation from novelist Anne Bernays:

"Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Use one startling adjective per page."

That got me to thinking: Do our best writers in their best books have one startling adjective per page? So I opened some classic novels to a page at random and went in search of startling adjectives.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Most of the adjectives Conrad uses on page 217 of the Signet Classics paperback I used for a college class seem ordinary, even cliched. We find "a single thought," "some inexplicable emotion," "stealthy footsteps," "an abrupt movement" and "a broken bannister." Yet we also find some more surprising choices such as "worm-eaten rail" and "faint shriek." For me, the most startling adjective comes when the narrator says a character "called him some pretty names, -- swindler, liar, sorry rascal," although that use of the word pretty would have been less startling at the time Lord Jim was published (1899). Pretty can be a synonym for terrible, as in "pretty predicament," but we don't seem to hear that usage much these days.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Hardy uses a few startling adjectives on page 173. We see "highly starched cambric morning-gown," "the impassioned, summer-steeped heathens," and "rosy faces court-patched with cow-droppings." Even if you don't even know what those descriptive words mean, they still sound pretty good, don't they?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Bronte writes of a dog's "pendent lips." That's an interesting choice of adjectives, simple yet descriptive.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

You would expect Twain to find creative adjectives, and he does. "He was the innocentest, best old soul I ever see," Huck says. Yet Twain's most startling word on this particular page is a verb, when he has Huck say of his friend Tom Sawyer, "He warn't a boy to meeky along up that yard like a sheep."

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Heller doesn't invent words in the way Twain does, but he uses familiar adjectives in inventive ways in my sample page from his best novel. We find "puzzled disapproval," "ancient eminence and authority" and, my favorite, "his enormous old corrugated face darkening in mountainous wrath." Wow.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I was a bit startled to find any adjectives at all in Hemingway's spare prose, yet toward the bottom of page 26 in my old Scribners paperback I found this line, "her eyes had different depths." I think Anne Bernays would approve of that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The private lives of artists

When it comes to literature for adults, we've mostly stopped judging a work by its author's personal morality. Why should we hold children's writers to a stricter standard?
Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2005

Margaret Talbot wrote the above lines in an article about the late British writer Roald Dahl. Dahl is best known for his children's books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc.), although I first learned his name from the delicious short stories he wrote for adults found in the collections Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You.

The gist of Talbot's article is that while children love Dahl's stories, their parents tend to be less enthralled. This has something to do with the fact that adults in general and parents in particular often look foolish in these stories, but it may also be because Dahl was something less than a saint. He was, she writes, "a complicated, domineering, and sometimes disagreeable man." Worse, he was known to be abusive to his staff and to have made anti-Semitic comments on more than one occasion. Talbot's conclusion: We should judge the stories using a different standard than we judge the man.

Separating someone's work and private behavior has always been a challenge for employers. Now the NFL has decided a player's record of domestic violence should be cause for league discipline, even though for years abuse of wives, girlfriends and children was kept separate from players' business on the playing field. Many employers must make decisions like this from time to time.

In the case of writers and other artists, the matter becomes a little trickier. In one sense, the publishers, recording companies, movie studios, art galleries or whatever might be considered the "employer," yet it more often comes down to the consumer. Do you refuse to pay to see a Mel Gibson movie because you object to his racists rants when he's drunk or refuse to buy one of Barbra Streisand's albums because you object to her political rants when she's sober? It's up to you, but most of us don't worry much about it. I happen to admire both Gibson's acting and Streisand's singing, whatever I may think of their personal behavior or beliefs.

Unfortunately people in the creative arts often seem to believe the moral standards that apply to others do not apply to them. Perhaps it's because they can get away with it, while most people working ordinary jobs cannot. The public even expects rock stars to be rowdy and to do illegal drugs and movie stars to have serial marriages, with lots of affairs on the side.

I watched a rerun of a Gunsmoke episode the other evening in which a photographer comes to Dodge City to capture the authentic West on film, even if that means staging holdups and gunfights for his camera. After he arranges to have an old saddle tramp murdered and scalped to look like a victim of an Indian raid, he tells Marshal Dillion his art is worth far more than the life of one worthless old man. Matt Dillion, of course, thinks differently.

Most times the choice is not so clear cut. Writers like Roald Dahl, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound or whomever may not have been among the best people on the planet, but they did good work, and we can admire their work without necessarily admiring the private lives of those who created it. This is not to say, however, that there may be times, as when Marshall Dillion and the NFL drew lines in the sand, when we must simply say, "No, that is simply something I cannot accept."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kael and Greene at the movies

I happened to be rereading Pauline Kael's Taking It All In, a 1984 collection of her film reviews from The New Yorker, at the same time I was working my way through The Graham Greene Film Reader: Reviews, Essays, Interviews & Film Stories. Kael was a professional movie critic, while Greene was a novelist who supported himself by writing about movies on the side.The reviews in these two books appeared nearly 50 years apart. Kael's reviews are longer, better written and more interesting than Greene's, yet I was struck by how often comments written by one sound like they could have been written by the other.

Greene writes that Kay Frances in The White Angel (1936) is "handicapped by her beauty." About Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937) he says, "she toted a breast like a man totes a gun." He writes about the "fragile, pop-eyed acting of Miss Bette Davis" in The Sisters (1938). All these phrases sound, at least to me, like something Kael might have written.

Greene's frank commentary about female stars once got him in serious trouble. Writing about Shirley Temple, then just 8 or 9 years old, in Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Greene said, in part, "Her admirers -- middle-aged men and clergymen -- respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." His review led to a libel suit again Greene and his publication, Night and Day, which the defendants lost.

One surprise in the two books is that Greene, a novelist himself, has much less to say about the novels from which movies were adapted than does Kael. In most cases Greene gives no clue that he has read the book in question, even when it happens to be a popular book of the day, such as James Hilton's Lost Horizon, while Kael time and again makes it obvious she has read the novel and knows what changes were made to turn it into a movie. She writes, for example, "E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime was already a movie, an extravaganza about the cardboard cutouts in our minds -- figures from the movies, newsreels, the popular press, dreams, and history, all tossed together." Writing about Sophie's Choice in 1982, she says, "(Author William) Styron got his three characters so gummed up with his idea of history that it's hard for us to find them even imaginable." Thus her film reviews become, at times, literary reviews as well. I don't find that kind of literary analysis in Greene's reviews, although to be fair he apparently had much less space to work with in Night and Day and other publications than Kael had in The New Yorker.

By the way, Kael reviewed Sophie's Choice in the same issue she reviewed Tootsie and Gandhi. Guess which one she liked best? Tootsie. She disliked both of the other films. Kael, like Greene, didn't write favorably about films just because they were serious movies that critics were expected to like, even if the general public didn't. The movies Kael and Greene liked and hated can be quite surprising, which is one reason both collections remain worth reading.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Generically kind

On the way home, she varied her route and passed St. Mary's. She had attended once or twice after they moved here, and people were generically kind. Her preferred brand of kindness, truth to tell.
Laura Lippman, I'd Know You Anywhere

Sometimes I think adjectives and adverbs get a bad rap. Beginning writers are urged to go easy on their modifiers and focus instead on precise nouns and strong verbs to carry their sentences. "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White say in The Elements of Style. "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That seems like good advice for writers,  yet when I read the short passage above from Laura Lippman's novel I'd Know You Anywhere, the two words that jump out at me are "generically kind," an adverb and an adjective. It would take a lot of nouns and verbs to create the image Lippman creates with those two descriptive words.

You need not attend church to know the kind of people Lippman writes about. These are the people who shake your hand without actually looking at your face. They say, "We're glad you could be with us this morning," without giving any evidence they mean it or will remember your name if you return next Sunday. We find generically kind people working in restaurants and shops all the time. They say their polite words and phrases as if they have memorized a script, giving no indication of sincerity.

What Lippman calls generic kindness beats no kindness at all, and is certainly better than rudeness. Yet unlike the character in her novel, most of us would probably prefer a bit more genuine kindness in our daily lives.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mystery in Algonquin Bay

The assumed suicide that turns out not to be a suicide at all has become something of a cliche in murder mysteries, yet there is nothing in By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt that reads like something you've read before. The suicide in this 2006 novel happens to be that of Catherine, the beloved, manic-depressive wife of Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police Department in Canada. If you have read earlier stories in the series you will know Catherine has been in and out of hospitals because of her severe depression. Yet at other times she is a gifted photographer and a loving wife and mother.

When her body is found to have fallen from a tall building where she was taking pictures at night and a suicide note in her handwriting is found as well, the conclusion seems obvious. Yet Cardinal, though he is placed on leave, won't let it rest. He discovers the suicide note was written weeks before Catherine's death and bears someone's fingerprints other than her own.

Meanwhile Sgt. Lisa Delorme, one of Cardinal's colleagues on the force, is assigned to a child pornography case. Evidence suggests the photographs were taken in the Algonquin Bay area. Amazingly, the pornography case and Catherine's apparent suicide have a thin connection to one another.

This novel by the Canadian author, whose books are not as readily available in the U.S. as I would like, makes riveting reading from beginning to end, which is somewhat surprising in that Blunt, unlike most mystery writers, gives the surprises away early. Readers know what happened and who's responsible long before Cardinal and Delorme do. Yet revealing the killer at the beginning of each episode never prevented Columbo from becoming one of the most popular TV detectives ever. Perhaps Giles Blunt is a fan.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Where the words came from

That the origins of so many English words can be traced back to the individuals who coined them or, at least propelled them into the English vocabulary, was what I found most interesting about the Henry Hitchings book I wrote about last Friday, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English.

Thanks to Chaucer we have such words as intellect, galaxy, famous, bribe, accident, magic, resolve, moral, refresh and resolve.

John Lydgate gave us opportune and melodious. Bible translator John Wyclif was responsible for chimera, civility, puberty and alleluia. Ben Jonson brought strenuous, retrograde and defunct into the language. Sir Philip Sidney produced hazardous, loneliness and pathology. John Skelton introduced idiocy and contraband.

Robert Burton, the 17th century scholar, gave us electricity, therapeutic and literary. Novelist Fanny Burney is credited with grumpy, shopping and puppyish. Lawrence Sterne brought lackadaisical, muddle-headed and sixth sense into the vocabulary. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized cavern, chasm, tumult and honeydew. Thank Sir Walter Scott for blackmailawesome, gruesome, guffaw, faraway and uncanny.

As I've suggested, these people did not necessarily invent all these words. In many cases, they may have heard words in conversation that they then incorporated into their own writing, or they may have even seen these words used in books that have not survived. In other cases, they borrowed words from other languages and simply made English words out of them. That these people have so many words accredited to them has a lot to do with how prominent and influential the literature produced by them was in their own time and since. Many people create words that die on the vine simply because they are not written down or, if they are, they are written in literature that generates little attention and does not pass the test of time.

Even the words introduced by the above individuals did not always gain acceptance with the public. Skelton, for example, called a clumsy person a knucklybonyard and a fool a boddypoll. Perhaps it's a good thing the influence of him and the others went only so far.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The spread of English

It is a language nobody owns.
Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Henry Hitchings makes this comment near the end of his 2008 book The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English. He is speaking about the spread of the English language around the world so that far more people speak English as a second language than as their primary language. Travelers who speak only English can travel just about anywhere in the world and find some native they can communicate with. The language, as its name suggests, may have originated in England, but the English have not actually owned their language for a long time.

Hitchings doesn't say so, but nobody owns the Spanish or French languages either. Just as English spread in previous centuries thanks to conquest and colonization, so Spain and France spread their languages far and wide. Today Spanish is spoken throughout most of South and Central America, and thanks to immigration, legal and otherwise, in many parts of North America. French is the primary language in Quebec and in a few other parts of the world heavily influenced by France.

Most languages tend to be confined almost exclusively to the lands or regions where they originated. As Hitchings observes, if you hear people talking in Polish, chances are they are from Poland.

There were about 6,900 languages spoken in the world at the time Hitchings wrote his book, but hundreds of them have become extinct since then. "Realistically, fifty years from now the world's 'big' languages may be just six: Chinese, Spanish, Hindi, Bengali, Arabic and English," the author writes. Of these, only the last two, Arabic and English, have "significant numbers of non-native speakers," according to Hitchings. Converts to Islam must learn Arabic, while persons around the world are learning English for reasons of business, technology and entertainment.

As English spreads, it continues to gobble up words from other languages, claiming them as its own. The apt word Hitchings uses to describe the language is "omnivorous."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

One step further

Christopher Guest's idea of comedy is reality plus "one step further." In his movie comedies, the reality is just as important as that one step further. He wants the characters portrayed in his films to seem just like the people one might actually find at a dog show or at a reunion of folk singers from another era. They are just a wee bit off center, like the travel agent couple in Waiting for Guffman who have, with one small exception, never left the town they live in, or the dog owner in Best in Show who keeps encountering former lovers she had before she became happily married.

John Kenneth Muir's book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company, reflects on the making of those two movies, plus A Mighty Wind. The book was published in 2004, before the release of For Your Consideration.

Guest doesn't like the term "mockumentary" to describe his films because he thinks that suggests he uses the films to mock dogs shows, folk singers and small-town people with aspirations for Broadway. He prefers calling them comedies done "in a documentary style." Muir uses "mockumentary" anyway, and I think he is justified in doing so. First, the word has become widely used in reference to Guest's comedies. Second, the term means not just belittling or making fun of something, but also imitating something, such as a mock battle or mock turtle soup. Guest's movies play like true documentaries, but with that one step further that makes them great comedies.

Guest's screenplays are much shorter than the screenplays for most movies simply because he omits all dialogue. He chooses actors such as Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch and Fred Willard who have great improvisational skills. Then Guest just sets the scene, starts the cameras rolling and lets the actors make it up as they go along. Most of this footage never sees the screen. The editing process can take more than a year. In the case of Best in Show, 60 hours of film was trimmed into an 84-minute movie. For A Mighty Wind, Guest cut 80 hours down to 90 minutes. Sometimes the funniest scenes don't make the final cut simply because Guest decides they are not necessary to tell his story.

I read this book over several days, and in the evenings I watched yet again the three Guest films Muir writes about. I have always liked Best in Show best because it is the funniest, and I liked it best again this time. Yet Muir makes a good case that A Mighty Wind may actually be the best movie, "the apex of the director's career." It may not be the funniest, but it has more heart and it ultimately tells the best story.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Saying a lot in a few words

Billboards along highways may have less than a second to get their message across, depending upon how fast vehicles are moving and how long drivers are willing to take their eyes off the road. Most billboards are too wordy and their words too small for drivers to read everything, assuming they even want to. Thus a billboard's effectiveness depends upon a visual image and a slogan or key phrase that says a lot in a brief glance. Here are a few slogans I've noticed on billboards near my Ohio home:

Where Friends Collide

Thankfully this slogan refers to a downtown restaurant, not to the stretch of highway where the billboard is located. Even so, the mental image the word collide suggests is not one that makes me eager to visit that particular restaurant. Certainly the restaurant could have found a better word.

Plant the Science of Tomorrow Today

This billboard promotes a seed company and is addressed to farmers, although since it is located on a stretch of highway connecting two cities, I am not sure its location is ideal, even though the road carries a lot of traffic. The slogan seems like a good one though.

Pick Your Passion

An auto dealership has this billboard, and that phrase sounds like it would be effective. I suspect buying a vehicle for most people has more to do with passion than practicality.

Hire Us BEFORE Your Spouse Does

That's all one has to read to know the people shown on the billboard are divorce lawyers.  If you are in the business of promoting the breakup of marriages, I guess that is as good a slogan as you could find.

Feel the Power of Massive Interest ... 1.77%

That bank billboard just makes me laugh.

You Get Paid, We Get to Crush Stuff ... Win Win

This billboard for a recycling company may be my favorite, even if it may be a bit wordy for most people to safely read at 55 mph.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Forgotten books

"We exist as long as we are remembered."
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

I included that line from The Shadow of the Wind several days ago in a post about Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon. In that novel, as in real life, the line is more true about books than it is about people.

A vast warehouse in Barcelona known as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books plays a key role in this novel, as in others by the same author. A boy is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and told to choose one book from among the many obscure books on the shelves, to read it, treasure it and protect it for the rest of his life. For as long as one person remembers that book, it will continue to exist. The author of that book will not have labored in vain.

The boy selects a novel, also called The Shadow of the Wind, by an author named Julian Carax. Later he learns someone is trying to find and destroy every copy of every Carax book in existence. As he grows into maturity, he tries to find out why.

I like the idea of a Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Perhaps the Library of Congress serves this function, but it does not house and protect forgotten books alone. Unfortunately, more books are forgotten than remembered within a few years of publication. "There are currently more titles published in the UK and US in a month (around 15,000) than even the most bookish person will read in a lifetime," John Sutherland writes in Curiosities of Literature. Most of those books would end up in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books very quickly, if such a facility actually existed. Instead they end up in used book sales, assuming they were ever purchased by someone in the first place, and if not bought by someone else, in landfills somewhere.

One of pleasures of membership to LibraryThing is that it allows one to see how many other members own the same books you do. I can see, for example, I am one of 49,570 members with a copy of Pride and Prejudice. More than 47,000 other members have The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird in their libraries. Yet there are several books that I alone possess. These include two novels by Jane Stuart, daughter of Jesse Stuart; The Experience, a novel by Cecil Hemley, a former creative writing teacher of mine; and Harvest of the Bitter Seed, a 1959 novel by Gordon F. Morkel, a colorful doctor who practiced in Mansfield, Ohio, for many years during my time working there as a journalist.

I doubt very much I am the only person in the world who owns these books, even if other copies of them, especially Morkel's, would be hard to find. Each of them might rest in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. By keeping them in my own library I'd like to think I am helping to keep them alive.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Good stories retold

The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The Quiet American are usually considered Graham Greene's best novels, but I have long had a fondest for his lighter work, specifically Our Man in Havana, Travels with My Aunt and Monsignor Quixote. These are hardly comic novels, for they deal with serious issues, but they are lighter in tone than most of Greene's work.

I have read Travels with My Aunt (1969) three times and just finished a second reading of Monsignor Quixote (1982). That the latter novel, just 221 pages long, represents a retelling of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes should be obvious from the title. In addition, references to Cervantes's work can be found on just about every other page. What I didn't realize until this second reading is that in Monsignor Quixote, Greene also retells the story of Travels With My Aunt.

In both stories an innocent of mature years (a retired bank manager named Henry Pulling in Travels with My Aunt and a Spanish priest who thinks he's descended from Don Quixote in Monsignor Quixote) hits the road with a much more worldly companion. In the earlier novel, that character is Henry's Aunt Augusta, a former high-class prostitute in Paris who returns for the funeral of her sister, Henry's mother, and then pulls Henry away from his flower garden to see the world with her. In the retelling, the priest unexpectedly is made a monsignor, then goes on a holiday with a Communist former mayor he calls Sancho in the old car he calls Rocinante. In each case, the trip proves to be an eye-opening experience for the innocent. The new monsignor is surprised to learn he is spending a night in a brothel and then is taken to an erotic movie, which because of its title, A Maiden's Prayer, he assumes must be a religious film.

In both of these novels, the trip broadens the horizons of the main character, while bringing a measure of grace, love and acceptance to the more worldly secondary character. The "appalling strangeness of the mercy of God" has been described as a dominant theme in Greene's work, and one can find traces of that theme in these two novels, and especially in Monsignor Quixote.

And by the way, Cervantes was born on this date in 1547. Thursday will be the 110th anniversary of Greene's birth in 1904.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Discovering what we think

How do I know what I think till I see what I say?
E.M. Forster

I guess I'll have to just wait and see what I think about that.

When I made my living writing newspaper editorials back in the 1970s and '80s, the easiest and usually the best editorials I wrote were those I was passionate about, those where I knew what I wanted to say before I said it. The truth is, I wasn't nearly opinionated enough for the job, so I often started writing about a topic before knowing what I thought about it. I would put down the arguments for each side in my own words, and in the process of doing so one side would usually make more sense to me than the other. Then I would rewrite the editorial, or at least give it a new opening paragraph, to conform with my newly discovered viewpoint.

I love it when my own writing surprises me, when something I know I've written seems to have been written by someone else. It's a bit like saying to yourself, "Did I really just say what I think I said," after a moment of unusual candor. But I'm not talking about the things I regret having written, although there are plenty of those unfortunately. I'm speaking of things that make me proud, or would if I felt more responsible for them. Instead I feel more like the channel through which those ideas, which I don't remember having beforehand, were expressed.

Writing, more than just expressing one's thoughts, actually seems to often create those thoughts in the first place. Sometimes I've found I don't really understand what a book is about until reading my own review of that book. Then it becomes clear, or at least my own thoughts about the book become clear.

I came across the above quotation from E.M. Forster out of context in the Saul Bellow novel More Die of Heartbreak, so I don't know exactly to what he was referring. Do you suppose Forster's novels sometimes surprised him in the same way some of my editorials and book reviews have surprised me? I'd like to think so.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lost causes

Jonathan Swift, back in the 18th century, hated and tried to eradicate the practice of abbreviating words into shorter words. You know how that turned out. Today words like ad, phone, bus, taxi and sitcom are commonplace.

Swift also resented newer words he considered crude and temporarily fashionable. Among these words were sham, bully, banter and bubble, all words now long established and accepted by English speakers everywhere.

For generations, protectors of the language, probably including your high school English teachers, have crusaded, as Jonathan Swift did 300 years ago, for purer, more correct grammar and vocabulary. Their successes have been few, for most of us talk the way we hear our peers talk, not the way language authorities insist we should. Just as Swift's campaigns in defense of the language were doomed to failure, so are most of those still being waged by some of us in the 21st century. Here are just a few of the lost causes:

Eager, not anxious

The word anxious, correctly used, suggests anxiety. Yet most of us use it to mean eagerness, as in, "I am anxious to start our trip." We should say eager instead, but few of us do. Patricia T. O'Conner in her book Woe Is I, says the words can be used interchangeably in speech, but that we need to be more precise in our writing.Yet I once noticed John Updike using anxious instead of eager in one of his books. If even Updike does it, it is probably a lost cause.


I hope this isn't a lost cause because people saying literally when then mean figuratively is one of my pet peeves, but I am afraid it is. Too many people just don't know the difference.

Aggravate and irritate

As O'Connor points out, poison ivy irritates and scratching aggravates, but few of us bother to make that distinction.

Have a good day

I mentioned again just a few days ago my annoyance when I hear people say "Have a good day!" instead of the more concise "Good day!" Others say "Have a nice day!" or "Have a good rest of the day!" Some of us may still dream of going back to simpler times, but there is no sign this will ever happen. Perhaps we should just be happy people are still wishing others a good day, however wordy they may be.

There are many other lost causes. Perhaps I will continue with this topic some other time.