Monday, March 31, 2014

A wilderness of guilt

An early chapter in Donna Tartt's third novel The Goldfinch begins with the words "a wilderness of gilt." The phrase refers to the workshop of Hobie, the furniture restorer who becomes a father figure to Theo Decker, the novel's narrator. Add just one letter to the phrase, turning it into "a wilderness of guilt," and you are left with a pretty good four-word summary of what Tartt's story is about.

Theo, 13, and his mother stop at a New York City art museum on their way to his school, where he is being disciplined for misbehavior. A bomb explodes, killing his mother and leaving Theo shaken. In the confusion that follows, the boy slips a priceless painting called "The Goldfinch" into his school bag and walks home. His wilderness of guilt begins with his blaming himself for mother's death. If he hadn't gotten into trouble in school or if he had just told his mother he was hungry and wanted something to eat before they entered the museum, she would still be alive. Then there is the painting, which he doesn't want but doesn't know how to return to the museum.

As time passes, imagined guilt becomes actual guilt. Theo becomes a drug addict and, after becoming an adult and a partner in Hobie's furniture shop, sells fake antiques for inflated prices and pocketing the money to support his habit. The painting becomes an ever heavier burden. His life spirals out of control, lost as he is in his wilderness of guilt.

Much happens in Tartt's 771-page novel, yet she writes at such a deliberate pace that sometimes it seems nothing is happening at all. Some readers will object to this, yet as I found when I read her earlier novel, The Little Friend, her prose is never better than when nothing much seems to be happening.

There is no cheap grace in Tartt's work. She does, however, suggest the possibility, so unlike what Thomas Hardy expressed in his best novels, that good can sometimes be a product of evil, that easy or not, there can be a way out of the wilderness.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Insights on reading

As mysteries, Ian Sansom's Mobile Library books don't amount to much. Their strengths lie in vivid characters, comic dialogue and situations and, not of least importance in my view, the author's reflections, through his characters, on literature and reading in general. Here are some of the comments I found most interesting The Books Stops Here, the book I reviewed here two days ago.

"Eileen believed passionately in what you might call the trickle-down theory of literature; according to her, the reading of Booker Prize-winning novels by Tumdrum's library-borrowing elite would lead inevitably and inexorably to the raising of social and cultural values among the populace at large."

I have commented previously on the idea that great literature, like great art in general, carries moral value, that better reading can make us better people. Any correlation, and I agree there may be some, is minimal. If the people who wrote those great books were not saints, why should we expect more from those who read them?

"Israel's reading had always been erratic and undisciplined; there were huge chunks missing in his knowledge, while other areas were grossly-over-represented... he was a kind of mental hunchback -- misproportioned, a freak."

Aren't most of us "mental hunchbacks" in this respect? We tend to read those books that interest us and ignore the rest. My reading is probably more varied than that of most people because I have been reviewing books for more than 40 years, but even I have significant gaps. Some great authors I have missed altogether. One of the qualities I like about Israel Armstrong, Sansom's main character, is that he worries about this sort of thing.

"There were, of course, some books he could see on his shelf, in his mind's eye, that he didn't regret -- his Kurt Vonneguts, for example. How could he possibly -- how could anyone possibly -- regret Kurt Vonnegut?"

My own regrets have more to do with buying books than reading them. I regret spending money on books I quickly realized I wouldn't like or, more seriously, books I later found I already owned. I regret all those books I haven't read yet and may, in fact, never get around to. I also regret that I have forgotten so many books almost in less time than it took to read them.

"He was his books; and his books were him."

I got a sense of this idea last when I visited the Little White House in Key West and examined the shelves of books once owned and read by Harry S. Truman. Most were not classics or even books I had ever heard of, but rather books printed in the 1940s and 1950s that appealed to Truman but, apparently, to relatively few others. More than the furniture, the photographs or even the "The buck stops here" sign on his desk, these books revealed who Truman really was.

I wonder what my books say about me.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The missing mobile library

Something's always going missing in Ian Sansom's Mobile Library mysteries. Israel Armstrong has just become the mobile librarian in the Northern Ireland community of Tumdrum when, in The Case of the Missing Books, he discovers all the books have vanished. His first assignment is to find them. Then in Mr. Dixon Disappears, Israel must find a prominent local businessman because he is a suspect in his disappearance. Now in The Book Stops Here (2008), the third and arguably the best novel in the series, it is the mobile library itself that goes missing.

Israel and Ted, the disgruntled older man responsible for driving and maintaining the vehicle, take it to London for the Mobile Meet. Israel yearns to return to London after six annoying months in Tumdrum. He wants to see Gloria, the girlfriend he has not heard from in awhile, and reconnect with friends. The first stop is at his mother's house, where she and Ted hit it off immediately, much to Israel's dismay. That night the mobile library disappears from the street.

How Israel, Ted and Israel's mother track down and recover the van makes a rollicking adventure. Done right, this would make an entertaining film.

There's a bittersweet quality to the tale. Both Israel, who wants to go to London, and Ted, who doesn't, are shaken by their journey. Israel finds you really can't go home again. In just six months, everything has changed. As for Ted, a man he has not seen in many years turns out not to be the kind of man he thought he was.

As in the previous books, poor Israel gets verbally abused by everyone, his mother included. Seeing him prevail yet again gives pleasure to the reader, as do Sansom's insightful comments about literature sprinkled throughout the novel. I'll have more to say about that next time.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Two good ideas

I could write much about my week in Key West, but most of my experiences had little to do with the focus of this blog, namely language and literature. But there are a couple of topics that do seem to fit, so here they are:

1. Readers for rollers

One of the speakers for the Road Scholar program I attended was a Cuban-American from Miami, who told me later he had to get up at 4 a.m. to get to Key West in time for his 9 o'clock presentation about the Cuban influence on Key West. As we heard several times during the week, Cuba is just 90 miles away, closer than the nearest Wal-Mart (about 120 miles), so its influence was substantial. Many of the island's early residents were political dissidents who fled from Cuba.

An early Cuban industry on the island was making cigars. This industry later moved to Ybor City, now part of Tampa, but for a few years it was at the heart of the Key West economy. As was the practice in Cuba, the workers in these cigar factories had someone to read to them all day while they rolled cigars. They voted on what they wanted to have read, but the usual practice was for the reader to read each Spanish-language newspaper from cover to cover in the morning. In the afternoon he would read books, usually something related to politics or economics. The works of Adam Smith and Voltaire were popular, according to our speaker.

It's a wonder the factory owners put up with this because the readings fueled union activity, which was prevalent in these factories. This may be why the practice apparently didn't spread to other industries.

It strikes me as a wonderful idea, especially for its time. Workers could get an education while they labored, find out about what was going on even if they couldn't read and keep their minds occupied while doing what must have been routine, mind-numbing work.

2. The lobby ambassador

At the Crown Plaza La Concha Hotel on Duval Street, where we stayed, I met a man who said he was the lobby ambassador. His name is William.

William said he had been part of the custodial staff when a hotel manager caught him talking with hotel guests instead of working. Rather than being disciplined, as he expected, William got promoted. He even got a raise, he said. His job now is simply to talk to people. Sometimes he helps guests with their bags, gets their cars for them or gives directions to restaurants or tourist attractions, but other employees get paid to do these jobs. William's job is just to be friendly, something that seems to come naturally to him.

I had two conversations with William during the week. I don't easily converse with strangers, but he didn't seem like a stranger after about 30 seconds. We talked about kids, after-school recreation programs, sports, cats and a few other topics. William listened as well as he talked.

I don't know how many other hotels have lobby ambassadors, but it seems like a brilliant idea to me. Hotels are, after all, in the hospitality business, so why not put naturally friendly people front and center to show hospitality to strangers in a strange place?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Key West literary tour

Key West may be known more for its bars, Jimmy Buffett and Fantasy Fest, but it is actually something of a literary center, despite the fact the island has but one bookstore. Apparently people go to Key West to write books, not to read them.

This week I've been staying at the La Concha Hotel, where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. Down the street a few blocks I visited the house where Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not, the latter a story set in Key West.

Other writers who have lived in Key West (or still do) include Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, John Dos Passos, Elizabeth Bishop, Annie Dillard, Gore Vidal, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein, Robert Stone, Alison Lurie, Truman Capote, Ann Beattie, Philip Caputo, Richard Wilbur, John Hershey, Ralph Ellison, Thomas McGuane and many others. Even Jimmy Buffett has written a few books here.

I really don't know how anyone could concentrate long enough to write a book in Key West, with all the tourists, temptations and crowing roosters that run loose everywhere, including the restaurants.

This may be more a writer's paradise than a reader's paradise, but probably the best-read American president loved Key West. Harry S. Truman visited 11 times during his presidency and several more times afterward. I visited the Little White House this afternoon and saw many of the books he read during his Key West retreats. He read just about everything, but Bess preferred Agatha Christie.

Truman once said, "not all readers will be leaders, but all leaders must be readers." If only that we're true we might have more leaders like Truman.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Learning from birds

You might not think you could learn anything about humans by studying birds, but Noah Strycker, who calls himself "a full-time bird man," thinks you can. What's more, he has written a terrific new book, The Thing with Feathers (Riverhead Books), in which he discusses 13 bird species whose behavior may shed light on human behavior.

Do bowerbirds display an artistic sense when males build elaborate bowers to attract mates? Is their behavior all that different from human males who sometimes use art, whether it is rock music or a sporty car, to attract women?

Are fairy-wrens being altruistic when they help feed the young of unrelated fairy-wrens? Does their behavior teach us anything about human acts of generosity?

Can the lifetime mating of albatrosses really be called love? Why do they seem to do it better than most human couples?

Whether he's writing about the militant ways of hummingbirds or the pecking order of chickens, Strycker always returns to the human species and draws some surprising conclusions.

I wonder how others in the scientific community feel about Strycker's research. Do they find him guilty of  recklessly extending human qualities to animals? But never mind. He writes more for general readers than for scientists, and this general reader, at least, is impressed. Here is one of my favorite of Strycker's conclusions: "Sure, we can never know whether or not real altruism exists in this universe, but wouldn't it be wise for us -- considering the bleak alternative -- to take a cue from fairy-wrens, and act as if it did?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

At the Florida book fair

During my annual visit to the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Pete, I was, as usual, struck by the prices of books I would love to own but never will. Again this year the biggest price tag I noticed was  for Hemingway's first book, Three Stories & Ten Poems. Few copies of that book were printed in 1923. One dealer wanted $47,500 for his.

The price asked for a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's  Tender Is the Night (1934) was $22,500. Yet a first edition of Thoreau's Walden (1854) was going for $15,000. I don't know know why the Fitzgerald is more highly valued than the Thoreau. Is it a matter of supply or demand?

Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952) had a price of $2,500, the same as Through the Looking Glass (1872) by Lewis Carroll.

Sometimes the same edition of a book was available from more than one dealer, which meant a little competition that might have benefitted anyone interested in that particular book. Look Homeward, Angel (1929) cost $6,500 in one stall and $16,500 in another. The difference? The latter was signed by Thomas Wolfe.

The complete Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-55) was priced at $17,500 by one dealer and $12,500 by another. I don't know what the difference was. One first edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith was for sale for $3,750. Another had a price of $8,500. I would have liked to compare the two of them side by side.

One price that really surprised me was $4,750 for J.P. Marquand's The Late George Apley (1937). I would have never guessed anything by Marquand would be worth that much.

Needless to say, I didn't spend four or five figures (or even three) for a book at the fair. I did buy a nice first edition of Larry McMurtry's memoir Walter Benjamin & the Dairy Queen for ten bucks. I bought it to read, not as a collectable.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The meaningless do

The English language, not unlike England's royal family, has Germanic origins, but numerous influences have
changed it over the years. These influences include those who invaded Britain, such as the Romans, the Vikings and the Normans, and those whom the British invaded, such as India. Oddly enough, most language experts don't think English was influenced much at all by Celtic languages, like Welsh and Cornish, even though these languages were spoken on the very same small island. Few words from those languages made their way into English.

Linguist John McWhorter sees things a little differently in his book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. Language is not just words, but also grammar, and it is here where McWhorter finds the Celtic influence. His prime example: the meaningless do.

In English we use words like do, did, don't and didn't all the time, even when they serve no purpose. As he points out, we could more easily just say, "I not notice" instead of "I did not notice." It might sound odd to us at first, but we could quickly get used to it. The word did, McWhorter says, serves no purpose in the sentence.

So why is English virtually the only language in the world that employs words like do and did? No other Germanic language uses them, but they are used in Welsh and Cornish. McWhorter says the English picked up the meaningless do from their neighbors, even while ignoring most Welsh and Cornish words.

"English is not normal," McWhorter writes. "It is a mixed language not only in its words, but in its grammar. Every time we say something like Did you see what he's doing?, we are structuring our utterance the way a Welsh or Cornish person would in their own native tongue."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Kindness matters

Driving in St. Petersburg, Fla., last week I stopped for two women in a crosswalk. When I did so, a woman in a VW sped around me and, missing the pedestrians by a few feet (and winning an obscene gesture), advanced to the next red light, where I caught up with her. That's when I noticed two stickers on the back of her vehicle. One was a peace symbol, the other consisted of the words, "Kindness matters."

Any of us who drives has, at one time or another, done something that was reckless, stupid and, most certainly, unkind. That's bad enough. Somehow sporting a "Kindness matters" bumper sticker makes it worse. It's like having a bumper sticker announcing "I brake for animals," then running over somebody's pet. Even if the accident is unavoidable, one looks like a fool, if not a hypocrite. It might be better to forget the self-promoting bumper stickers, while still trying to do our best to brake for animals and show kindness to others.

I feel about campaign promises the same way I feel about bumper stickers. Candidates would be better off not making them -- certainly nothing as specific as "no new taxes" -- than making them and discovering they are unable to fulfill them or, because of changing circumstances, finding they no longer believe in them. Voters remember promises even when politicians don't.

Members of the clergy no longer wear clerical collars the way they once did. Nuns today are less likely to wear habits. I wonder if wearing such garb is something like having a "Kindness matters" bumper sticker. It somehow puts one on a higher standard, making one's behavior a matter of public inspection. How does one pass by a beggar while wearing a clerical collar?

Not that there's anything wrong with high standards. It's just that, as they say, better to walk the walk than just talk the talk.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Matters of faith

Ellen Gilchrist's first novel The Annunciation (1983) makes clear, from its title and cover illustration through the story itself, that it is a religious story, even though most of the time it is so irreligious it becomes easy to doubt the author really has matters of faith on her mind.

The novel spans 30 years, from the birth of Amanda McGamey's first child to the birth of her second. These are not easy years for Amanda, primarily because of the circumstances surrounding that first birth. She is just 14 when, after having sex with her cousin, Guy, she gives birth, then has her daughter taken away by nuns and put up for adoption. That experience condemns her to three decades of negative reaction: depression, strong drink, marriage to a man she doesn't love and constant thoughts about her daughter.

Amanda has little use for religion, especially the Catholic Church, yet she experiments with various Eastern faiths and practices, whatever happens to be faddish among the intelligentsia at the time. She is a smart, attractive, charismatic woman who starts putting her life together when she abandons New Orleans, where she suspects her daughter lives somewhere, for Fayetteville, Ark. (where Gilchrist herself lives) and wins an opportunity to translate a book of French poetry. Illustrative of her personality, Amanda tries to convince the publisher to change the original poems to match her translation, which she is convinced is superior.

Meanwhile, she begins a torrid romance with an unemployed man two decades younger. She keeps giving him money even though he always spends it on self-destructive binges.

Last Saturday night I heard Irish singer Cathie Ryan perform in St. Pete with the Florida Orchestra. She sang a song she said illustrated one of the guiding principles of her life: "Don't quit five minutes before the miracle." That line works for Amanda McGamey, too. For all her mistakes and disappointments, she doesn't quit. Her miracle is no virgin birth, whatever the novel's title and cover may suggest. It's 30 years too late for that. Yet smaller, more everyday miracles can be life-changing, too, and that's what Gilchrist gives her.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Saying the obvious

I was forced to conclude that there are two laws no human being can escape: the first idea that comes into a person's mind will be the most obvious one; and, having had an obvious idea, nobody ever thinks that others may have had the same idea before.
Umberto Eco, How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays

Recently I picked up  my car after it spent a week in a body shop, the second time in the last three years the same car has been in the same body shop. I hasten to add that on both occasions the damage to my car occurred while it was parked. The shop manager thanked me for my business, and I said something to the effect that I hoped I would never be back again. "I hear that all the time," he said.

As I drove away I felt embarrassed at having said the obvious. Of course, nobody wants to return to a body shop, just as nobody wants a return trip to a cancer specialist. I had said the first thing that entered my mind, and, as Umberto Eco suggests in his essay, the first idea is generally the same one everyone else has in the same situation.

Richard Kiel
I still suffer pangs of regret after an experience in a tea shop several years ago when the owner wondered if I might like to try some chamomile. "That's not my cup of tea," I said, it being the first thing that entered my mind. The woman, to her credit, did not react at all, but she must have heard the same line hundreds of times. Sometime later in the same shop I overheard somebody else repeating the same line to the same woman.

Actor Roger Moore, who played James Bond in a number of movies, touches on this topic in his commentary on the Moonraker DVD. He recalls how Richard Kiel, the huge actor who played the villain Jaws on a couple of Bond movies, hated being asked, "How big were you when you were small?" He had to pretend each time that it was the first time he had ever heard that line, a line that must have actually seemed witty the first time it was heard.

Moore also remembers Barry Morse, who played the detective on The Fugitive TV series, complaining, "I have to act surprised when people say, 'He went thataway.'"

There are times, of course, when saying the obvious is exactly what we should say. Phrases like "good morning," "thank you," "how are you?," "I'm sorry for your loss," "I love you," "take care now" and "excuse me" never get old. We need not feel regret for saying what so many others have said with the very same words.

When we are trying to be witty, however, saying the first thing that comes to mind will most likely be the wrong thing. Better to say nothing than to say what everybody else says in the same situation.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The feelings of writers

Well, in literature workshops the writer isn't in the room. In many cases, the writer isn't in the world at all anymore, so Tolstoy isn't going to get his feelings hurt by what gets said about his work in my class.
Francine Prose, interview in Reading Like a Writer

Francine Prose
Francine Prose, author of a number of novels and other books, including Reading Like a Writer, has also, like many other respected but not necessarily best-selling writers, taught writing classes to supplement her income. What she dislikes about these classes, however, is that period familiar to anyone who has ever attended a creative writing class when the students dissect each other's work. The comments, almost always containing much more criticism than praise, can be brutal.

"There's something essentially sadistic about the whole process," Prose says in the interview included at the end of her book. "I mean, to sit there and have the love of your life -- your work -- something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers ..."

I remember what that is like, having taken several creative writing classes at Ohio University back in the 1960s. A decade later, having given up the idea of writing fiction, I attended a two-week seminar for editorial writers in Reston, Va., where the workshops were quite similar. Participants were told to critique the editorials written by other members of the group, and that usually meant finding fault.

Dan Tucker
It was my assignment to comment on the work of Dan Tucker, an editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. I can recall struggling to find something, anything, I could criticize about his editorials, but I just couldn't find it. They were wonderful editorials. When my turn came, I was forced to comment on what was right about Tucker's writing, instead of what was wrong with it. At first I felt like a failure, then I noticed the look on Dan's face and I realized that maybe a kind word can be the right word. Even less skillful writers, myself included, need a little praise. We can learn from our mistakes, but we can also learn from a pat on the back.

Cecil Hemley
Two of the three creative writing instructors I had at Ohio (Cecil Hemley, a poet and novelist, and Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth) were introverts who, I thought at the time, seemed uncomfortable with the harsh criticism that was so common in their classes. I think both of them would have agreed with Francine Prose. Hemley once described one of my stories as "artful." Not only did that single word inspire me for a long time, but I suspect that it softened the negativity of my classmates. What student would dare say something too harsh about a story Cecil Hemley had called "artful"?

Prose says that she much prefers teaching writing by teaching reading, and not just because the authors are not in the same room. Writers, like artists, can learn from the masters, and she is appalled at how little so many of her writing students have actually read. Sometimes, she says, she takes her students through a short story word by word, sentence by sentence. Why did the writer choose this particular word rather than another? "All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another," she writes. It may take weeks to get through a single short story in her class, but she thinks her students benefit from this close inspection of classic works of literature.

Beside, as Prose is the first to admit, you really can't teach good writers to become great writers. You can, however, teach them to become great readers.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Breaking the rules

One of my favorite moments on The Andy Griffith Show came when Barney Fife explained the two rules at the rock (the Mayberry jail) to his prisoners. "The first rule is," he said, "obey all rules!"

Francine Prose essentially has but one rule for beginning writers in her book Reading Like a Writer (2006): Ignore all rules. In one wonderful chapter she recalls a time in the late 1980s when she taught a writing class at a college located more than two hours from her home. While riding the bus to and from the college once a week, she read Anton Chekhov short stories. She recalls formulating various rules for her writing students (never give your characters similar names, for example, or stick with the same point of view throughout a story) and then she would read a great Chekhov story, often that same day on the way home), that violated the very rule she had expressed to her students. Finally she came to the conclusion, as she puts it in her book, that "literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none."

Vladimir Nabokov said this about the Chekhov story The Lady with the Dog: "All the traditional rules of storytelling have been broken in this wonderful story of twenty pages or so. There is no problem, no climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories ever written." In fact, many of the greatest works of fiction you might think of, including Nabokov's own Lolita, violate somebody's rules for good writing.

Yet I do have one caution. James Joyce wrote Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before he wrote Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, just as Pablo Picasso and Salvador DalĂ­ learned to draw realistic images before they painted their surrealistic masterpieces. There may be something to be said for learning the rules and heeding them before daring to break them in the spirit of creativity. Not everyone, after all, is a Chekhov.