Wednesday, July 30, 2014

But enough about you

An investment counselor, knowing I had retired from the newspaper business, greeted me in his office by asking if I was still doing any writing. I answered briefly, quickly realizing he wasn't really interested. He then launched into a story about his experiences as an amateur song writer, most of which I had heard before. As I was leaving his office a few minutes later, he resumed his story.

A few days later, while watching Lonesome Dove for the third time, I noted the scene in which Gus and Woodrow are along a Texas river and Gus asks, "When were you happiest?" Woodrow stammers with his answer, but then Gus says, "I was happiest right here by this little creek." (I know things are big in Texas, but it looked more like a river to me.) He then told about driving to that spot years ago in a buggy with the woman he has never stopped loving.

We have all known situations like this. People ask about our recent surgery in order to tell us, at length, about their own. They inquire about our vacation, then start telling about their own trip before we can say more than a sentence or two. They ask about our children or grandchildren while reaching for pictures of theirs. Most of us are guilty of this kind of behavior ourselves. We introduce subjects we want to talk about with questions we don't really care to have answered.

Rhetorical questions can be effective for teachers and public speakers. It's a way of getting listeners to think about something before the teacher or speaker provides an answer. In conversation, however, simple courtesy should dictate that we ask questions only when we are prepared to actually listen to the answers.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The definition of family

A wound that never healed. A promise never to be fulfilled.
That was family.
Julie Wu, The Third Son

In Julie Wu's impressive first novel, The Third Son, the above lines, found late in the story, nicely sums up what family means to her main character, Saburo, and, indeed, to many people the world over.

Based loosely on the early life of her own father, Wu's novel tells about the third son of a family of modest means in Taiwan. The elder sons get the best clothes, the best food and the best education. Saburo gets what's left over, and frequent beatings besides.

The novel opens during an American air raid early in World War II when Taiwan remains under Japanese control. Saburo helps Yoshiko, a girl he has just met, escape. The children, although Chinese, were given Japanese names because of the long Japanese influence. Later the Nationalist Chinese take over the island, but life seems even more oppressive than it was under the Japanese.

Saburo does have one advantage over his older brothers. He is much brighter. He grows up yearning to go to America to study and perhaps even to live, but very few Taiwanese students qualify to attend universities in the United States, and they all have gone to the best schools in Taiwan. What chance does Saburo have when he has been sent to a vocational school? Of course, he does pass the qualifying test, but by then he is married to Yoshiko, who moves in with his family, and they have a son. To go to America means leaving them behind under the influence of his family, including an older brother who desired Yoshiko for himself.

If The Third Son often seems predictable, it nevertheless remains compulsive reading throughout.The suspense lies not in the question of whether Saburo will succeed in America and be able to bring his family over to join him -- we know he will, whatever the obstacles -- but in the questions of how he will do it and whether he will ever be able to gain the acceptance and the respect of his own family. The question this fine novel leaves the reader with is whether Saburo and Yoshiko will be able to change their definition of  family.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

No accounting for taste

In literature as in love we are astonished at what is chosen by others.
Andre Maurois

That people's tastes are so different has got to be a good thing. How unfortunate it would be if all men pursued the same few women or if some nutritious foods, perhaps liver or mushrooms, went uneaten because nobody could stand to eat them.

Even so, as Andre Maurois reflects, we all find it amazing that others like what they do. Of all the men in the world, why did she marry him? How could anyone enjoy that music? Did you actually read Moby-Dick because you wanted to? We all probably think such questions, even if we don't dare ask them.

When I told some friends We were planning to go to Elkins, W.Va., this week to listen to Irish music, I sensed some wonder in their eyes. Why would anyone want to do that? We were not alone at the Augusta Heritage Center concert last night, however. The crowd, though relatively small in comparison with many rock concerts, was enthusiastic. Some of us love Irish music. Some of us don't. It makes for an interesting world.

When it comes to literature, however, I sometimes think human taste is not nearly diverse enough. Too many people seem to be reading the same books. Too many read books, or at least buy books, only because they are best-sellers, because everybody else is reading them. Meanwhile so many terrific books, some much better than most of the books on best-seller lists, go virtually unread.

At a used book sale last weekend I overheard one woman tell another she was interested in finding books by only a few select authors. When she found an author she liked, she read everything she could find by that author, then just had to wait for a new book to be written. I admire devotion to particular authors, but her attitude seemed extreme to me. Diversity in taste is a virtue not just from one person to another but also within each individual. One should be able to enjoy books both by David Baldacci and Thomas Hardy, as I do, and Irish music as well as classical or rock music.

Monday, July 21, 2014

An incompetent hero

I do hope Puppet on a Chain is not Alistair MacLean's best book. I opened it a few days ago with great expectations, having heard some glowing comments about MacLean's novels, never having read any of them before. Those expectations remained high for a few chapters.

About the time MacLean's hero, Interpol agent Paul Sherman, gets beaten up within an inch of his life for about the third time in three days, I began to have doubts. How can anyone take such punishment repeatedly, yet keep going as if nothing has happened? What's more, how can anyone deliberately keep getting himself into such situations? Even Sherman himself doubts his own competence, as when he hides a second gun on his person because he expects, correctly, his primary gun will be taken from him. Then he hides the key to his handcuffs because he expects them to end up on his own wrists.

Sherman is in Amsterdam trying to track down the head of an international drug-smuggling ring. He operates alone, except for two young and beautiful female assistants whose main function seems to be to give him someone to protect and/or rescue periodically. He goes into highly dangerous situations, expecting the worst, not just without backup but without even telling anyone else where he is going. Nor does he think to share his suspicions in case he doesn't make it back alive.

Published in 1969, Puppet on a Chain appears under the influence of the James Bond movies of that period. MacLean's villains, like those in the movies, choose not to simply put a bullet into their adversary's head. Rather they concoct elaborate means of slow execution that allow the hero an opportunity for escape, usually more because of amazing good luck than anything else.

Maxwell Smart, who was anything but smart, always got his man. Paul Sherman gets his, too, but this wasn't supposed to be a comedy.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Frost

I heard Robert Frost recite some of his poems in the park last night. Or so it seemed anyway. In truth, I heard Dr. John Anderson, associate professor of communication studies at Emerson College, impersonate the poet at the 15th annual Ashland Chautauqua in Ashland, Ohio. The theme this year is poetry and prose. Previous appearances this week were by Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Miep Gies, the woman who sheltered the Frank family in Amsterdam during World War II and who preserved Anne's diary after the family was captured and taken to prison camps. Still to come are Edith Wharton and C.S. Lewis.

Through Anderson, Frost recited several of his most familiar poems, A Road Not Taken, Mowing, Mending Wall, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Birches and Fire and Ice among them. He also spoke about what he seeks to accomplish in his poetry, how he likes his poems to begin in delight and end in wisdom, or "in clarification of life" and "a momentary stay of confusion." He spoke of poetry as performance and as "a sound of sense."

He spoke, too, about the conflict in his poems, the opposing views expressed in the same works, the stress of order against wildness. An example is Mending Wall in which the phrases "something there is that doesn't love a wall" and "good fences makes good neighbors" each appear twice.

Frost appreciated the "beauty of the spoken language," one reason for the popularity of his poems even today. He didn't care for poetry that seemed too poetic or too literary. He favored lines that rhymed, unlike most poets of his generation, and poems that could be read and appreciated by ordinary readers, not just literary critics. Thus he could make a living by writing poetry and by giving public readings, much as he did last night, with a little help from John Dennis Anderson.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A better class of vocabulary

You're never going to make as much as a tooth-puller as you will by being an orthodontist.
Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Just as the human population tends to divide itself into social classes, so do the words in the English lexicon. As Henry Hitchings suggests, some words just make a better impression than others.

Anglo-Saxon words do the heavy lifting in our language. They represent the working class. Most of the words we use are among the oldest words in the language. These include words like go, come, know, good and work. They tend to be short and simple, but they don't impress anybody. When we want words with clout, we usually turn to those borrowed from other languages.

When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they brought the French language with them. Most of the English people went right on using the same words they had always used, but French became the language of royalty, the law, politics and economics. Some English kings didn't even speak English. To this day, nearly a thousand years later, we still us words like attorney, jury, evidence, prison, govern, peace and treaty with French origins. It is because of the Norman influence that we say we had pork or beef for dinner, not pig or cow. Doesn't that sound a lot better?

Another level of elitist words comes from Latin. These words stem not so much from the early Roman period in England as from the Renaissance period when Latin was considered the language of learning, as well as of the church. From Latin we got words like scientific, encyclopedia, literary, adjective. facsimile, minus and extraterrestrial.

To really make a good impression, especially if you have an advanced degree, you want to use words borrowed from Greek. That's where orthodontist comes from. So do such words as psychiatrist, pediatrician, paralysis, migraine, symmetry and almost every word that ends with -graphy or -ology (such as geography and geology).

English words from Latin and Greek have been called "SAT words" because they are more likely to show up in college-entrance exams. We may not know why, but most of us think we sound smarter when we use words other than those good old Anglo-Saxon originals.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Still MAD

It says something when the funniest item in MAD magazine consistently is one called The MAD Vault, an excerpt from a past issue. Maybe it says something about me. Maybe it says something about the magazine.

I picked up my first issue of MAD, the March 1958 issue, as a 13-year-old. I have been reading it ever since, with just a few misses along the way. The price has risen from "25 cents Cheap" to "$5.99 Cheap!" but I still find it worth buying, even though I skim some articles and ignore others altogether. I just don't enjoy it as much as I once did. It's often too coarse for my taste. The March 1958 issue (No. 38) had mentions of vodka, mobsters, peeping toms and Jayne Mansfield, topics probably considered a little racy for the time. The recent June issue (No. 527) mentions illegal narcotics, butt selfies, STDs and a teacher sexually obsessed with a student. Times have changed, I guess.

Here's what I think of today's MAD, specifically that June issue:

The cover I still miss those classic cover drawings by artists like Kelly Freas and Norman Mingo, but I must admit Mark Fredrickson does a very good job.

The Alfred E. Neuman quote A quote from Alfred E. Neuman has been a mainstay on the table of contents page at least since 1958, and I always read it. And where else but in MAD magazine will you find the table of contents listed in the table of contents?

The Fundalini Pages These quick hitters don't all work, but enough of them do to make these pages near the front of the magazine among the best each issue.

The parody Prominent in each issue of MAD is a parody of a recent movie or popular TV show. These are always more fun if you are familiar with the subject of the parody, which I rarely seem to be anymore. I have read The Hobbit, however, so I read and enjoyed reading The Slobbit.

The Darker Side of the Lighter Side of ... For many years Dave Berg did a regular feature for the magazine in which he picked a topic, then drew comic strips about it. In recent years MAD has been recycling some of Berg's gags but with new, edgier punchlines. I was never a big Dave Berg fan, but I still like his versions better.

Planet Tad I never miss this. It consists of excerpts from the imagined blog of a 14-year-old boy and is consistently one of the funniest things in the magazine.

Spy vs. Spy I stopped reading this years ago. It seems to be the same gag over and over again.

The ads I hated it when MAD started accepting advertising several years ago, but now I don't mind them at all. So many of the real ads are difficult to distinguish from the ad parodies that it can be fun trying to figure out which is which.

The Strip Club These comic strips near the end of each issue just aren't that amusing, and they are usually a bit gross besides. One gag in the recent issue is about a student who thinks mercury tastes good and then falls over dead.

The Best of The Idiotical Like the Fundalini Pages, this feature is comprised of short gags. These come from the magazine's web site, and most of them are clever.

The MAD Fold-In The June issue marks the 50th anniversary of the Fold-In. I still think of it as a new feature that will never catch on. Actually I think it's a clever idea, but I have never wanted to ruin a magazine, which I consider a collectible, by folding in the back cover

Friday, July 11, 2014

The meaning of Manhattan

Manhattan may be one of the best known and most populous islands in the world, but what its name actually means remains something of a mystery. A Wikipedia article on Manhattan states the name, originally written as Manna-hata, means "island of many hills" in the Lenape language, the Lenape being one of several Indian tribes that once lived on or visited the island. Douglas Hunter, author of the 2009 book Half Moon about Henry Hudson's New World exploration, which included a voyage up what is now known as the Hudson River, suggests other possibilities.

Hudson actually was commissioned in 1609 by the Dutch East India Company to find a northeast route to China, that is to sail through the Arctic waters north of Europe. He soon changed directions, deciding he would have better luck finding a northwest passage instead. Apparently even in the 17th century it was easier to get forgiveness than permission. Hudson thought the river might provide the answer. It didn't, but on his way he found what is now Manhattan Island. One of his officers, a man named Robert Juet, recorded the word Manna-hata in the Half Moon's logbook. Juet neglected to say where the name came from or what it meant, however.

Some authorities, Hunter writes, thought the name meant "people of the island" in an Algonquian dialect. Another theory says it meant "the island where we all became intoxicated." Someone else argued that none of the native languages would have had a word for intoxicated and that the name may have referred simply to foolishness.

What's true of the name Manhattan is true of most names eventually. They come to mean what or who they represent and their original meanings become obscure or lost altogether. Fortunately the Hudson River is not one of those names. We know where that name came from.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Choosing the right word

All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

Writing begins with an idea. "Ideas are to literature what light is to painting," the French writer Paul Bourger once said. Such things as grammar, punctuation, spelling and style also play a part. Still, as Francine Prose puts, it finally comes down to choosing one word instead of another.The best writers find the best words.

In her book, Prose illustrates her point, as she says she does in the college classes she teaches, by going through the opening paragraph of Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" practically word by word. Why did O'Connor choose the words she did, and why does it make a difference? By the time you read Prose's next couple of pages you realize O'Connor's choices made all the difference in the world.

We can play the same game with one of the most familiar opening lines in literature, found in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Austen's punctuation may be suspect, but it's hard to argue with her word choices.

I am reminded of those who say, as I have said myself, there is no such thing as a synonym. Words may mean similar things, but rarely do they mean exactly the same thing or carry the same weight. They don't sound the same, and even in the written word, how words sound makes a difference. Imagine if Austen, instead of writing "universally acknowledged," had tried "widely accepted" or "recognized around the world." How much different that opening line would have been. Instead of "a single man in possession of a good fortune," she could have written "a wealthy bachelor." Instead of "must be in want of a wife" she might have said "must be looking for a spouse" or "needs a good woman."

Would Jane Austen's opening line have been as memorable had she opted for other words to say what she had to say? I doubt it.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Revisiting Virgil Tibbs

I couldn't help picturing actor Sidney Poitier in my mind while reading John Ball's 1980 novel Then Came Violence. That's because this is one of the seven novels Ball wrote featuring his black police officer Virgil Tibbs, whom Poitier played in In the Heat of the Night, one of the best movie mysteries of all time, and two lesser films, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs and The Organization. Sometimes characters as portrayed in movies seem totally different from the same characters described in novels, but not so Virgil Tibbs. Sidney Poitier got the part down perfectly, even if the screenwriters took some liberties, making Tibbs come from Philadelphia, not Pasadena, Calif., in In the Heat of the Night and from San Francisco in the sequels and, in one of the later movies, giving him a wife he doesn't have in the novels.

The lack of a wife is important in Then Came Violence. Tibbs comes home from a vacation to find all his possessions have been moved, without his knowledge, from his apartment to a suburban house. When he gets to the house, he finds he has a beautiful wife and two children he has never met before. His new family turns out to be that of the president of an African country on the run for his life. The president's wife and kids have been placed in Tibbs's care for their protection, which doesn't make a lot of sense because Tibbs works such long hours on his job he is rarely home. Nor does it make sense that the trusted officer wasn't briefed about all this ahead of time.

Tibbs is prevented from spending more time with his temporary family by a series of violent crimes, which lead to other violent crimes when a gang of vigilantes appears to be taking the role of judge, jury and executioner. Tibbs takes his job seriously, but never more so than when it becomes personal and the life of another man's wife, whom he has come to love himself, is endangered.

As in the classic film version of In the Heat of the Night, this novel proves to be as much about race as it is about crime. Tibbs is black and his partner is of Japanese descent. Good characters and bad ones are divided equally between black and white. Even though the narrator tells us mixed-race, or salt-and-pepper, gangs are rare, the story gives us not one but two such gangs. Ball may be trying too hard to write an equal opportunity novel. Still it is a terrific story that, even after more than 30 years, still seems timely, as well as exciting.

Friday, July 4, 2014

At war under the sea

The Depths of Courage: American Submariners at War with Japan, 1941-1945 by Flint Whitlock and Ron Smith, something like a submarine itself, goes both above and below the surface. Whitlock and Smith give readers the big picture of how submarines contributed so mightily to the Allied victory in the Pacific and the little picture of life aboard some of those submariners as remembered by veterans of the war.

One of these submariners was co-author Smith, who joined the Navy hoping to fly planes but ended up under the sea instead. He had some hairy adventures on different boats and, unlike so many of his fellows, lived to tell about it.

U.S. submarines had little impact early in the war, primarily because their torpedoes consistently went awry or, when they did hit their targets, failed to explode. Captains complained, but the admiral in charge insisted the problem lay with the crews, not the torpedoes. Once the leadership problem got corrected, the torpedo problem was quickly resolved, and Japanese ships began touching the bottom of the ocean in large numbers. American submarines accounted for 60 percent of the tonnage of Japanese cargo vessels sunk during the war.

"The American submarines were the noose that slowly stangled Japan to death," the authors write.

"The price of victory, however, was high. Of the approximately 15,000 men who served in the 288 American submarines from 1941 to 1945, 374 officers, 3,131 enlisted, and fifty-two submarines -- 22 percent of the total -- were lost."

Whitlock and Smith provide details about virtually every major submarine mission in the Pacific war. This ranks among the best books about submarine warfare I have read.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Raising the stakes

I used to hate it when, while still living at home, one of my sisters would come to me with a question and preface it with the words "you're smart." It seemed to raise the stakes somehow. I didn't mind taking a stab at answering a question, but the "you're smart" comment seemed to turn the pressure on. I imagine it's like public speakers who receive such a glowing introduction they may wonder how they can ever give a speech that will live up to it.

That's a bit how a feel about Tim Conway's autobiography What's So Funny? My Hilarious Life. The title raises the stakes. How can the book ever live up to its title?

It is, in fact, a very funny book. Conway tells some great stories about his pranks at the expense of Harvey Korman, his college days at Bowling Green State University, his early career on a Cleveland television station (that he was reluctant to leave when invited to Hollywood), his experiences on McHale's Navy, his failed sitcoms, his movies with Don Knotts and, of course, his long relationship with Carol Burnett. I enjoyed the tale about the time he and two show business friends dressed up in Hollywood lion costumes to sneak into a football game featuring the Detroit Lions, then found the costumes too hot to actually enjoy the game. My favorite story is about the time when Conway was in his third year on the hit TV comedy McHale's Navy and he got a call from his mother telling him about a job opening at the Chagrin Falls, Ohio, hardware story. He pointed out he was on a successful show in Hollywood, but she, sounding very much like a mother, said, "You got a chance to get a good steady job. You should take it."

I am a big Tim Conway fan and have been since I knew him as Ensign Parker. I enjoyed the book very much. Yet every time I picked it up I would notice the cover and wonder if the book was really living up to the title. The novel Philip Roth called The Great American Novel is not among those held in highest regard by his fans and critics. Coincidence? I wonder.