Friday, August 29, 2014

Still fresh

This is a bit premature. Had I waited just a few months to read P.G. Wodehouse's Something Fresh, published in 1915, I could have celebrated the 100th anniversary of Blandings Castle, the dotty Lord Emsworth and, next to Jeeves and Wooster, Wodehouse's most celebrated series of stories. But I read it in 2014, so I will just have to celebrate the 99th anniversary instead.

There is much to celebrate here. Something Fresh remains just as entertaining as the day it was published. There is a timelessness in so many of Wodehouse's stories, including this one. A Blandings short story, "The Custody of the Pumpkin," published in 1935, contains a reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but there is nothing like that in this novel. Here Blandings is in a world of its own in a time of its own.

The plot, while simple enough to follow when reading the novel, is too complicated to explain here. Simply put, Lord Emsworth's younger son, Freddie, is engaged to the daughter of a wealthy American named Peters, who collects scarabs, the most valuable of which Lord Emsworth absentmindedly slips into his pocket, then imagines that Peters must have given it to him. Peters, staying with his daughter and several other people at Blandings Castle, plots to get the scarab back without causing a row that will interfere with the approaching marriage. There are, of course, other characters and other complications, all of which, in Wodehouse's hands, make for a delightful story.

To give those unfamiliar with Wodehouse the flavor of his writing, here are my three favorite lines from Something Fresh:

 "I have often wondered what General Sherman would have said about private tutoring, if he expressed himself so breezily about mere war."

"Cold is the ogre which drives all beautiful things into hiding."

"One of the Georges -- I forget which -- once said that a certain number of hours sleep each night -- I cannot recall at the moment how many -- made a man something, which for the time being has slipped my memory. Baxter agreed with him."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Men's books, women's books

Walk into a department store from almost any entrance and you will find yourself in the women's department. That's because women like shopping for clothes and accessories more than men do. They spend more money in department stores, so their displays of goods are larger and more prominent. Men's clothing tends to be located in the back of stores or in a far corner or upstairs. Since women often accompany men when they go shopping, and in many cases do the shopping for husbands and boyfriends, the route to the men's department takes them past women's fashions, where they will likely be tempted to linger.

Are bookstores, at least large bookstores, perhaps a little like this?

In an essay called "They Don't Call It a Mania for Nothing" found in the book Passion for Books, Harold Rabinowitz writes about "a famous Yiddish writer" named Chaim, whom I assume to be Chaim Potok, author of The Chosen and other works. In it Rabinowitz describes going into a Barnes & Noble store with Chaim, who compares it to an old-world synagogue because it had a men's section and a women's section, "the men looking at the books about sports and airplanes (and sneaking surreptitious glances at the lingerie photography), and the women looking at fiction (and sneaking a peek at the firemen's calendars)."

I don't know much about synagogues, but I do find myself in a department store occasionally, so I like that comparison better. The division of bookstores into men's departments and women's departments may be much more subtle than what department stores do, but it does seem to occur for the simple reason that women are more likely to enter bookstores than men are. Also, they are more likely than men to take their children into bookstores. Look for a discussion of good places for men to meet women and you are likely to find a mention of bookstores.

Women read more fiction than men do, and the romance sections of bookstores tend to be larger and more prominent than the sections, if they even exist, devoted to science fiction, westerns and military fiction, which men are more likely read. Men who read tend to favor nonfiction, especially books about sports, history, politics and guides of a practical nature. One usually has to search awhile to find these books in a large store.

Then there are the non-book items frequently sold in bookstores, things like gifts and greeting cards, which women are more likely to buy. These items are often found in the front of stores, near the checkout counter.

As a man, I am really not complaining about any of this, just observing, as Chaim did upon entering that Barnes & Noble.

Monday, August 25, 2014

New York City interludes

I'm not quite done with Dancing Aztecs, Donald E. Westlake's 1976 comic novel discussed here last Friday. Every few pages Westlake brakes from the frantic pace of the story, which amounts to one big chase after a missing treasure, to reflect upon either New York City or the humans who live there. I counted 11 of these interludes or narrator soliloquies or whatever you might call them, but I didn't start counting until I was midway in the book These may, in fact, represent the best writing in the novel.

"Everybody in New York City wants to get somewhere," Westlake writes to begin one of these interludes. For the next page and a half he reflects on all the places New Yorkers want to get before saying, "Everybody in New York City wants to get somewhere. Every once in a while, somebody gets there," and then Westlake gets on with his story.

A few pages later Westlake writes, "New York City is amid more water than any other major city in the world, and pays it less attention." He uses this observation as a springboard to discuss how the residents of New York, unlike residents of Paris, London, San Francisco and other major cities around the world, all but ignore their waterways.

Less than 10 pages later, he writes, "Almost nobody lives in New York, and that's especially true of those born there. They live in neighborhoods, the way small-town people live in small towns, and they very rarely leave their own districts."

A few pages further on, he writes, "Although Manhattan, like all the rest of America, is entirely dependent on automobiles, it has made less provision for them than any place else in the country," and off he goes again.

Lesser writers, by which I mean most writers, would be doomed to failure if they tried something like this, especially if they attempted it as often as Westlake does in this novel. Yet Westlake succeeds every time. Each interlude rings true. Each is witty and interesting. And each somehow manages to move the story along even while interrupting it.

Westlake, who died in 2008, paid homage to New York City in his novels the way Woody Allen does in most of his movies. Nowhere else in his work does his affection for the city come through as clearly as in these Dancing Aztecs interludes.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Still funny after all these years

For nearly 40 years I have believed Dancing Aztecs to be one of Donald E. Westlake's funniest novels. Returning to it for the first time since its publication in 1976 has confirmed my belief. The novel, at 374 pages also one of Westlake's longest, really is a joy to read.

The plot is both simple and complex at the same time. A number of imitation gold statues of a dancing Aztec priest have been sent from South America to New York City and distributed as thank-you gifts to members of a civic-minded sports committee, but thanks to a mix-up, the original gold statue worth a million dollars becomes hidden among them.

That's the simple part. It gets complicated because so many different characters have statues and a gradually increasing number of people, both mobsters and ordinary joes, are trying to find the valuable one. If you have seen It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, you will have an idea of what this story is like, except that Westlake's version is a lot more fun. Somehow he manages to make each of these many greedy characters unique, each one with his or her own story and personality. There's the idiotic college professor. There's the swimming pool salesman who sleeps with other men's wives but loves his mom best. And so on. Following the action, and there is plenty of action, is not nearly as difficult for the reader as it might seem.

The novel seems a bit dated now, not so much because of technological change as social change. No reputable publisher would be likely to accept some of the slurs directed at blacks and homosexuals, not all of which are character-driven. If one can forgive that as a product of the times, Dancing Aztecs stands as one of the funniest novels you are likely to read.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Hess questions

Three of the 19 chapter titles in Peter Padfield's new book Night Flight to Dungavel: Rudolf Hess, Winston Churchill, and the Real Turning Point of WWII take the form of questions. Two others contain the word question. In truth, the entire book asks more questions than it answers.

Why did Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler's top deputies, make a solo flight to Scotland in May of 1941? Was he really trying to negotiate a peace as he claimed? Did Hitler know about and approve his flight ahead of time? Did Prime Minister Winston Churchill know about it ahead of time? Did the British trick Hess into making the flight in the first place? Why was Hess kept prisoner until his death in 1987 long after Nazis convicted of greater war crimes had been released? Did he, a feeble 93-year-old, really die by his own hand? Or was he murdered as some evidence suggests? But if so, why and by whom?

Padfield asserts, as other historians have done, that Hitler did not really want a war with Britain. His goals were capturing a large chunk of Europe and thwarting  the Communists to the east of Germany. There were many in Britain in 1941 who would have gladly accepted peace terms with Germany at this point, but Hitler did not count on Churchill, who was determined to resist the Nazis even if Britain had to do it alone. Hess apparently flew to Scotland hoping to contact high-ranking appeasers who might be able to overthrow Churchill and take control of the British government, then make peace on Germany's terms.

But why keep it all a secret to this day? Presumably the secrets, if revealed, would in some way blemish Britain's glorious history. Might members of British royalty, who after all came from Germany in the first place, have been among those striving to make peace with Hitler? Might Hess have revealed to the British government details about the planned mass extermination of European Jews that Churchill, for whatever reason, kept to himself?

A reader should not blame Padfield for not answering all the questions he asks in his book. Until the British government spills its secrets, no one will be able to answer these questions with any certainty. But the author might have presented the questions with more clarity than he does. During the middle part of the book he buries the reader in details that, for the ordinary reader at any rate, reveal little of interest. The best chapters are those at the beginning, where Padfield tells what is known about Hess's death, and the latter chapters, where he sums up and speculates about possible answers to many of these lingering questions.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Returning to the 1970s

Reading Paul Gallico's The Boy Who Invented the Bubble Gun is like taking a step back into the 1970s. Richard Nixon is still president. Hijackers, not terrorists, are travelers' biggest worry. Even Gallico's writing style has a 1970s feel to it. The novel reads like a novelization of a live-action Disney movie of the period.

Gallico (1897-1976) once said in an interview, "I'm a rotten novelist. I'm not even literary. I just like to tell stories and all my books tell stories." Well, I wouldn't quite call him a rotten novelist, even if the rest of his statement rings true. Certainly he tells quite a story in one of his last novels, The Boy Who Invented the Bubble Gun, published in 1974.

The story centers around a nine-year-old boy named Julian West, smothered by his mother and ignored by his father, who has modified a water pistol to shoot bubbles. With the birthday money from his grandmother, he runs away from home in San Diego and boards a bus for Washington, D.C. He plans to go to the U.S. Patent Office, become an overnight millionaire and finally impress his father.

Also aboard the bus are a couple of teenagers sneaking as far away from home as they deem safe to have sex for the first time, a Russian spy, a high-ranking officer from the Pentagon (traveling by bus?), a dangerous criminal determined to hijack the bus to take him into Mexico and a Vietnam veteran named Frank Marshall who may be Julian's best friend or his worst enemy. Even Marshall isn't sure which.

You don't have to believe any of this to enjoy it. Gallico was also the author responsible for The Poseidon Adventure, another entertaining story about an unlikely grouping of people in an unlikely scenario.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Becoming an American

Parisians are just as free to become New Yorkers, or Bostonians, as are Koreans and Cambodians; so to opt for France seems a reasonable turnabout for an American.
Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak

Henry Hitchings, in his book The Secret Life of Words, tells of a colonist named Robert Beverley who in 1705, while visiting in London, described himself as an Indian in a book he was writing called The History and Present State of Virginia. Now why would he call himself an Indian and not an American?

Hitchings explains that at the time of Beverley's writing the word American was already in use, but it was used to describe Indians, not colonists. Up until the Revolution, most colonists still thought of themselves as British or as Virginians or Pennsylvanians or whatever, depending on which colony they happened to live in. And apparently some of them considered themselves Indians, living as they did on a continent populated with Indians.

The narrator of Saul Bellow's novel More Die of Heartbreak seems to think what you call yourself is just a matter of choice and, of course, residency. For a Parisian to become a New Yorker, he just has to move to New York City. Yet it may not be that simple, especially if one is talking about a country, not a city. There is the question of citizenship, for example. There are also the questions of language, culture, length of residency and, of course, how you are accepted by other people in that country.

Just three pages later in Bellow's novel, his narrator writes about moving to a Midwestern city to teach at a university, after spending most of his life as an American in Paris. "Arriving, I felt conspicuously foreign. But in fact Iranians are driving the taxis, Koreans and Syrians own the vegetable markets. Mexicans wait on tables, an Egyptian services my television set, Japanese students take my Russian course." In other words, this American by way of France, despite what he said earlier, thinks of many of his fellow residents of that city according to their country of origin, not according to where they are currently living or even what their citizenship may be.

Even today, no less than in the 18th century, it takes some time to become fully American.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It's all copacetic

I first heard the word copacetic in college in the 1960s. The guys in the dormitory, for a time, loved to play with the word. It was fun to say, and not everyone knew what it meant. Once everyone learned what it meant (satisfactory, OK, excellent, acceptable or fine), the word seemed to die out for lack of use. I have rarely heard or seen it used since.

Tap dancer Bill Robinson, Mr. Bojangles himself, claimed to have made up the word copacetic as a lad in Richmond, and he probably really believed it, but others claimed they had heard the word before Robinson came along. Reference books, including American Slang by Robert L. Chapman and the American Heritage Dictionary, describe it as "origin unknown."

Curiously, the book Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang dates the word from the 1920s, which would have been long after Robinson, born in 1878, was a boy. The American Heritage Dictionary does not label copacetic slang at all. The literary quotation it cites comes from novelist John O'Hara, who wrote, "You had to be a good judge of what a man was like, and the English was copacetic."

I wrote a few days ago about how English words with Latin or Greek origins carry more clout than simple Anglo-Saxon words. Much of copacetic's appeal is that it both sounds and looks like it must have come from Latin or Greek. Yet as far as anyone knows, it is just a made-up word. If Bill Robinson didn't invent it out of thin air, somebody else did.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Two approaches to writing

On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for fifteen hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from my passionate outpouring in order to eat.
Jack London, John Barleycorn

Jack London describes one approach to writing: devoting every possible moment to a project until it is finished. Ernest Hemingway advocated the other extreme. Arnold Samuelson, who as a young aspiring writer spent some time with Hemingway in Key West, later recalled this scene: "'The most important thing I've learned about writing is never write too much at a time,' Hemingway said, tapping my arm with his finger. 'Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don't wait till you've written yourself out. When you're still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what's going to happen next, that's the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don't think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.'"

Most other writers probably fall somewhere between these two extremes, but I suspect the majority have more in common with Hemingway than London. Writers I read about or hear speaking on the subject at book festivals or writers' conferences usually set aside a few hours each day, most often in the morning, to do their writing. Writers with full-time jobs may get up early to write a couple hours before going to work. Women with families may write before their kids get up in the morning or after they go to bed at night. Some writers try to get away to Starbucks or a public library to write for a couple hours.

Few writers seem to spend all day writing, although I imagine some do. I don't know how prolific authors like Joyce Carol Oates or Isaac Asimov can churn out so many books in one lifetime without spending many hours each day with a keyboard in front of them.

However long a writer spends writing each day, two bits of Hemingway's advice strike me as particularly sound. First, stop at a place where it will be easy to get started again, rather than stopping when you're stuck. You don't want to take a chance on letting a good idea get away from you while you're taking a break, but halting in the middle of a paragraph or even in the middle of a sentence, after you have already gotten something of the idea down in writing, seems like a good way to get a quick start the next day.

Second, I like Hemingway's suggestion of letting one's subconscious mind do the work. Sometimes our best ideas or the best solutions to our problems, whether we are writers or not, come when we are not even thinking about them. I recall Francine Prose calling computer solitaire "the dirty little secret of the literary world." She, as well as many other writers she has talked with about it, spend a lot of time playing computer solitaire when they are supposed to be writing, she says. Perhaps this is a serious distraction for writers, yet I haven't noticed any slacking off in the writing and publication of books. Writers seem to be as productive as ever. Is it possible that computer solitaire may, in fact, give writers a chance to let their subconscious minds do the work while they have a little fun?

Friday, August 8, 2014

Judging books by their covers

Cover illustrations have just one main purpose and that is to help sell books. Yet on rare occasions, cover art can actually be fine art, worthy of a museum. Some books may be worth owning simply because their covers are lovely to look at.

I thought about this recently while rereading Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, reviewed here two days ago. I recall that when I bought the paperback for 60 cents back in the 1960s, I was drawn less by Shirley Jackon's name, which I was familiar with having read "The Lottery," than by the cover. I still think this paperback cover is the best I have ever seen. The illustration by someone named W. Teason, who also drew the cover art for a number of Agatha Christie paperbacks of that period, seems perfect to me, even though it doesn't depict anything actually in the story. Yet it captures the mood of the tale, which is about a sinister girl, fond of hiding and spying. The berries she holds, possibly poisonous, also fit in with Jackson's story. I'm sure I would have kept this paperback all these years even if I hadn't liked the novel.

My second favorite paperback illustration is the one Michael Whelan drew for Isaac Asimov's The Robots of Dawn, first published in 1984. Whelan drew the cover illustrations for all four of Asimov's robot novels, but I consider The Robots of Dawn cover to be his masterpiece. As Teason did with Shirley Jackson's novel, Whalen captured the spirit of the story, which is about about a robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, that is almost, but not quite, human. All four of the novels in the robot series are futuristic detective stories in which Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics play a part. Do a web search for Michael Whelan and you can find a stunning array of illustrations by him used as cover art for many science fiction and fantasy books. Works of Wonder, a collection of Whelan's best art published a few years ago, has this particular illustration on its cover.

As for illustrations on hardback novels, my two favorites both happen to be on books I have yet to read. I hope to read them someday, but in the meantime I am enjoying the covers. Also, the illustrations for both books wrap around the book, including both the front and back covers. One of these is the illustration John Rush did for Jane Smiley's The Greenlanders, published in 1988. The novel is set in the 14th century, and I think the cover captures the time and place, as well as simply being a beautiful piece of art. Go to John Rush's website, www.johnrushillustration.com, to see more of his work, mostly on historical or mythological themes.

Another cover drawing I particularly like is the one Mark Summers drew for Bartle Bull's 1992 novel The White Rhino Hotel. This beautifully detailed line drawing seems to reflect the story, which is about European settlers in Kenya after the first world war. Go to marksummers.prosite.com to see some marvelous examples of the artist's other work.

I would gladly go to a museum to see these fine works of art. Of course, I really don't have to. I have them all in my personal library.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Another visit with the Blackwoods

It was a pleasure revisiting Shirley Jackson's Blackwood family after so many years away. I first read We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) when I was in college. Now in my late-in-life campaign to reread a few old favorites, I recently selected this aging paperback, and I think I enjoyed it more than I did in college.

Neither a horror story nor a ghost story, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is simply weird and macabre, something on the order of a Charles Addams cartoon. Most of Blackwood family died from eating poisoned food before the story opens, and Constance Blackwood, who does the cooking for the family, has already been tried for murder and acquitted. Now she lives with her younger sister, Mary Katherine, our narrator, and their elderly Uncle Julian in the crumbling Blackwood house on the edge of town. Most of the townspeople still think Constance a murderer, and they keep their distance. They do have a few callers, people too curious about this strange family to stay away. Mary Katherine runs the family errands, but keeps her time away from the house to a minimum because other people make her nervous.

They are content in their isolation until Charles, a cousin, comes to call and then stays and stays. He sweet-talks Constance, but Mary Katherine suspects his real interest is the money hidden in the Blackwood safe. She plots to chase him away. Then comes a fire that destroys much of the house, another death and further isolation. All this makes Mary Katherine's closing words, "'Oh, Constance,' I said, 'we are so happy,'" seem like just about the creepiest thing in the book.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Not your ordinary spy story

William Boyd's 2006 novel Restless is no ordinary espionage thriller. We can start with the title. That doesn't sound like a spy story. Certainly Robert Ludlum would never have chosen it for one of his books. Even John LeCarre, whose titles don't generally sound like espionage novels either, would have opted for something a little wordier.

Then there's the fact that the story's two major characters are both women, a mother and a daughter. And, although it may be a story about World War II espionage, about half the action takes place in the 1970s, more than 30 years after the war is over.

Finally, the most significant spying that takes place during the novel involves British agents operating  in, of all places, the United States. In 1941, England is desperate for the U.S. to enter the war because they question whether they can defeat Germany, especially if Russia falls. The British spies try to find a way to persuade a reluctant Congress to declare war.

Boyd's novel opens in 1976 when Sally Gilmartin, an Oxfordshire grandmother, reveals to her daughter, Ruth, that her real name is Eva Delectorskaya. Born in Russia, she was recruited by the British Secret Service and trained to be a spy. Ruth, a single mother, has never suspected a thing. Now, all these years later, Sally/Eva believes her life may be in grave danger, and she decides to go on the offensive, with her daughter's help.

Back in 1941, when Eva was operating in the United States, she is nearly killed while on a mission in New Mexico. She believes she was betrayed by a member of her own team, who survives in 1976 and lives as a prominent member of British society. Eva, as Sally Gilmartin, has been in hiding for all these years. Now, remembering all those skills she learned decades before, she decides it's time to go back to work.

The author maintains the same level of inventiveness throughout. If he never reaches the edge-of-your-seat excitement you may find in other thrillers, Boyd never gives his readers reason for thinking they have read something like this before or that they know what is going to happen next.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Wolf man in love

Alice Hoffman has been writing excellent novels for a number of years, but I think of the 1990s as her golden age. During that decade she wrote Turtle Moon (1992) and Practical Magic (1995), stories that were magical in a literary sense, as well as mystical in an other worldly sense. Add to that list Second Nature (1994), a novel I have only now read.

Stephen, a young man raised by wolves since he was 3, is considered dangerous and is under psychiatric care when Robin Moore simply walks out of the institution with him and takes him to the island home she shares with her teenage son Connor. Soon she has him looking and acting like an ordinary young man, though Stephen is always trying to figure out how he can escape the island to return to his wilderness and his family of wolves.

Robin is separated from her police-officer husband, who wants his wife back and certainly isn't pleased another man is living with her. It looks to him, as well as to Robin's friends, that she has a live-in lover. In time appearances become reality, and Stephen begins to have second thoughts about fleeing.

Robin reveals her secret about Stephen being the Wolf Man to only a couple of people, but when an island girl is savagely murdered, the secret quickly leaks out and Stephen becomes the prime suspect.

Second Nature succeeds as a love story and as a murder mystery. Mostly, however, it is a tale about ordinary people thrown into an extraordinary situation. Alice Hoffman tells this story with skill and grace.