Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Describe yourself in 105 book titles or less

It has been a couple of years since I last did this end-of-the-year meme, the object of which is to answer each question with the title of a book read during the year. The more books one reads, the easier it becomes to answer the questions. I managed to finish 105 books in 2015, so let's see how I do.

Describe Yourself One for the Books (another possible answer: Still Fooling 'Em)

How Do You Feel? Beyond Words (or Wit's End)

Describe Where You Currently Live The New World

If You Could Go Anywhere, Where Would You Go? The Greater Journey

Your Favorite Form of Transportation The Night Train (or Hemingway's Boat)

Your Best Friend Is A Comedy & A Tragedy

You and Your Friends Are Deadline Artists (or Super Boys)

What's the Weather Like Where You Are? Stone Cold

What Is the Best Advice You Could Give? God Guides (or Save the Males)

Thought for the Day Love Wins (or Heads You Lose)

How I Would Like to Die The Big Sleep (or Death in the City of Light)

My Soul's Present Condition A Restless Soul

There, that wasn't so difficult. And a few of the answers even manage to come close to the truth.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Speech without words

Bill Murray and Emma Stone
I bought the Cameron Crowe movie Aloha on DVD recently because it was cheap and because of an appealing cast, which includes Bill Murray and Emma Stone. I watched it the other night expecting a romantic comedy but finding instead a drama (with a wee bit of comedy) that I enjoyed more than I had hoped. Released nearly one year ago, Aloha was something of a clinker at the box office, and the critics liked it even less than the people who actually bought tickets.

It seems like a talky movie and, in fact, is one, the Cameron Crowe lines sometimes flying by faster than your mind can grab them. Yet some of the most effective scenes, the ones that will one day bring me back to the movie, are those in which expressions and gestures, not words, carry the story.

As the title suggests, that story is set in Hawaii, home of the hula, a dance in which hand movements express the meaning. The hula becomes the metaphor for the movie, in which various characters use their hands, eyes and facial expressions to carry significant conversations.

We all know, of course, how important body language can be in communication. It's not just the words we say but how we say them. At a restaurant a week ago I noticed a woman on the other side of the room talking with a man. I had no idea what she was saying, but I found her interesting just for the flamboyant manner in which she moved her hands and for the vivid expressions on her face.

I have just started reading American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon. Solomon writes that Rockwell admired Pablo Picasso and at least once actually flirted with abstract art himself. Fortunately he stuck with doing what he did best, painting pictures that told entire stories without benefit of words.

This blog may be dedicated to words, but both Aloha and Norman Rockwell remind me that words do not and cannot convey everything we have to say.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The big warm web of books

Each year his school holds a two-day event at the store where kids read favorite books requested by the teachers. I love that he's learned that we each play a role in the big warm web of books: choosing, giving, reading, writing.

Laurent Dubois, My Bookstore

Laurent Dubois, who has written books about Haiti and soccer, is among the contributors to My Bookstore, in which writers discuss their favorite places to buy books. His choice is The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., where he often goes with his son, Anton, nine-years-old when the essay was written.

Both Dubois and his wife may be writers, and thus readers, but he credits The Regulator with welcoming Anton into what he calls "the big warm web of books." I do love that phrase. It speaks of the connections that unite writers and readers, who desperately need each other, as well as booksellers, publishers, librarians, cover illustrators and probably others as well.

Similar connections could be found for virtually any product you might name, such as movies, furniture, food and laundry detergent. Those who consume the product need those who provide the product, and vice versa. But rarely are those other "webs" as warm as the one involving books. Book people, real book people like young Anton, share a passion, not just an interest or a need.

Dubois describes our roles in this web of books as choosing, giving, reading and writing. Each is something each of us, at least each of us who share the passion, can do. Yes, even writing. We may never write a book, but we can write about books. That's what I do in this blog. Others may post reviews on Amazon, LibraryThing or wherever. We can describe our reactions to things we read in our e-mails to friends. Students like Anton write about books in their school essays. Before I began reviewing books back in the early 1970s, I kept a notebook in which I recorded my thoughts about the books I read. I have always found that writing about books helps me understand them better and appreciate them more.

As for choosing and giving, those are something many of us do, especially at this time of year. Rare is the Christmas when I do not give at least one book to a loved one, and usually more. Giving a book requires thoughtful choosing. Often the books we give say more about us than they do those we give the books to. If a friend loves those Chicken Soup books, maybe that's what we should give, not that novel we loved but which the friend may never read. I gave a couple of gift cards this year. Let the readers in my family choose their own books. That's my own ideal Christmas present.

Monday, December 21, 2015

I'd rather do it myself

I wouldn't think of buying books at random, without my bookseller's recommendation, no matter how good the reviews may be.
Isabel Allende, My Bookstore

Isabel Allende
The novelist Isabel Allende, one of dozens of writers who tell about their favorite bookstores in My Bookstore, surprises me. Never buy a book unless one particular bookseller recommends it? How is this even possible, let alone a good idea?

Others contributors to this book express confidence in the recommendations of their favorite booksellers. Novelist Angela David-Gardner writes, "Nancy (Olson) has a genius for matching books and readers. People often ask her, 'What should I read?' She knows her regular customers well enough that she can usually make an immediate suggestion." Well, OK, but isn't that what one might expect from someone who runs a small, independent bookstore? It may be the one clear advantage independent stores have over Barnes & Noble. Yet a suggestion or a recommendation is a long way from never buying a book without someone's suggestion or recommendation. What about whims, impulses, persuasive reviews, comments by friends or simply the fact that if you liked one Isabel Allende novel you might want to read another?

Allende's dependency on her bookseller would, it seems to me, take most of the fun out of shopping for books. I enjoy the search. When you browse the shelves and tables of bookstores, you never know what you might find. And rather than buying exclusively from one bookseller and one bookstore, I enjoy making the rounds to favorite stores, as well as discovering new ones.

I admit something about Allende's trusting relationship with her bookseller appeals to me. I don't recall ever having a close relationship with any bookseller, despite the many hours I spend in bookstores. I envy the fact that someone knows her well enough to know what books may interest her. Even so, my tastes are so diverse that I don't believe I could trust anyone to select my books for me. I wouldn't want someone else to order for me in a restaurant. Why would I want that in a bookstore?

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Yankee we all loved

Many baseball fans hate the New York Yankees because, at least until recent years, they seemed to own October, but was there anyone who didn't love Yogi Berra, the Yankees' human mascot whose 10 World Series rings were the most earned by anyone?

So, however you may feel about the Yankees, you will probably enjoy Driving Mr. Yogi, Harvey Araton's 2013 bestseller that focuses on Berra's later years when, with Ron Guidry, another Yankee great, as his driver, protector, dining partner and best friend, he traveled to Tampa every spring to help the team's catchers prepare for the season ahead.

Berra actually boycotted the Yankees for a number of years, refusing even to attend any games or appear at Old Timers Day, a Yankee institution. When he had been Yankee manager, he expected to be fired one day. Managers always get fired sooner or later, and usually sooner when working for George Steinbrenner. But Berra objected to the way he was fired, through a third party rather than by Steinbrenner face to face, and after a successful season as well. Araton tells how Steinbrenner finally came to Berra, apologized and invited him back into the fold. The old catcher happily relented and was a Yankee for the rest of his life.

Berra, like a lot of old men, was a creature of habit. He liked to eat the same things at the same restaurants on the same day every week, and he wanted to be picked up on time every time. This routine might have driven a lot of companions crazy, but Guidry, whom Berra called Gator because he lives in Louisiana, possessed the right combination of humor, firmness and patience to build a close and lasting relationship. Berra, for all the special privileges he enjoyed, wanted to be treated as just one of the guys, even when he was in his 80s and most of the other guys were in their 20s, and Guidry had the knack for helping the oldtimer fit in.

One reason Berra, who died in September at the age of 90, was so well loved was his many quotable lines, like "When you come to a fork in the road, take it" and "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore." One of his sons once said of him, "He's the most quoted man in the world, and he never says anything." Yes, he rarely had much to say, but young players learned that when Berra did say something to them, it was worth listening to. He possessed a great baseball mind long after his body began to fail him.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A written record

Augustus Saint-Gaudens
As I read The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, I wondered why David McCullough gives so much more attention to some of those Americans in Paris than others. Why, for example, do Elihu Washburne, appointed minister to France by President Grant, and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens get chapters to themselves, and more, while painters John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt get just a few paragraphs here and there?

The answer to my question soon became evident. Washburne, who served in Paris during very turbulent times in the mid-19th century, kept a detailed journal in which he wrote about those times and his own significant role. Saint-Gaudens and, to a greater degree, his wife wrote excellent letters, which survive and provide great source material for any historian or biographer. Sargent and Cassatt apparently wrote less about their own lives, giving future scholars less to write about. What McCullough says about Sargent mostly comes from what friends and art critics said about him.

Winston Churchill was a great man, but I wonder if those long, in some cases multi-volume, biographies of his life are partly due to the fact that he wrote so much about himself, giving his biographers more material than they can fit into a single volume. Meanwhile, William Shakespeare, for all the great plays and sonnets he left behind, apparently wrote little about himself, giving biographers next to nothing to work with.

Mary Chestnut
Some people are famous today only because they kept excellent diaries. These include Samuel Pepys, Mary Chestnut and Anne Frank. When I was in Amsterdam in 2003, I visited the home where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. It was a moving experience, but it is unlikely anyone would visit that site today if not for this teenage girl's diary. Otherwise she would have been just one more anonymous victim of German death camps.

Moving closer to home, if you should happen to discover a diary kept by your great-grandmother, or perhaps letters she wrote to a friend over decades, you will know much more about her life than that of any of your other great-grandmothers. Leaving a written record of your life, even if it's nothing more than writing your own obituary and putting it where your children will find it, improves the odds that you and your accomplishments will be remembered.

I wonder about historians and biographers of the future. Will e-mails, texts, blogs and Facebook pages, if they are even available for study, provide the same kind of source material that letters and diaries provide?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Americans in Paris

When I think of American intellectuals in Paris, I think of writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein between the world wars. Yet the appeal of Paris to intelligent, creative Americans began long before that, as David McCullough tells us in his 2011 book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. He might have gone back to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, but instead McCullough focuses on the period from the late 1830s to about 1900 when Americans in large numbers flocked to Paris, some remaining for years.

These Americans included writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote some of his best novels in Paris, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry James, but they also included many who traveled to Paris to study art (John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Mary Cassatt among them) or medicine (such as Elizabeth  Blackwell, America's first female doctor, and Mason Warren). A few went to Paris to study one thing, then became famous for doing something else. Samuel F.B. Morse was there to study art, then invented the telegraph. Oliver Wendell Holmes went to Paris as a medical student but made his reputation in literature.

A few notable Americans in Paris didn't quite fit the usual mold. These included such people as P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb, White Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody.

McCullough's book proves to be something of a who's who of important Americans of the 19th century, yet at the same time it becomes a history of 19th century Paris from the perspective of those American visitors. These were trying times for Parisians, with a siege by a Prussian army, the brutal Paris Commune and Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat. Americans were there to witness it all, as well as the world's fairs and the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

McCullough writes readable history, which is why his books become bestsellers. I'm never disappointed with his books, and The Greater Journey certainly does not disappoint.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Science at the seance

"Doesn't he know the scientists are the easiest to fool?"
Stanley (Colin Firth) in Magic in the Moonlight

"It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer."
Harry Houdini

Nearly a century later, it seems amazing that Scientific American once conducted a serious study of mediums and seances and, furthermore, came close to declaring one particular medium the real deal. David Jaher tells about it in a new book, The Witch of Lime Street: Seance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World.

The medium in question was known as Margery, although her real name was Mina Crandon, the wife of a Boston doctor. Other contenders for the cash prize the magazine offered to anyone found to be a true medium were quickly exposed as frauds, but Margery stood up to all the tests the scientists and journalists could throw at her. Enter Harry Houdini, the magician and escape artist, who sat in on some of the seances. He didn't believe Margery for a minute, mainly because he knew how to duplicate most of the effects from her seances, things like floating tables and ringing bells, and he demonstrated them in some of his shows.

Thanks, in part, to Houdini's skepticism, Margery never received the Scientific American prize, yet her career as a spiritualist didn't suffer much. She continued to have faithful supporters, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although the tests revealed much chicanery in her act, not every amazing feat she performed could be explained, not even by Houdini. Some argued she was a true medium who employed tricks to add theatrics to her performance.

As for the word "seduction" in the subtitle, Margery was an attractive woman who, even in the presence of her husband, used her sex appeal to seduce many of the men who came to expose her. Houdini himself was one of her targets.

I happened to watch the Woody Allen movie Magic in the Moonlight a day or two after finishing The Witch of Lime Street. The film, set at about the same period of history, is about a famous magician determined to prove an amazing medium is a fraud. He is very nearly fooled, at least in part because she is an attractive woman and he wants to believe. Houdini, according to Jaher, wanted to believe, too. He wanted very much to speak with his late mother again. Yet he never fell for Margery's charms or her tricks.

In a book full of amazing detail, Jaher describes a period of history following the Great War, when there was a great desire to communicate with sons and lovers lost in that war. Spiritualists thrived during the 1920s. Houdini, the flimflammer, did as much as anyone to expose the flimflam.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The birth of an idea

Where do you get your ideas?

Writers usually hate to be asked that question, probably because it is a question they are asked so often.Whether we are reading John Grisham's The Firm or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, we readers are inclined to wonder where the idea came from. What prompted the writer to write that particular story?

Sometimes we get lucky and authors volunteer their inspiration. Such a case is novelist Tracy Chevalier, best known for Girl With a Pearl Earring. She talks about her idea for the story in another lecture I caught this week on

That the novel was inspired by the great Johannes Vermeer painting of the same name should come as no surprise. The story is about the painting of that work, and the painting itself  usually appears on covers of the book. Even so, how did the painting provide the idea for the story?

Chevalier says she loves art, but not all art. When she goes to a museum, she says, she usually focuses on just a small number of paintings, those that, in her mind, suggest an untold story. Girl With a Pearl Earring is one such painting. She was delighted to learn, she says, that nobody knows who the girl in the painting was or how Vermeer came to paint her. Thus she was free to imagine and invent.

As she studied the painting, Chevalier says she noticed the "conflicted look" on the face of the girl. Does she feel guilty, ill at ease? Is she in love with the artist? "I wonder what the painter did to her to make her look like that," Chevalier says.

It may be the portrait of one young woman, but the novelist saw it as "a portrait of a relationship." The painting leaves a mystery which the writer sought to solve. She said she looked for "a story to fill in that gap."

The story she wrote, whether true or not, answers the questions she found in the painting. The girl is a pretty servant whose job includes cleaning Vermeer's studio. The painter asks her to pose for him wearing his wife's clothing and earring. The reasons for her conflicted feelings are thoroughly explored.

I love the painting. I love the novel. I love the movie based on the novel. Now I love knowing how Tracy Chevalier got her idea.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Don't talk about it, just do it

Bennett Cerf once said that none of his authors was as good at stirring up publicity as Truman was; the publisher adored the way Truman started talking up a book long before it was finished. He had none of the usual guarded secrecy concerning his work in progress that most authors possessed. Talking about something made it real in his mind, even if he didn't have a word on the page, and so he chattered away happily, dropping hints and tidbits.
Melanie Benjamin, The Swans of Fifth Avenue

Truman Capote
The above passage from The Swans of Fifth Avenue, reviewed here a couple of days ago, was still on my mind when I read an item in the December issue of mental_floss magazine about New Year's resolutions. It gives three hints for keeping resolutions, the first of which is, don't tell others about them. "Talking about the person you want to be gives you a premature sense of accomplishment, which hampers your desire to keep working hard," the article says. If you resolve to lose 20 pounds in 2016 and tell your friends about it, they will congratulate you and say, "Way to go." You've already won the praise, so why work so hard to actually lose those 20 pounds?

My wife nearly fell into that trap when, last spring, she noticed some photo albums in the clubhouse of the condo complex where we live in Florida were falling apart. She decided she would place the old photos into new albums when she returned in the fall, and then made the mistake of telling people about it. She was, of course, roundly praised. Over the summer her resolve faded. Nobody looks at these albums from the 1980s and 1990s anyway. Most of those people are now dead. Why bother? I give her credit for showing the grit to follow through on her commitment and tackling those photo albums this fall.

As for Truman Capote, in the last years of his life he loved going on TV talk shows and speaking to journalists about the great novel, Answered Prayers, he was working on. Yet he never completed the book. Some chapters were published in magazines as short stories, but that was as far as he ever got. Talking about the book was so much easier than actually writing it, and in his mind apparently, it produced the same rewards. He did his book tour without having to write the book.

Carla Buckley
Despite what the late Bennett Cerf and other publishers may think, most writers are wise to say little about their next books until they are finished or nearly finished. I recall speaking with Carla Buckley following the publication of her first novel The Things That Keep Us Here, which I had read and enjoyed. I asked her, what next? She would only say it would be another science/medical thriller about a potentially dangerous environmental threat. Was that saying too much? I don't think so. It made me eager for her next novel, which turned out to be Invisible, without giving too much away. It must have pleased her publisher without actually revealing so much of the story that she was no longer as committed to actually writing it.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Nonfiction fiction

Truman Capote is sometimes credited with inventing the "nonfiction novel" with In Cold Blood, published in 1966. It was a novel, yet one that described actual events and the roles played by real people in those events. Now, almost 50 years later, Capote is himself the subject of a nonfiction novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.

The swans of the title are elegant socialites like Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith and Pamela Churchill Harriman, whose photos graced newspaper society pages back in the 1950s and '60s. Capote, a young, homosexual writer, somehow became a part of their circle, one of the girls. He became especially close to Babe, wife of CBS exec Bill Paley, whom Benjamin paints as a man who craves sex with beautiful women, including the other swans, but not his own wife, the most beautiful of them all. Although Capote has no sexual interest in Babe either, he does admire her beauty and grace. She admires his wit and his willingness to listen to her and to try to understand her.

Both Babe and Truman are haunted by their mothers. Her mother taught her that her only worth would be as the beautiful wife of a very rich man. She has followed the script written by her mother, but without finding happiness. She wears a wig, has false teeth and is never seen by anyone without her makeup, that is until she reveals herself to Truman. As for Capote, his mother abandoned him in a small Southern town while she pursued dreams that did not include him. He has never gotten over this feeling of abandonment.

Success spoils Truman Capote. After the In Cold Blood becomes a smash, he is virtually finished as an important writer. He is much more interested in parties, alcohol and drugs. As for Babe Paley, she is spoiled by time. Benjamin describes the swans as "women with a shelf life." Age is cruel to all of us, but perhaps especially to beautiful women and athletes because it comes so soon.

Yet Babe and the other swans are ultimately destroyed by Truman himself when he sells a story about their lives to Esquire magazine. Again, this is nonfiction fiction, and even with the names changed, the swans can spot themselves in the story, which reveals the shallowness of their lives. One of them even commits suicide.

Benjamin, like Capote before her, beautifully blends what we know about real people with what we, or at least she, can only imagine. She has Capote say at one point, "I think that's the epitome of living, to be able to create art out of your life. It's what we do, in a way, isn't it? In writing?" Capote himself made a mess out of his life, but now Melanie Benjamin has turned it into art.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The genius outside ourselves

On Thanksgiving morning, I caught another TED lecture by another author, this time Elizabeth Gilbert. She poses the question, must artistry lead to anguish? Do artists really have to suffer for their art? Does creativity always carry inherent emotional risks? The answer, at least in today's world too often seems to be yes.

Yet this was not always the case, Gilbert says. Before the Renaissance genius was considered something artists had, something they were blessed with, however temporarily, not what they themselves were. Genius was just something certain artists had the use of for awhile, before it moved along to someone else. The practical difference, Gilbert says, is that all the pressure is now on the artist to produce great art, where before artists believed both the credit and the blame for their work lay elsewhere. They were, at least psychologically, off the hook.

Gilbert advocates trying to return to the idea of muses, sprits or whatever, but her argument is not just that this is a useful mind trick. She argues this may actually be true. Writers often say they don't know where certain ideas came from. They talk as if characters invented themselves, the authors simply transcribing their words. Other creative people tell similar stories. Great ideas come from dreams. They spring, unbidden, at the oddest times and places. That proverbial light bulb sometimes just lights up, and if you happen to be the beneficiary, you feel not responsible but blessed.

In small ways, this sort of thing has happened to me three times over the past few days in the writing done for this blog. On Wednesday, the day I planned to write about truth in fiction, I happened to listen to an Amy Tan lecture in which she speaks on that very subject. Last week, intending to write about reading old books and magazines, I came upon a related Hi & Lois comic strip. A couple of days earlier, I came upon a passage in one novel about precision in language and a passage in another about ambiguity in language, both serving the same purpose of protecting the speaker or writer.

How can one explain such things? Fortunate coincidences? The spirit of God? A genius outside ourselves? A muse? Whatever the case, they give us one more thing to be very thankful for.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The truth in fiction

Paola gave this a great deal of thought and finally answered, "We never really know them well, do we?"


"Real people."

"What do you mean, 'real people'?"

"As opposed to people in books," Paola explained. "They're the only ones we ever really know well, or know truly." Again she gave him a moment to consider, then said, "Maybe that's because they're the only ones about whom we get reliable information." She glanced at him, then added, as she would to a class, just to see if they were following, "Narrators never lie."

Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles

The irony here in this discussion of truth in fiction is that it is found in fiction, a mystery novel by Donna Leon. And is it the truth? We know this is what Paola really says because that is what the narrator says she says. And narrators never lie.

The narrator's truth is not the only truth in a novel. Some of the truth is what we find for ourselves, but that is a different kind of truth, which I will come back to in a little bit. For now let us consider what Paola says to her husband in the final paragraphs of this story.

She contrasts what we know about real people, even the people we are closest to, with what we know about the people in novels. In fiction, we know what people are thinking and exactly what they say. When the narrator tells us something happens, we know it happens in just that way. Sometimes, as in the final chapters in Leon's novel, what happens is a bit confusing, yet the narrator's version is all we have. It is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as far as these characters and this story is concerned.

History books and biographies are said to be nonfiction, yet we cannot know for certain that what their authors write is, in fact, the truth. Authors of nonfiction books can be mistaken or deliberately misleading, or they can be biased. Read different books about the same famous person or the same battle and you may read very different versions of the truth. In fiction there is but one truth, the truth the narrator tells.

After that, of course, the truth is up to us, the readers. This morning after breakfast I listened to a lecture on creativity by novelist Amy Tan on She said that moral ambiguity is necessary in fiction. It is, at least, necessary in good fiction. Even in a good mystery novel like Leon writes, where the bad guys usually get their just deserts, moral ambiguity can be found. Moral ambiguity, in fact, lies behind that passage I quote above. Did Paola's husband risk his life to rescue a young woman because, as a police officer, that was his job? Or did he do it because he is secretly in love with her? Because her husband, to her, is a real person, she cannot know for certain. We readers, being party to what the narrator has written, know a little bit more. Still, ambiguity remains.

Tan went on to say that fiction is about finding "a particle of truth," not necessarily the whole truth. And that particle may be different from one reader to the next, and no reader may find quite the same particle found there by the author.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Shop talk

After I had hung up from a call from someone at the newspaper where I worked, my wife commented that I had sounded different during that phone conversation than I normally sounded. She was right, of course. While speaking with my associate, my voice had been louder and deeper. I had spoken with more authority and more certainty than in my usual speech around the house. I had spoken in my business voice.

Many of us have different voices for work than we use with our family and friends. This may be especially true of anyone who works with the public, such as those who sell things or provide services. The receptionist at the newspaper where I worked seemed to have three different voices, one for when she answered the phone or spoke with the public, a second for when she spoke casually with white people and a third for when she spoke casually with other black people.

Sometimes it isn't just one's speech that changes from one situation to another. My editor, who retired at the end of last month, has always had a hearty laugh, but it seemed to be heartier in some situations. Sitting at my desk in the newsroom, I could tell from the sound of the laughter coming from his office whether he was speaking with one of his employees or with a businessman, a politician or some other visitor from the outside. I was rarely wrong.

The barber I had for many years was a congenial man in his shop, although I noticed that he usually said basically the same things each time I went in and asked the same questions. He never remembered the answers from one time to the next. When I encountered him a couple of times outside his shop, I greeted him, but he walked by as if he hadn't heard me and didn't know me. He was off duty and apparently didn't need the patter that helped him in his business.

It is not just our work that may give us a different voice (or laugh or personality). We may speak differently to children than to adults, to very old people than to younger people, to strangers than to friends, to "important" people and celebrities than to ordinary people, to those we are trying to impress (like dates or someone we hope will hire us) than to everybody else.

Whether these different voices are a good thing or a bad thing can depend upon the situation and our own motivation. Hypocrisy and phoniness are wrong, as is patronizing others. Yet often our other voices represent an improvement. They may show us what we are capable of. Perhaps that stronger, more confident voice I used on the phone is how I should sound all the time.

Friday, November 20, 2015

On separating the author from the book

T.S. Eliot, in his role as a literary critic rather than as a poet, made a distinction between what he called the "man who suffers" and the "mind that creates." Just as Christians believe in a God in Three Persons, so Eliot believed in a writer in two persons. One is someone just like you and me who eats, drinks, waits for traffic lights, catches colds, loves and hates, watches television, reads newspapers and ultimately dies. The second person, the "mind that creates" is the one responsible for those works of literature, good or bad.

Why did Eliot make this distinction? Because he didn't think readers, perhaps especially literary critics, should confuse one with the other. Judge each, the human being and the work of literature, separately. A writer, as the "man who suffers," may have been a bigot, a traitor or a child rapist. You may hold that against that writer as man, but don't hold it against the books he wrote. Judge them on their own terms. At least I think that's what Eliot had in mind.

This view has merit, at least up to a point. Many writers, however crude and rude they may have been in their private lives, produced beautiful works of literature. It would be wrong to discount their writing, or worse refuse to read it, because we don't approve of their behavior. their political views or whatever. Good writing, even when produced by bad people, is still good writing.

Yet it can be hard to read To Kill a Mockingbird without thinking that Harper Lee is writing about her own childhood, or to read Slaughterhouse-Five without recalling that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was himself a POW in Dresden, or to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without recognizing the influence of the Mississippi River on the young Samuel Clemens. Our knowledge of the "man who suffers" impacts our appreciation of the "mind that creates," whether we will it or not. Perhaps one reason William Shakespeare is so highly regarded as a writer is that we know so little about him as a person.

If we should avoid confusing the "man who suffers" with the "mind that creates" when reading literature, how about when we are reading (or writing) literary biographies? Most biographers use writers' fiction to make sense of their lives. One wonders whether Eliot would have also found that objectionable, too.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Perspectives for reading

Chip: "I need to take today's paper to school."

Hi: "But I haven't read it yet."

Chip: "We're studying current events, Dad. I can't take yesterday's paper."
Hi & Lois, Nov. 17, 2015

Her custom was to let back issues pile up for at least six months before reading them, for she insisted that this was sufficient time to put things into proper perspective ...
Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles

There you have two opposing views on reading, and they can apply to reading just about anything. One is represented by Chip, the teenage boy in the Hi & Lois comic strip. To him, yesterday's news is old news, not current events. To others like him, yesterday's best-selling books are irrelevant books. They aren't interested in reading them, or any other books, unless "everybody" else is reading them. Those who complain about the old magazines in doctor's waiting rooms and barber shops may also be members of this club.

Then there are those represented by Paola, the wife of Commissario Brunetti in Donna Leon's mystery A Sea of Troubles. She lets her weekly magazines stack up for six months before she tackles them, appreciating the perspective this gives her. After six months she has a better sense of what's actually important and therefore what's worth reading. In this group also are those who read older books, not just the classics but lesser books that have been around for a few years and are no longer popular, if they ever were.

I am currently reading A Sea of Troubles, which was published in 2001. I guess that reveals which side I take. I read The Girl on the Train while it was still the No. 1 bestseller, so I do read some current books, and I read review copies of current books, but mostly I read books that have been on my shelves a few years. Sometimes I discover I no longer have any interest in reading a book and even wonder why I acquired it in the first place. Other books I am still keen to read. Perhaps that's what Paola considers "proper perspective."

C.S. Lewis taught old books, but he wrote new books. Thus he had an interest in both. Yet, in one of his essays, he argued, "But if he (the ordinary reader) must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it."

That may be overstatement, but he has a point, and again it is about perspective. Older books, especially literary works and nonfiction books on certain subjects, like theology, have been tested by time. Instead of being influenced by what others are reading now, you can be influenced by what others have read in the past.

Over the summer I read two or three issues of Smithsonian that were each more than 20 years old. Their being that old didn't seem to adversely affect my reading experience much. There were a few articles I ignored because they were obviously dated, but those relating to history, art, literature and natural history, always my favorite subjects for Smithsonian articles, were as interesting as they would have been decades ago. The ads were probably more interesting because of the perspective gained through all those years.

As for newspapers, I worked on them for more than 40 years, so I well know how quickly they change from today's news to tomorrow's trash. Yet from the perspective of all those years in the business I know that today's news is impacted by yesterday's news. And despite what Chip may think, current events remain current for more than a single day.

Monday, November 16, 2015


"He was here for a half-hour after lunch, but then he said he had to go to a meeting."

One of the things Brunetti liked about Signorina Elettra was the merciless accuracy of her speech. Not, "had to go to a meeting," but the more precise, "said he had to go to a meeting."
Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles

The theater was in what she would euphemistically call an "interesting neighborhood."
Melanie Benjamin, The Swans of Fifth Avenue

One afternoon last week I found both of the above passages in two novels I am reading. It occurred to me that they describe opposite approaches to our use of language. One employs precision in our speech and writing, the other ambiguity. Both serve essentially the same purpose: self-protection.

In the Donna Leon mystery, Signorina Elettra, a clerical worker in the Venice police department who also does amazing investigative work with her computer, opts for precision when speaking of her boss. Rather than say he "had to go to a meeting," she says "he said he had to go to a meeting." Is she implying her boss lied to her? Not really. She is simply stating what she actually knows: He said he had to go to a meeting.

I learned very early in the newspaper business to attribute everything that can be attributed. That's how newspapers protect themselves from libel suits. An Associated Press story on the front page of today's Tampa Bay Times uses such phrases as "Iraqi intelligence officials say," "a Defense Ministry statement said" and "French officials revealed." The Times itself is not always this careful. An inside headline today boldly states "Man hit, injured badly illegally crossing road." It's not really a newspaper's place to accuse someone of breaking the law, although a sheriff's office report is cited in the body of the story.

Even gossips can use this strategy. Instead of saying that someone is having an affair or has a drinking problem, they use phrases like "I heard" or "a friend told me." If the rumor turns out not to be true, well, it's not their fault.

In her novel, Melanie Benjamin tells of writer Truman Capote taking socialite Babe Paley to movie in a cab. They pass through a neighborhood she terms interesting.  That's a useful word  that can sound complimentary, whether it is so intended or not. Here ambiguity, rather than precision, protects the speaker or writer. Similarly a woman may be described as striking. Sounds like a compliment, doesn't it? But she could be striking because she is ugly or poorly dressed or because her makeup is a mess. An imposing man may look strong and powerful. Or he may simply look obese. Ambiguity helps a person be truthful without revealing the real truth or the whole truth.

Most of us, especially those of us who seek to be truthful without offending anyone, become skilled in the use of both precision and ambiguity to communicate. Whichever works.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Insults sour the sweet life

I enjoy reading the British movie magazine Cinema Retro, which focuses on films from the 1960s and 1970s. That was a great period in movies, at least for people my age. We never seem to tire of the music of our youth or the movies of our youth, and Cinema Retro revisits those old films in amazing detail. The current issue, for example, devotes 12 pages to The Bridge at Remagen (and this article is to be continued in the next issue) and six pages to La Dolce Vita, both films released in 1960.

Reading the latter article, I was struck by some of the negative comments made at the time about the stars of the movie. Marcello Mastroianni learned that director Federico Fellini had chosen him for the part  because he wanted "an ordinary face." Paul Newman was once considered for the lead role, so the comment credited to Fellini may not have been true. Just the same, it stung Mastroianni, who probably thought he had anything but an ordinary face.

As for Anita Ekberg, the star most of us remember from that film, she was told "they didn't need acting ability for that kind of role." So maybe Ekberg wasn't the greatest actress of her era, but she was great in that role. Still the comment hurt her. Maybe it prompted her to do better. But perhaps it didn't.

Fellini underscored the insult at a press conference after completion of the film when he told reporters Ekberg's talent lay in her bust. The actress got her revenge when she told the press, "It was I who made Fellini, not the other way round." I had forgotten Fellini directed the movie, but I'll never forget Anita Ekberg. So perhaps she was right, and perhaps he was, too.

How many times have we all heard and repeated the old adage "if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all"?  And how often have we all ignored it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Waste words

An insurance claims agent who called me last week couldn't seem to get out a sentence without employing the word actually. In one run-on sentence he used it at least five times. He may have slipped it in a time or two before I started counting. Once I became aware of all the actuallys, I had difficulty following what he was trying to say. Not that I usually understand insurance agents anyway.

Watching Antiques Roadshow Monday night, I noticed two of the experts also overdoing actually, even if not up to the insurance man's standards. Once you start noticing things like this, you notice them everywhere.

Many of us have a favorite unnecessary word or phrase that we use constantly without even being aware of it. We hear things like "or anything," "and everything," "and stuff" and, of course, "you know" all the time, but we usually don't notice it either.

Can you answer a question without first saying the word well? I don't think I can. Listen to news network interviews or presidential debates and you will hear well at the start of most replies. It could be a lot worse. Actually.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Words in flux

Why do we call unfamiliar people strangers even though they may not be at all strange? Because they once were. The word strange once meant "foreign." Today it means "odd" or "unusual." When Shakespeare wrote about "one of the strange Queen's Lords," he was referring to one of the foreign queen's lords, not one of the odd queen's lords or one of the queen's odd lords.

Reading Shakespeare, Milton, the King James Bible or any works from centuries past can be tricky because the meanings of words are always changing, and sometimes those changes are radical. Meat once meant food in general, not just the food from animal flesh as it does today. In King Lear, Shakespeare referred to "mice, and rats, and such small deer," suggesting that any animal, or at least any wild animal, was a deer. Similarly, birds of any kind were once called fowl. Today that word is more specialized, referring more to farm birds or game birds.

Today the word naughty means "mischievous," such as a naughty child. At one time the word meant "wicked." The word complexion once referred to temperament, not to skin.

The word disease once meant, as the word suggests, "a lack of ease" or "anxiety." Today it refers to illness. A gale once meant "a gentle breeze." To be cunning was once considered to be a good thing, while pretty was once considered a bad thing, referring more to craftiness than to good looks.

It doesn't take centuries for meanings of words to change. It can happen in one lifetime, as many of us have noticed. Political correctness has made some words, like crippled or Oriental, unacceptable, even though they were in wide use just a few years ago. Words like gay and mouse have so far retained their old meanings, yet their newer meanings have become the first ones many of us think of when we encounter them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Not such dull work

In his Dictionary of the English Language, the first if its kind, Samuel Johnson defined dull as "not exhilarating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work." Yet in his dictionary, Johnson did his best to relieve the dullness with his witty and creative definitions. Maybe he wasn't quite the wit Ambrose Bierce was in his The Devil's Dictionary many years later, but still he was pretty good. Vivian Cook offers some examples in It's All in a Word.

In another joke at his own expense, he defined lexicographer as "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge."

Johnson said of oats that it is "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

He defined a politician as a "man of artifice; one of deep contrivance."

A network, he wrote, is anything "reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections." We can just imagine how he must have laughed over that one.

Johnson used his dictionary not just to make jokes, but also to express opinions. He described lesser as "a barbarous corruption of less" and astrology as "the practice of foretelling things by the knowledge of the stars: an art now generally exploded as without reason."

As for sonnet, he called it a "short poem consisting of 14 lines ... It is not very suitable to the English language, and has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton."

Modern dictionaries are more objective, more accurate and more balanced, but they are also more likely to fit Samuel Johnson's definition of the word dull.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Another long walk

The recent Emma Hopper first novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James invites comparison with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2013). Both novels tell of an elderly person taking off suddenly on a very long walk, leaving a spouse behind. And each novel turns into a love story, though perhaps not in a way the reader might expect. That two writers should come up with similar ideas at about the same time is not that unusual. A year ago ("Who's in control?," Nov. 7, 2014) I wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett having eerily similar ideas for a story set in the Amazon. Gilbert ultimately dropped the idea. Patchett turned it into State of Wonder.

I can understand why some readers might prefer the subtlety and surrealism of Hopper's version of this story, although I favor Joyce's. Both are worth reading, however.

In Hopper's novel, Etta, a woman in her 80s, sets off walking from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Ocean, leaving her husband, Otto, to fend for himself. They met many years before when Etta was a teenage teacher in a rural school and both Otto and his friend, Russell, were among her students. She and Otto were married after his return from World War II, yet Russell, always nearby, has long carried a buried passion for Etta. When she sets off on her walk, Russell is the one who takes off after her. Otto patiently waits for her return, creating amazing folk art in the meantime.

As for James, he is a coyote who accompanies Etta for much of her long journey. He keeps up his end of the conversation, or at least she imagines he does.

Hopper alternately tells us what Etta, Otto and Russell are doing now and what happened during those earlier days when Otto left school to go to war, but Russell, who couldn't pass the physical, stayed behind. Much of the novels consists of letters written during the war.

This is a tender story about long-term love, just a bit too ambiguous for my taste.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lots of Lebowski

Something about the 1998 film The Big Lebowski inspires not just repeated viewings but repeated books about the  film. I finished reading another one of them a couple days ago, namely The Big Lebowski: An Illustrated, Annotated History of the Greatest Cult Film of All Time by Jenny M. Jones. Just in my personal library I find The Big Lebowski:The Making of a Coen Brothers Film, I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You, Two Gentlemen of LebowskiThe Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind and Coen Brothers. The latter three books discuss Coen a Brothers films in general. And a few nights ago I watched the movie yet again. Maybe that's what makes a cult film: it's one you just can't get enough of.

Like The Wizard of Oz and It's a Wonderful Life, among others, The Big Lebowski was not a hit when it was first released. Critics panned it. Moviegoers ignored it. I'm proud to say I got it the first the first time I saw it with my son in a south Pittsburgh theater, although I'm not at all certain why I liked it as much as I did. It has many things I don't normally like in movies, including loads of f-words and Jeff Bridges. But I loved The Big Lebowski from the first, and still do.

The Jones book, suitable for Christmas gifts and coffee tables, is a gem, filled with discussions of just about anything you might want to know about the movie, plus lots of illustrations.

Is The Big Lebowski a detective story, a western, a musical, a sports movie or an offbeat comedy. Jones answers yes to all these questions. She views it as a remake of The Big Sleep, The Searchers and even The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz? I guess I'll just have to watch it again.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It's a scandal

My first experience with a shopping mall came in the 1950s at the Westgate Shopping Center in Toledo. It still exists, at least as recently as a couple of years ago, but today it seems little more than a strip mall. Back in my youth, however, going to that mall with my family was a very big deal. The first McDonald's I ever saw was located nearby, which doubled the excitement of a trip to Westgate.

Back then the malls in many cities seemed to have a "gate" in their names -- Westgate, Northgate, etc., depending upon which end of town they were located. That practice ended in the early 1970s with Watergate, the biggest political scandal in American history. The scandal was named after the hotel where the breakin occurred that started the whole thing. A second Watergate scandal nearly occurred in the late 1970s when I spent a night at the hotel when I was in Washington for some briefings at the state department. I ordered a pheasant dinner in the Watergate's fanciest restaurant. In my very first bite of rice I felt something hard and spit it back out onto my plate. It was broken glass. I found other pieces of broken glass in the rice. Fortunately I didn't swallow any. Some people get pheasant under glass. I got glass under pheasant. At least it resulted in a free meal, plus a good story.

The Watergate Hotel, so called because it is located along the Potomac River, still exists. The scandal may have even been good for business. Not so for shopping malls, however. They don't want their names to sound like another scandal, for nowadays virtually every scandal, large or small, has a "gate" at the end. The New England Patriots have their Deflategate, Hillary Clinton has her Emailgate and Chris Christie had his Bridgegate. We have also heard Filegate, Nannygate, Pardongate, Troopergate, Weinergate, Bountygate, Rathergate and dozens of others. The gate suffix seems to be as popular in other countries as it is in the U.S. Britain had its Camillagate, Australia had its Choppergate, Finland had its Iraqgate and Sweden had its own Nannygate, and there are many others.

Centuries ago some English prisons had the gate suffix, namely Newgate and Ludgate. Before that walled cities had gates, and those gates had names. Way back then, a "gate" in a name meant an actual gate. Imagine that.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Woolf words vs. Wodehouse words

It should surprise no one that P.G. Wodehouse used different words (and words differently) in his novels than Virginia Woolf did in hers. They were, after all, very different writers. Even so, a study of the two writers' use of words, reported by Vivian Cook in It's All in a Word, makes fascinating reading.

In a typical Wodehouse novel, Cook writes, the word girl appears an average of once every 869 words. In written English in general, that word appears just once out of every 3,942 words. In a Woolf novel, girl shows up once every 2,865 words. The reason for this is that a Wodehouse novel usually involves a young man's difficulties in love with a young woman, and in Wodehouse's world, a young, unmarried woman is always called a girl. Woolf sometimes referred to young women as girls, too, but her books are not the light-hearted romantic romps that Wodehouse's are, so the words appears much less often.

Also, Cook says, the Woolf novel The Voyage  uses 9,542 different words, twice as many as are found in Wodehouse's My Man Jeeves. Nothing shocking here. Woolf wrote more challenging books for more sophisticated readers. Of course they employ a much larger vocabulary.

Cook goes on to say, "P.G. Wodehouse uses absolutely and pretty ten times as often, boy eight times as often, girl five times as often and old 3.5 times as often. In reverse Virginia Woolf uses people and Mrs. nine times more often, men and women five times more often and world four times more often."

Cook wonders, too, why Wodehouse uses the pronoun I three times as often as Woolf. "Is it just that his characters spend their time in light badinage about each other or is it a more profound aspect of their worldviews?" Or is it because Wodehouse often wrote in first person?

At one time literary critics didn't concern themselves with questions like these. Thanks to the computer, however, they have, for better or worse, so much more to talk about.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Where an alley isn't an alley

British linguist Vivian Cook writes in It's All in a Word about the many words the British have for alleyway, depending mostly on where in Great Britain you happen to be. Up north it can be a snicket. Down south it's a lane. (I can recall eating a wonderful meal in a tiny Thai restaurant along Maiden Lane in London a decade ago.) It's called a twitchell in Nottingham, a ginnel inYorkshire, a drangway in Gower, a folley in Colchester, a jetty in the East Midlands, a jigger in Merseyside, a shut in Shropshire, a stair in Edinburgh, a fennel or close elsewhere in Scotland, a pass in Northern Ireland and a by-passage or lead in other places. Until about 200 years ago, it might have been called a frescade.

That may be less confusing than the many words Americans have for street, sometimes all in the same town. It can also be termed a drive, avenue, boulevard, lane, road, terrace, circle, way, court and a few other imaginative choices.

I live on a short one-block street that at one time was called an avenue on the street sign at one end and something else, maybe a drive, at the other end. Then we got a letter from the post office advising everyone that it was officially a road. A road, to me, suggests something rural and something a little longer than a block, but a road it is, although much of the mail we get is still addressed to an avenue.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The art on your mail

There is fine art you place on your wall, but there is also fine art you place on your mail. Not being able to afford much of the former, I collect the latter, especially postage stamps relating to literature.

A few American stamps honor libraries or reading in general.Two stamps in my collection feature the Library of Congress, and a 1982 stamp honors American libraries, "Legacies to Mankind." Then there's a 1984 stamp showing Abraham Lincoln, his son, Tad, and a book. The stamp is dedicated to "A Nation of Readers."

Other stamps portray particular books or even characters from books. In 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued 29-cent stamps honoring four classics in juvenile fiction: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little House on the Prairie, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women, with imagined scenes from each of these books on the stamps. A couple of years ago my wife's cousin, whose mother came from Australia, gave me five Australian stamps, issued in 1985, that honor classic children's books from Australia, none of which I had ever heard of. They are Elves & Fairies, The Magic Pudding, Ginger Meggs, Blinky Bill and Snugglepot Cuddlepie.

Mostly however the postage stamps in my collection honor American authors. The postal service seems to issue at least one or two of these stamps every year. Among my favorites are those for Ernest Hemingway, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ogden Nash, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Ayn Rand, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Robert Penn Warren and Thornton Wilder. Each of these stamps is just a pleasure to look at. Most of them show an image representing the author's most famous work. O'Connor, who was known for raising peacocks, has peacock feathers on her stamp.

Other nations issue stamps honoring their own best writers. I have, for example, French stamps honoring Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Albert Camus, as well as a Colombian stamp with Gabriel Garcia Marquez on its face.

A very few authors seem to be claimed by the whole world. I have, for example, stamps from the U.S., Italy and the Soviet Union honoring William Shakespeare, who lived in England. The Soviets also issued a stamp in 1960 showing Mark Twain.

I'd like to see more literary postage stamps being issued, but I'm grateful for the beauties we have.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Jackson on the writing life

Private Demons, Judy Oppenheimer's biography of Shirley Jackson that I wrote about here a few days ago, includes some noteworthy comments about the writing life. Here are a few:

Many original, creative people have had the experience of being unpopular in high school.

This is true, of course, not just of budding writers but of teenagers gifted at just about anything other than football and basketball. Partly this may be due to the fact that creative people often tend to be introverts, who are rarely popular, in high school or elsewhere, whatever their natural talents. I am reminded of something Travis Hugh Culley wrote in his memoir A Comedy & A Tragedy. He attended a high school for students gifted in music, art and performance, and he recalls "a thin line ... between being original and being 'a problem.'" Thus creative teens may have difficulty fitting in even when they are surrounded by other creative teens.

Baking a cake was creative, too, after a fashion. You took the ingredients, combined them, and ended up with a product. Not so different from clothespin dolls or short stories, after all.

That reminded me of a blog post I wrote comparing writing with cooking, the blending of ingredients to create something new. A cherry pie is more than just cherries, just flour, just sugar, etc., Blended together and baked, it becomes a new creation. One baker's pie will be different from another baker's pie. In the same way writing involves blending ingredients from different sources, baked in the writer's mind with that writer's own experiences, creating something entirely original.

Throughout her life, Shirley loved the writing of a much earlier age -- Jane Austen, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney. These writers "give no sense of being hurried or pressed for unique ideas; they are peaceful and gracious and write with an infinite sense of leisure that I envy greatly," she wrote once.

If you are reading a thriller, "an infinite sense of leisure" is probably not what you want in a writer. "Get on with it," you want to shout whenever there is a break in the action. Yet many of our best writers, including Shirley Jackson, write with an unhurried, easy grace that hides how much work may have gone into each sentence. Or in Jackson's case, her style disguises how quickly she wrote. It took her just two hours to write her greatest story, "The Lottery."

"The very nicest thing about being a writer is that you can afford to indulge yourself endlessly with oddness, and nobody can really do anything about it, so long as you keep writing and kind of using it up, as it were. All you have to do -- and watch this carefully, please -- is keep writing. So long as you write it away regularly nothing can really hurt you."

For Shirley Jackson, her words spoken at a writers' conference were literally true. As long as she was writing, using up the oddness, as she put it, she remained mentally and emotionally strong. It was between books when she seemed to have her most serious problems.

"Writing itself is a happy act."

Writing can be lonely, difficult, exhausting work, yet as Jackson summarized near the end of her life, it is also happy work. I am rarely happier than when I am writing, or for a few hours after writing something, almost anything, I feel good about. For some of us anyway, writing is good therapy.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Shirley Jackson's demons

"To her, wicked and stupid were the same."
Said of Shirley Jackson by her daughter Joanne,
 quoted in Private Demons: The Life of  Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer

Shirley Jackson herself said the recurring theme in her stories, which include the classic short story "The Lottery" and the classic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, was "an insistence on the uncontrolled, unobserved wickedness of human behavior." Jackson's stories were also very personal. They were about her town of North Bennington, Vt., about her family and about the dual nature of her own personality. She was, as Judy Oppenheimer portrays her in the excellent 1988 biography Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson, both stupid and wicked and both keenly intelligent and an admirable human being, devoted wife, good mother and great American writer.

The demons of Oppenheimer's title refer primarily to the wounds to her psyche left by a disapproving mother who thought her daughter should focus on, to her, important things like popularity and good looks rather than unimportant things like writing stories. She even told her daughter that she was born after an unsuccessful abortion attempt. Jackson tried to be a much better mother to her four children, yet following her premature death at the age of 48, she left most of them with deep psychological wounds that excessive alcohol and drugs failed to cure.

Jackson herself, and here is where she was stupid, ate too much, drank too much and took too many drugs for too long. Those drugs, mostly tranquilizers, were prescribed by her doctor and were thought harmless at the time, but after years of daily use, especially in combination with large quantities of alcohol, they helped bring her to a point where she was afraid to leave her own home. She was happiest when she was writing, but her mistreatment of her body left her unable to write for a long period near the end of her life.

She married her college sweetheart, Stanley Hyman, who later became an influential literary critic. Two odd people, they were ideal for each other. Although he was not a faithful husband and Jackson was constantly jealous of his interest in more attractive women, she never doubted his love for her. She may have been fat and phobic, but Hyman was devoted to her, and her early death left him helpless. He, too, died young, not long after she did.

For a time their home was a gathering place for some of the most important writers of their time, including Ralph Ellison, J.D. Salinger, Peter DeVries and Dylan Thomas. Shirley Jackson could be fun to be around, or she could be a terror if she didn't like you or feared you, as she did most of the residents of her own community, those whose stupidity and wickedness she wrote about in her books.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Mama and papa

I don't like a kid who calls his mother Mother all the time. It's one of the few prejudices that I got. I think there's something unnatural about it. Maybe it's okay for some kid in England to keep on calling his mother Mother but I don't think it's right over here. A kid should call his mother Ma or Mom. I don't mean Mommy. But not Mother all the time. There's something sneaky about it.
Robert Campbell, The Cat's Meow

As prejudices go, this one expressed by Jimmy Flannery, Robert Campbell's narrator in The Cat's Meow, seems a bit silly, although don't most prejudices look silly when viewed from a distance? Even so, I'll bet many, perhaps most, of us, react negatively when we hear a child call his mother Mother, or an adult call his mother Mommy. The former seems, if not sneaky as Flannery suggests, at least snobbish. The latter seems childish. At some point in childhood, most of us stopped saying Mommy and Daddy and chose other words to call our parents. I chose Mom and Dad. My son called me Pa, and still does.

We have a number of options in English. For our mother, in addition in those words already mentioned, we can select from maw, mamma, mammy, mam, mater, mum, mumsy, mummy, mummy and even motherkins. Other choices for fathers include papa, pater, pappy and pop. For grandparents the options seem to be endless. Often it comes down to however a child first pronounces grandpa or grandma.

And that brings me to Vivian Cook's discussion in It's All in a Word. Cook wonders why in most of the world's languages, the words for father begin with a p or a t and the words for mother start with an m. He suggests three possibilities. One is that when you are a baby looking at your parents' faces, the "only sounds you can 'see' them make are with the lips and the tongue near the front of the mouth."  That means words beginning with p, t or m.

Another theory is that "the easiest way for babies to make a consonant is to open and close the lips, getting a 'p' or 'b' sound, or keep the lips closed and divert the air to the nose to get an 'm.'"

Yet another possibility is that the similar words came simply from babies' babbling. Babies, he says, have been heard to say mama as early as two weeks after birth. As far as their mothers are concerned, their little darlings have said their first word.

I find it fascinating that the dearest words in the English language, or any language, may have come literally from the mouths of babes.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A mystery that's the cat's meow

I hadn't read a Jimmy Flannery mystery for many years until I picked up The Cat's Meow recently. Now I remember what I have been missing. Campbell, who died in 2000, wrote 11 Flannery mysteries during the 1980s and 1990s. Each of them has an animal in the title -- Hip-Deep in Alligators, Thinning the Turkey Herd, Sauce for the Goose and so forth. Flannery is a precinct captain in Chicago with a knack for solving problems, including crimes.

In The Cat's Meow, Flannery is asked to see if he can find a way to save a church cemetery that has been sold to make way for a gas station, all the bodies to be moved elsewhere. Soon he becomes involved in the problems of an elderly priest who says he still hears the meow of his dead cat. What's more, there is evidence of devil the church late at night. When the priest is found dead of an apparent accident, Flannery gets serious about finding out what is really going on in this church.

Campbell tells an interesting story, but the best part is the way he tells it, through the voice of Jimmy Flannery. Flannery's just a nice guy (if not always honest), happily married, eager to help anyone in need and someone with a gift for reading the signs in what others say and do. His grammar isn't always on target, but his insights usually are.

There are hard-boiled mysteries, and then there is the soft-boiled variety. The Cat's Meow is among the best of the latter.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Why read and write?

Travis Hugh Culley's memoir about his struggle with literacy, A Comedy & A Tragedy, includes a number of good lines about literacy in general. Here are some of them:

Mom believed there was always a name for a thing -- you only had to know where to look. In her mind, the world had already been figured out and that's why we had books. She didn't expect me to take an interest in reading them.

That reminds me of something one of my high school English teachers said. He said the most important thing we would learn in school was not all that information we were struggling to memorize for tests but rather how to find out what we needed to know. We needed to be aware of the kinds of information available in books and then be able to dig out that information as needed. That seems similar to the message conveyed by Culley's mother, except that while he interpreted it to mean literacy wasn't really necessary, I viewed it in a more positive way. Maybe I couldn't learn everything, but if I knew how to read well and how to use a library, I could learn anything.

"And it doesn't matter if you can't write. It doesn't matter if you can or can't read a book! In fact, most people don't read books." He laughed. "If you want to be a part of a big group, don't read anything at all."

Culley's high school friend has put his finger on why so many people can't read or, if they can read, don't read. Their friends don't study, so they don't study. Their friends spend every moment of free time watching television or playing electronic games, so that is what they do. The most literate people may be those with the most literate friends or those capable of leading independent lives. In his book, Culley describes how he made his greatest progress after he moved away from home while still in high school, lived alone and spent long hours in solitude reading and writing.

What I've learned is that literacy is a reflection of a need to document experience.

People write books, journals, e-mails, texts, scholarly papers, whatever, to express what they think, how they feel, what they've done, what they have imagined and so forth. We read to share that experience with others. You can, of course, express the same things by talking, assuming you have someone to talk to, but unless you are recording what you say, you leave no permanent record. To write is not to achieve immortality. Still it is a step in that direction.

By writing, we learn about ourselves.

I had no idea what I was going to say about these lines from Culley's book when I started this post. I just knew they were worth a comment. By putting thoughts into words I learned something about literacy, but mostly I learned something about myself.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The right incentive

In his memoir about his struggle learning to read, A Comedy & a Tragedy, Travis Hugh Culley tells how the breakthrough came when he became interested in acting in school productions. That meant memorizing lines in plays, which meant being able to read those lines. That gave him the incentive he needed. Before that, literacy just didn't seem important enough for him to make the effort.

I can recall a time in the third grade when my teacher asked me to tutor Mickey, a boy in the class who was far behind his classmates. I sat with Mickey at his desk, which was one of those with a top that opened up. When Mickey opened his desk, I saw it was filled with automotive magazines. Cars apparently were already his passion, but apparently he just looked at the pictures in those magazines because he struggled to read even the simplest Dick and Jane reader. Even as a third-grader I wondered if Mickey would have more success learning to read if those magazines were used as teaching aids.

Wouldn't the words in those magazines have been too difficult for a beginning reader? Maybe not. In her book It's All in a Word, Vivian Cook writes that by the time children begin learning to read, they are already using multi-syllable words in their speech. So including such words in their readers should not be unreasonable, providing the children are reading something that's interesting to them.

"The important thing is getting the child to see that reading and writing are communicating things like speech," Cook writes. "The words have to relate to interesting things to read about, not to sterile reading book sentences such as Look Spot and See Jane Run."

I learned to read using those Dick and Jane books, and I can still recall how bored I was by them. How much better it would have been to read about cowboys or dinosaurs.

Al Feldstein, former editor of Mad magazine, touched on this subject in an interview he did for the July 2000 edition of The Comics Journal. He said, "Well, I know that kids learn to read well with Mad. I used to get letters from English teachers, that they were using it in remedial reading classes, and in their own regular classes, because it was an easy way to get kids interested in learning syntax and construction. I think we did pretty good in that regard. In terms of writing fairly well."

It's a bit like Field of Dreams and that "if you build it, he will come" line. If you give children something they actually want to read, they will read.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Calvin and Culley

I happened to read Tavis Hugh Culley's book A Comedy & a Tragedy: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write at the same time I was reading Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes collection Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons. Sometimes it seemed they were one and the same book.

What these two books, one a memoir and the other a collection of comic strips, have in common, other than their long titles, is that they are both about a boy who defiantly refuses to learn anything in school, even to the point of  developing a detailed fantasy life to insulate himself from anything his teacher might be trying to teach.

Here's what Calvin says to his teacher in one panel: "Sorry! I'm here against my will. I refuse to cooperate. They can transport my body to school, but they can't chain my spirit! My spirit roams free! Walls can't confine it! Authority has no power over it!"

"Calvin," replies his teacher, "if you'd put half the energy of your protests into your school work ..."

The boy goes on, "You can try to leave a message, but my spirit screens its calls."

And here is a passage from Culley's book: "In the coming weeks, I found that I could say I did not know the answer to a question, even when I did. I didn't want my teacher to sense what I had become aware of. I didn't want her to know what was on my mind. I wouldn't think. Why think? Instead, I stepped aside and imagined other possibilities. I refused any attempt at reading or writing -- and my rejection was final and radical ..."

Of course, Culley did eventually learn to read and write. He wrote this book, after all. Unlike the comic-strip Calvin, Culley had a dysfunctional family, including a bullying older brother and a mother who pushed drugs on him and kicked him out of the house while he was still in high school. There's so much tragedy in A Comedy & a Tragedy that it's a little hard to see the comedy. Yet there is a happy ending. A bright boy, he essentially taught himself to read, and by keeping a detailed daily journal, to write, and write well.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Can people change?

Fiction teaches you that people change. History, experience, and poetry all teach you this is a lie.
Mark Winegardner, "The Visiting Poet," That's True of Everybody

I tend to sit up a little straighter whenever a writer of fiction inserts some broad statement or generalization into a story. Often these aside comments are very good, and I sometimes take note of them, but they can leave me wondering. Whose opinions are they? The story's narrator? A character's? Or the author's? And are they, in fact, true?

Here are a handful I have come across over the years:

"It's like marriage. The race there is between total knowledge of each other and death. If death comes first, it's considered a successful marriage." - Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place

"Feelings so powerful they could have come only from God lead some to those acts most strongly condemned by His word. It is useless to tell others that the commandments are simple only for those who fail to see why they had to be set down." - Judith Rossner, Emmeline

"There are certain modes of unhappiness with far more style than happiness." - Joyce Carol Oates, Marya: A Life

"It's odd ... how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter fights only with himself." - Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote

"All men are moral. Only their neighbors are not." - John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

And so we come to those lines by Mark Winegardner in his short story "The Visiting Poet." The story is about a poet who teaches at one college after another, on each campus starting affairs with his most beautiful students. Will he, the story asks, ever change and become a man worthy of the love of any woman, including his own daughter? The point the author makes in his aside is that in fiction, people do change. Stories, in fact, are about change. If characters didn't change, stories wouldn't be very interesting. But do people change in real life?

My movie discussion group tackled this very question two weeks ago tonight. The movie was Groundhog Day, that now classic film about a shallow TV weatherman, Phil Connors, who relives the same day hundreds, probably thousands of times, until he finally gets it right, acting not out of self-interest but because he sincerely loves and respects every person he meets. The fact that it takes Phil three days just to avoid stepping into the pothole filled with icy water shows he is a slow learner, but eventually he does become a better person. But is he really changed, we wondered, or may he eventually go back to being the kind of man he was on that first Groundhog Day?

Yet whatever Winegardner or his narrator thinks, people do seem to change in real life. Often this is simply because of maturity or advancing age. There is usually a point in the criminal justice system where repeat offenders become just mostly harmless old people. Youthful playboys sometimes become faithful spouses. From what we know of the Apostle Paul and former Watergate villain Charles Colson, religious conversion can also change people.

Even so, for many of us to change dramatically, it would take more than a few thousand Groundhog Days.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Enjoy the journey

A strange competitiveness has emerged among some readers in the past few years. I have known book-bloggers boast of getting through twenty books plus, a week, as if they were trying for a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?
Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

I took a speed-reading class at the YMCA back in the Seventies. No grades were given, but had there been, it would have been the only course I ever flunked. The idea was to, without moving one's eyes, take in entire paragraphs or even entire pages at one time. I once got through an entire book, albeit a short book, in a matter of minutes. Afterward I didn't feel like I had actually read the book, however. I couldn't have told you much about what it was about.

And so I remained, as I remain to this day, a plodder. I still read books one word at a time, instead of one page at a time. I am on course to read more than 100 books this year, the most I have ever read in one year. Some years I barely reach 50. My record is 90, but I am already at 86 as September draws to a close. This has nothing to do with reading faster, or reading short books (I have read several under 200 pages, but also several long books, including one I'm currently reading that's nearly 800 pages long.) No, if I am to read more books, I just have to spend more time reading.

I know of people who read a book every night before they go to sleep, and I do envy them. It would be great to be able to read 365 books a years instead of, in a good year, one-fourth of that number. Yet I feel better after reading what Susan Hill has to say in her book Howards End is on the Landing.  She writes, "The best books deserve better. Everything I am reading ... has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect it by reading it slowly. Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers." She goes on in that vein, and I recommend you locate the book and read the rest of what she has to say on the subject. But you get get the idea. Slow reading offers pleasures that speed reading cannot.

After reading a particularly good passage in a book, I like to go back and reread it, sometimes three or four times. I make notes, and sometimes copy a good line in a journal I keep for that purpose. I like to stop and think about what I have just read. If I were racing for the finish line, there would be no time for such things.

Reading a book is like walking the Appalachian Trail (I recently watched A Walk in the Woods) or driving to Florida (something I will be doing again in a few weeks). It's not just about reaching the destination. It's also about enjoying the journey.