Friday, February 27, 2015

Born to fit the times

Some people are born to fit the times.
Sharyn McCrumb, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O

Literary fashion is right about as often as it is wrong, but probably not more often. And the "fashionability" or otherwise of a book is not better -- or worse -- a guide than the length of its title or the colour of its jacket.
Sebastian Faulks, Faulks on Fiction

All writers are, like the rest of us, a product of their times. Had William Shakespeare been born 400 years later, in 1964 instead of 1564, he might conceivably still be regarded as the greatest writer in English ever, but chances are he would not be writing sonnets or plays about English kings. He would instead be writing about themes of interest to 21st century readers and in a 21st century style. Even so, some people, writers included, seem like they might have fit better in some other time.

And then there is Kurt Vonnegut Jr., whom I have been thinking about a lot since reading the Charles J. Shields biography And So It Goes. Vonnegut was born to fit his times, yet sadly just a relatively brief window in those times.

He began writing seriously after his discharge from the Army following World War II, and he labored on novels, science fiction short stories and plays for more than two decades without much success. He was getting published, but earned little income and attracted few readers. And then the times caught up with him. The publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969 coincided with the anti-war movement, the hippie generation and the Age of Aquarius. Without trying to, Vonnegut became the voice of that period of American history. His offbeat style, which previously had turned off publishers and readers, suddenly became relevant.

Within a few years, however, the hippies cut their hair and, in most cases, became middle-aged people with middle class values, not unlike their parents. "But novels deeply rooted in concerns of an era -- especially political issues -- don't usually wear well," Shields writes, and Vonnegut's novels began to read like a literary fad that had passed.

This brings me to the comment by Sebastian Faulks regarding literary fashions. He happens to be writing about D.H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterley's Lover, but his words apply to Vonnegut and other writers, as well. Fashion obviously has a lot to do with a book's sales, but it should have nothing to do with a book's literary value. If a book is any good, it is good whether it is in fashion or not.

In a Barnes & Noble store two days ago I noticed a whole shelf of Kurt Vonnegut books, not just his major novels like Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night, but some of his lesser known works, as well. So obviously his books remain in print. But are they still being read? Are they being taught in high schools and colleges? Vonnegut died in 2007. How will he be remembered 50 or 100 years from now? Was he a writer only for his times or for the ages?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Influences on Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Loree Wilson Rackstraw
One reason I enjoy reading literary biographies and autobiographies is learning about the influences on writers, discovering why they wrote what they did and, in fact, why they wrote at all. Charles J. Shields, in his biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., details numerous influences.

The family dinner table

As the third child in the Vonnegut family, Kurt was nine years younger than his brilliant brother, who later became an important scientist, and five years younger than his sister. At dinner, his siblings, especially his brother, got most of the attention. To change the balance of power, Kurt learned to tell stories, mostly funny stories.

His mother

Vonnegut's mother was a frustrated writer who sent story after story to various magazines but never had even one published. Later, more because of the family's changing economic circumstances than her lack of writing success, she killed herself. These memories drove Vonnegut to succeed as a writer.

His sister

Vonnegut later said that when he wrote he always imagined Alice as his reader. Of all the family members, she had most appreciated his youthful wit, and she later supported his writing career. Her premature death affected him hard.

His newspaper career

Beginning on his high school newspaper and later as a student journalist at Cornell, Vonnegut learned to write in short, punchy and witty paragraphs that later became the trademark of his fiction.


Slaughterhouse-Five was an actual place, the underground Dresden slaughterhouse where he was held as a prisoner of war in the later months of World War II when the city was destroyed by fire bombs. That experience later inspired his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Billy Pilgrim

One of his fellow prisoners was a private named Joe Crone, who planned to become an Episcopal minister after the war. Awkward and innocent, Crone was as ill-fitted as a POW as he was as a soldier, regularly trading his food rations for cigarettes. It was Crone whom Vonnegut used as a model for Billy Pilgrim. The author later paid to have Crone's grave decorated with flowers every Memorial Day.


Vonnegut never earned a college degree, but he came close in the field of cultural anthropology. Shields writes, "His ironic distance as a novelist, sounding as detached as an entomologist observing insects, can be traced to his days as an anthropology student."

Kilgore Trout

The hapless science fiction writer who floats in and out of many of Vonnegut's novels was patterned originally after science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, although the character later seemed to represent Vonnegut himself.

Mary O'Hare

The wife of one of his former Army buddies, Mary O'Hare once accused Vonnegut of trying to write yet another novel glorifying war. "You were just babies then," she told him. That notion stuck with him and led to the phrase "The Children's Crusade," which he used as a subtitle for Slaughterhouse-Five. It also led to the novel becoming anything but another book glorifying war.

Montana Wildhack

Vonnegut is said to have modeled the young porn actress in Slaughterhouse-Five after his mistress, Lora Lee (Loree) Wilson, once one of his writing students.

Ambrose Bierce

Vonnegut, after he became successful, began to model himself after Mark Twain, even to the point of dressing like him and giving humorous lectures for which, like Twain, he was very well paid. Yet Shields argues that Bierce, not Twain, was the greater literary influence on Vonnegut's writing.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The patterns of Kurt Vonnegut's life

What a biographer is looking for is patterns of behavior.
Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes:  Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

That may be true, but it is the exceptions to those patterns, the inconsistencies, that make a life interesting. Charles J. Shields, whose Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee was such a fine literary biography, equals that with And So It Goes, his 2011 portrait of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. And for all the clear patterns of behavior in Vonnegut's life, the inconsistencies prove just as important.

Shields makes much of the fact that Vonnegut, while the darling of the Left from the time he became a major literary figure in the 1960s, was in many ways a conservative at heart. Like a reactionary, says  Shields, he longed for the good old days. He hated the way his world was changing. Vonnegut may have spoken out against Big Business, yet he invested heavily in the stock market and counted on Big Business to protect his fortune. Vonnegut wrote and spoke often about the importance of family and old-time values, yet his own family life was a mess. He preached the value of friendship and cooperation, yet he betrayed many of his own friends and the people he did business with.

Vonnegut was one of many novelists to come out of World War II, yet it took him decades to write the war novel that would make his reputation, Slaughterhouse-Five. A prisoner of war, he had been in Dresden during the fire bombing that destroyed the city in 1944. He survived by being underground at the time, in Slaughterhouse-Five, yet being underground he wasn't actually a witness to the bombing, so he didn't know how to tell the story. Finally he found a way using science fiction, time travel and aliens from space to create one of the most unique novels of the 20th century.

He continued to write, but none of his subsequent books measured up to his masterpiece, although some of his earlier novels, virtually ignored when first published, later became admired. His shrinking reputation frustrated Vonnegut. He now had fame and fortune, yet with each new novel, critics took him less and less seriously. Many of his books were bestsellers, but he hated being thought a literary fraud.

Had Vonnegut been true to his values; been faithful to Jane, his first and best wife; been a better father and a better friend, he most likely would have had a happier life than he had. But his biography, if anyone even bothered to write one, would have been much less interesting.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Poking fun at the literary world

Before I put William Kotzwinkle's novel The Bear Went Over the Mountain back on the shelf, I wanted to point out a few more of the author's jabs at the world of literature.

On publicists:

The interviewers she'd be wooing wouldn't have time to read the book either; they'd be working from her publicity release. Something so drab as the book itself wasn't much use to anyone.

And later,

In show biz, books were always a question mark, because books were just books, but buzz you could trust.

In my long experience as a book reviewer, my contact with book publicists was mostly by press releases, e-mail and telephone, with only a couple of face-to-face meetings. So I don't really know how committed these people were to the books they were promoting. Had they read them? Did they like them? Who knew? It would not surprise me, however, if Kotzwinkle were not close to the mark in his satire. Publicists, after all, are hired by publishers not because they like books but because they know how to promote them.

On professors of literature:

"Since my last book, the fact that Frost used the word like as a simile .54 times per page is common knowledge." ... "But," continued Settlemire as he stroked his goatee, "it isn't commonly known that he used as if .07 times per page. That's the substance of my new study on him. One needn't tell you the significance of this."

And later,

"Pernod places too much emphasis on the writer," said Ramsbotham. "Any real study of contemporary literature begins with those who teach it."

These pokes at professors and literary critics, if exaggerated, seem on target to me. Some critics, trying to be original when so much has been written about particular novels, do attempt to make mountains of molehills, striving to make significant things the authors themselves probably gave no thought to at all. And literature professors, and even book reviewers like me, often think they know better than the authors how their books should have been written.

Since its publication nearly 20 years ago, The Bear Went Over the Mountain has faded into obscurity. That's too bad. It is hardly a great book, but it deserves to be read, especially by authors, publicists, professors and others in the literary world who may take themselves a little too seriously. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It all started with 'It All Started with Columbus'

I discovered Richard Armour when I was in high school back in the late 1950s. I knew just enough about history to think It All Started with Columbus was the funniest book I had ever read. Later I enjoyed his humorous take on literature (The Classics Reclassified and other books), art (It All Started with Nudes), libraries (The Happy Bookers) and other subjects. I thought I owned a pretty good collection of Richard Armour books until I stumbled upon a treasure trove of them, mostly first editions, at a library sale in Clearwater, Fla., nearly three weeks ago.

Perhaps someone who admired Armour even more than I did had died and his (probably his) books had ended up in the hands of the local Friends of the Library. Or perhaps Armour's admirer had simply moved into a smaller home where there was less room for books. In any case, I was among those who benefited from the donation. I found four books I didn't previously own: Drug Store Days, Through Darkest Adolescence, Going Around in Academic Circles and Golf Is a Four-Letter Word.

Each of  these is at least partly a memoir, even if his memories are always colored by his humor. In Drug Store Days, about growing up as the son of a druggist, he writes, for example, "I was born in the early hours of morning, and had breakfast in bed."

Through Darkest Adolescence, written when Armour was the father of a teenager, he opines, "Adolescence is a disease.... Like the common cold, there is no cure for it."

An English professor for most of his adult life, Armour lampooned academic life in Going Around in Academic Circles: "Students are advised to apply to several colleges, not merely the college of their choice. This is because each application must be accompanied by a fee, which is non-returnable, and every little bit helps when the budget is tight."

As a writer of light verse, Armour always lived in the shadow of his contemporary, Ogden Nash, but even so his verse was always amusing. In Golf Is a Four-Letter Word, a book about his experiences as a golfer, he includes some of his poems on  the subject. One of these is called "Get Together, Please."

The day my dead-eye putts are falling
My drives are at their most appalling,
And when my drives are simply splendid
My putting streak's abruptly ended.

Richard Armour died in 1989. There are, I now realize, still quite a number of his books I have yet to find. I must stay alert at future used book sales.

Friday, February 13, 2015

I just loved your book

"I read your book," said the bear, because his publicist had told him to always say that to his fellow authors so no one's feelings would be hurt.
William Kotzwinkle, The Bear Went Over the Mountain

Jess Walter
When Laura Lippman introduced Jess Walter as the keynote reader at the Writers in Paradise in St. Petersburg last month, she mentioned how impressed she had been by his first novel. This seemed to shock Walter, who joked, "Even I didn't know who I was after my first book." He said his first books sold so poorly that Barnes & Noble refused to stock any copies of his third book in any of its stores, even in his home state, and he was pressured to change his name to give himself a fresh start. More recently he was the author of the best seller Beautiful Ruins.

So was Lippman telling the truth when she said she had read Walter's first book, which hardly anyone else had even seen? Perhaps she was. Lippman has something of a reputation at Writers in Paradise, where she is a regular, for seeming to have read everything. But every year when I attend the Writers in Paradise readings I am impressed at how familiar all the authors, not just Lippman, seem to be not just just with one another's books but with just about any other books that happen to be mentioned. Perhaps the key word in this paragraph is "seem."

I was amused by William Kotzwinkle's delicious satire of the publishing industry, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, especially by the passage cited above where the bear, now hailed as a best-selling author, praises other writers' books, and they praise his, even though none of them have actually read the books. Whether or not this is what is going on at Writers in Paradise every January, I suspect it happens frequently when authors get together. Most writers read a lot, but they can't read everything and still get their own writing done. And even if they did read everything, they probably wouldn't admire everything. But they wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

Most of us, in fact, have probably pretended to read something we haven't read. Students may write their book reports, essays or theme papers after only watching the movie or perhaps skimming through Cliff's Notes. Today's students can probably learn enough about any book to get a passing grade just by spending a few minutes on Google. Students, and perhaps even a few professional writers, have been known to list books as references that they never opened, and perhaps never even found in a library.

Do book reviewers always read the entire book before writing their reviews? How about publishers before they reject manuscripts? And then there are those book clubs, where everyone is supposed to read a particular book each month before it is discussed. How many members actually take the time to do more than read the book jacket and skim a few chapters?

We wish to appear smarter than we really are, and so depending upon which circles we live our lives in, we may just pretend to have read Proust or the current best sellers. When it comes to books, most of us are probably guilty of a little hypocrisy

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A bear of very little brain

The moral of The Bear Went Over the Mountain,William Kotzwinkle's 1996 comic fantasy novel, is about the same as that of Big Eyes, the new Tim Burton film: Only the precious few can create art, but anyone can pretend to be an artist.

In Kotzwinkle's literary fable, a Maine bear who has become a people watcher and wishes he could become a person himself, gets his chance when he finds a briefcase containing a manuscript for a novel, Destiny and Desire, by Arthur Bramhall. The bear has taught himself to read from the labels on human food, and he thinks it's a pretty good book. The publishing world thinks so, too, and soon Hal Jam (the bear names himself after one of his favorite foods) finds himself the acclaimed author of a best seller.

The story owes a debt to Being There, Jerzy Kosinski's terrific 1970 novel that was made into an equally terrific film. In that book, Chance is the simple-minded gardener who dresses in his employer's hand-me-down clothes. When his benefactor dies, Chance is turned out of the estate, but he looks so fine in his expensive suits he is taken for a wealthy businessman, and his simple statements about gardening and television shows are taken as words of great wisdom. We get a lot of that in The Bear Went Over the Mountain. Hal Jam talks mostly about food and his life in the Maine woods, but his listeners invariably interpret his words as something else entirely.

Kotzwinkle loses his readers' attention a bit whenever his story strays from Hal Jam back to Arthur Bramhall. Even so, it proves interesting when Bramhall turns gradually into a bear while the bear morphs into a human being.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Minds on shelves

Today I want to share some of my favorite lines from The Secret of Lost Things, the novel by Sheridan Hay I reviewed last week.

(M)emory is a kind of obligation, perhaps the last duty owed anyone.

One of the worst things about the prospect of death is the thought of being forgotten, perhaps totally forgotten within a generation or two. That's why people want their names etched on granite tombstones or, if they can, bequeath large sums of money to universities, churches or whatever that will keep their memory alive for a long time. If we wish to be remembered, we also have an obligation to remember others. We owe nothing else to those who have died before us, but we do owe them that.

Books aren't lumps of paper, but minds on shelves.

I do like that image, that authors, whether of fiction or nonfiction, pour out their minds onto the pages of their books, allowing readers the opportunity to dip into their minds whenever they choose.

(T)he Arcade is itself a city; itself an island.

This idea follows the previous one. If books are minds on shelves, then wherever large quantities of books are gathered, whether it be a large bookstore like the fictional Arcade or a great library, becomes a city. It can also be viewed as an island, separate and isolated as it is from the rest of culture.

Remember, a book is always a gift.

This, too, seems to follow from the minds on shelves idea. Authors bestow their minds on the rest of us in the pages of their books. These are gifts, if we choose to accept them.

To a true collector, the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth.

When it comes to books, I am more an accumulator than a collector. Even so I think I understand what this character is getting at. It's a bit like those parables of Jesus. What was lost has been found. Some Christians call that being born again.

Books were the very source of desire.

I am not at all sure what this means, but I like it anyway. Perhaps it goes back to that first line quoted above, and the desire most found in books is that desire to be remembered, even if just as minds on shelves.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Somebody's watching

Miss Kircher appeared as I examined an astronomical clock. I felt her presence, standing near the automated devil, but didn't turn around.
Sheridan Hay, The Secret of Lost Things

Someone was behind Harold. He could feel it in his spine.
Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Is there a more tiresome cliche in fiction than the feeling protagonists get that someone is watching them or following them? And they are invariably right. Someone really is watching them or following them. Most often we find this sort of thing in thrillers or detective stories, but the two books cited above are more serious, non-genre novels. I gave each of them a positive review here within the past few days, yet each novel dropped a peg in my estimation when I came across the above lines.

I don't recall ever sensing that someone was following me, perhaps because nobody ever has, at least not in a sinister sense. Yet people do walk behind me, observe me from behind and sometimes walk up behind me and scare the bejeebers out of me. Unless I hear them or notice a shadow or a reflection, I don't sense anything.

So why do so many main characters in fiction get this feeling? And how come, when they are the ones doing the spying or the following, the people they are spying on or following never get this same feeling? This strikes me as laziness on the part of authors, a shortcut way of trying to give readers a chill sort of like that supposedly experienced by the characters. I just don't buy it, especially when one comes across it so often in books.

In real life some people really do sense that somebody is watching them or following them. I think we call them paranoid.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Bookstore intrigue

Something there is about a bookstore that makes it an unlikely place to find deceit, betrayal, intrigue and death. All this and more happening in a New York City used bookstore called the Arcade make Sheridan Hay's 2007 novel The Secret of Lost Things an enticing read.

Told in first person by Rosemary Savage, a lonely 18-year-old who leaves Tasmania for New York after her mother dies, the story becomes something of a coming-of-age tale. She finds a mother figure in Lillian, a woman from South America who lives at the same hotel where Rosemary settles. She develops a crush on Oscar, handsome coworker, even though he makes it clear he has no romantic interest in her or anyone else. Because of her youth, beauty and innocence, Rosemary becomes everyone's sounding board at the Arcade. She learns their secrets and, in some sense, becomes their co-conspirator.

She is made the assistant of Walter Geist, a strange man who is losing his vision and increasingly depends on Rosemary to help him do his job. She learns Geist plans to sell to a wealthy collector, without the knowledge of his employer, an unpublished manuscript of a book by Herman Melville. Meanwhile, Oscar wants her to spy on Walter because he thinks the manuscript belongs in a library or museum, not hidden away in somebody's home. Still hoping to win his love, Rosemary goes along with him, betraying both Walter and Mr. Pike, her boss. And, while Oscar may have no romantic interest in Rosemary, it soon develops that Walter does.

The Secret of Lost Things is Sheridan Hay's first novel and, as far as I know, her only book to date. It is partly autobiographical as Hay herself left Australia for New York City, where she worked first for the Strand Bookstore. She now teaches literature. Her passion for literature, books and bookstores shine through in this fine novel.

Monday, February 2, 2015

How not to write a mystery

Some very good, if not great, novels are written by teams of writers. I'm thinking specifically of the mysteries by Charles Todd, actually a mother-son writing team; the mysteries by Claude Izner, actually two Paris booksellers; and the thrillers turned out by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. There have been many others. I don't know how they manage it, perhaps one person concocts a plot and the other does the actual writing, but the results often prove successful.

Much less successful are those so-called collaborative novels in which two or more established writers provide alternative chapters, each building on what was written before. This has been tried a number of times. Back in 1991,  Lawrence Block, Peter Lovesy, Donald E. Westlake, Tony Hillerman and others pooled their efforts to produce something called The Perfect Murder. Despite all the talent involved, nobody remembers that as the perfect murder mystery. A few years later, Dave Barry, Carl Hiaason, Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan and several others combined for Naked Came the Manatee, a novel best remembered for its title.

I just finished Heads You Lose, a collaborative mystery by just two people, Lisa Lutz, an established mystery writer, and David Hayward, a poet who accepted the job after several other established mystery writers wisely turned down Lutz's proposal. Hayward also happens to be Lutz's former boyfriend.

Whatever lovers' quarrel ended their romantic relationship seems to be continued in their literary relationship. They seem to delight in killing off the other's characters. After Lutz kills one of Hayward's favorites,  he brings him back to life. Then Lutz kills him again, this time with more finality.  So Hayward introduces a new character, a brother, with the same characteristics as the dead man. So Lutz kills him, too. In the end, there are more bodies than suspects.

Meanwhile, although the premise calls for each writer to write alternate chapters, building on what the other has written, Lutz persists, in between-chapter notes, in trying to tell Hayward what he should do with his chapters. Of course, he resents the interference and plows off in his own direction, which angers her.

The basic plot involves a brother and sister, Paul and Lacey Hansen, who grow marijuana on their property. So when they discover a headless corpse on their land, they move it so the authorities won't find their pot. Then the body gets moved back near their house. At this point, both of them get involved in investigating the murder, Lacy more willingly than her brother.

Hayward seems to do better at creating characters and adding color and humor to the plot, while Lutz, the veteran mystery writer, does better with the plot itself. She takes the final chapter and amazingly wraps everything up in a neat, almost logical bundle. It may be the only good chapter in the book.