Friday, December 30, 2016

A good year for reading

Each year one novel seems to stand out in my mind. One year it was Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, for example. Another year it was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I am not talking about the best novel published that year, as I don't read nearly enough new novels to make a judgment like that, but just the best novel read that year.

Singling out one novel is tough this year, not because there were no outstanding novels but because there were so many.

Reading Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins was a beautiful experience, even if it didn't wow me quite as much as Citizen Vince did the year before. Another Ann Patchett novel, an early one called The Patron Saint of Liars, impressed me greatly, as did Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan and two novels that actually were published in 2016, Sweet Caress by William Boyd and As Good as Gone by Larry Watson. The Jack Matthews novel reviewed here a couple of days ago, The Gambler's Nephew, was an incredible pleasure to read.

Not quite as good as these six, but still very good were The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob, Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts, The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen and two thrillers by Joe R. Landsdale, The Thicket and Edge of Dark Water.

So it was quite a year for reading, and that doesn't even count such nonfiction pleasures as Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, Robert L. O'Connell's Fierce Patriot and Neal Thompson's A Curious Man.

The choice is hard, but I am going to make it anyway. Here are my top three novels of the year:

1. The Patron Saint of Liars

2. The Gambler's Nephew

3. As Good as Gone

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best for last

Jack Matthews
Many writers do their best work early in their careers, people like Joseph Heller or Thomas Wolfe, for example. Others don't strike gold until middle age. Consider Vladimir Nabokov, who was in his mid-50s when Lolita was published. You can read a fascinating account of why some artists peak early and some later in life in the "Late Bloomers" chapter of Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw. But what do you make of a writer like Jack Matthews?

I took two creative writing classes taught by Matthews when I was a journalism student at Ohio University in the mid-1960s. He was about 40 then and had a book of short stories, Bitter Knowledge, and a book of poetry, An Almanac for Twilight, under his belt. Soon he was turning out novels like Hanger Stout, Awake!, Beyond the Bridge and The Charisma Campaigns, a favorite of mine. These were good novels, but not great, and despite a nomination for a National Book Award (for The Charisma Campaigns), he never achieved the literary big time. After 1983, although he continued to write both fiction and nonfiction books, these were published mostly by small presses and university presses.

Matthews died three years ago at the age of 88. His last novel, The Gambler's Nephew (Etruscan Press) was published in 2011, just two years before his death. So I didn't expect much when I started reading it a few days ago,  yet I was blown away. This is an incredible novel that deserves more attention than it probably will ever receive.

The story begins in the 1850s in the Ohio River town of Brackenport, where a businessman named Nehemiah Dawes has such strong views about slavery and grave robbery that people tend to avoid him even if they agree with him. One day Dawes sees two men force a runaway slave into a boat to take him back to the other side of the river. Dawes has his gun with him and decides to back up his big talk by shooting one of the slavers. Instead he kills the young black man, yet doesn't receive as much as a stern talking to for his act. But when Dawes himself is found murdered, authorities are quick to hang a former employee, despite scant evidence of guilt.

Who is the protagonist in this novel? Matthews keeps us guessing. Until his death, it seems to be Nehemiah Dawes. Then the focus switches to his brother, to a young doctor and on and on to others, as main characters fade into the background. Much later we realize that the runaway slave, the "gambler's nephew" of the title, is the true protagonist, even though we never actually meet him in the story. Everything revolves around him, even when it doesn't seem to.

The novel, because of the voice of the mysterious narrator, seems lighter than it really is. We are tempted to read it with a smile, then may feel a trifle guilty when we realize where Matthews is taking us.

Whether or not The Gambler's Nephew is Jack Matthews's masterpiece, I will leave to the literary experts, if any of them bother to consider the question. But I will say that for a man in his 80s to produce a novel of such depth, power and grace is something amazing.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Quiz time

Each year at this time I like to ask myself a few questions, then answer them them using only the titles of books read during that year. The goal is to be as logical, as truthful and as humorous as possible, in that order of priority. So let's get on with the 2016 edition.

Describe yourself: A Curious Man

How do you feel? Still Here

Describe where you currently live: The Thicket

If you could go anywhere, where would you go? London

Your favorite form of transportation: Off the Grid

Your best friend is: Used and Rare

You and your friends are: Weirdos from Another Planet

What's the weather like where you are? Black Skies

What is the best advice you could give? Bring on the Girls!

Thought for the day: As Good as Gone

How would you like to die? The Good Goodbye

Your soul's present condition: The Way of the Heart

Most of these answers are logical, the main exception being Off the Grid as a form of transportation. The most blatant untruth is Black Skies to describe the weather. It is actually another sunny day here in Florida. And a couple of my answers make me smile, namely Weirdos from Another Planet, the title of a Calvin and Hobbes collection, and Bring on the Girls!, a P.G. Wodehouse book I plan to review in a few days. So I guess I deserve a passing grade.

Feel free to take this quiz yourself, using your own list of books read this year.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Creating traditions

The Tampa Bay Times has an article today about Festivus, the "holiday" created in a 1997 Seinfeld episode. Frank Costanza, George's father played by Jerry Stiller, announces, "At the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around, and you tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year." It's sort of Thanksgiving in reverse, something people with a certain personality, or a certain sense of humor, might go for. And they do. Nearly 20 years later, Christopher Sparta tells us in his story, Festivus continues to be celebrated here and there. And today is Festivus.

Festivus works as an example of how popular culture shapes holiday celebrations. How we celebrate Christmas today, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone write in Used and Rare, is heavily influenced by Charles Dickens and the incredible popularity of A Christmas Carol when it first appeared in 1843.  "What before had been a one-day, quiet sort of holiday became an occasion for feasting and gifts, songs and games. Christmas cards, which had never been particularly popular before, suddenly became a fixture of the holiday," they write. "It was as though Charles Dickens had taught people how to rejoice and celebrate."

Since then popular culture has influenced the holiday in many ways. Another literary work, Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," written before the Dickens story, created lasting images of Santa Claus and his reindeer. A century later Gene Autry further shaped holiday celebrations with songs like Here Comes Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Popular Christmas movies and A Charlie Brown Christmas have also had an impact.

Halloween, which has in recent decades developed into the second most popular holiday, is heavily influenced by popular culture. Just look at the favorite choices in costumes each year. Years ago the Detroit Lions made watching NFL football on television a part of the Thanksgiving tradition. Now there are three NFL games each Thanksgiving Day, and most of us consume too much football the way we consume too much turkey and pumpkin pie.

New traditions are being created all the time. Some will last, others won't.

Gloomy Festivus everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Snobbish book dealers

This wasn't like the other book fairs we'd been to and not just because of the books. The dealers behaved differently. The usual banter was missing. They were less accessible and friendly. They even dressed better. Often, they seemed to size you up to guess at your bank balance before they would even answer a question about something they had on display.
Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Used and Rare

Nancy Goldstone
Lawrence Goldstone
What Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone are describing in the above excerpt from their book Used and Rare is their visit to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in 1996. They had been to other book fairs, but this one had a different atmosphere. They felt that they, with their modest bank account, weren't really welcome.

I mentioned in my review of this book last week that they didn't feel welcome in some used bookshops either. In one they were denied access to the rare book room each time they asked. The first time they were told the woman in charge of the room wasn't available. On other visits when that woman was at her desk, apparently doing nothing, she had ready excuses as to why they could not enter. Once she said she was about to leave for lunch, although the Goldstones remained in the shop looking at less rare books and the woman never left her desk.

Caution by dealers in rare books makes sense, even if rudeness does not. Valuable rare books lose value the more they are handled. When I sold my first-edition copy of Sue Grafton's A Is for Alibi a few years ago, the dealer who bought it told me he would have paid much more if the book and especially the dust jacket had been in better condition. Why, he wondered, had I loaned it out to friends? But who knew back then what the book would be worth today?

When I attend the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair each March, I notice the most valuable books are kept behind glass so they won't be handled by everyone who comes along with an interest in seeing them but no interest in spending the thousands of dollars necessary to purchase them. People like me, in other words.

The snobbishness the Goldstones encountered may even be understandable up to a point. Relatively few people spend big money for rare books, and most of these people are just interested in certain books by certain authors. They probably would never ask to just look around the rare book room as the Goldstones did. Thus the woman guarding the door knew the couple were not serious buyers, so why allow them in?

Yet as the Goldstones wandered deeper and deeper into the book world, they found themselves spending more and more money on books. It might have been smarter if some of those dealers had treated them less like tourists and more like potential customers. And if they knew the couple would one day write a book about them, perhaps they would have.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Skipping Christmas novels

Last week my wife, the librarian for our condo association (I am her trusty sidekick), decided to put up a display of Christmas books. I found four novels for the table, including John Grisham's Skipping Christmas, David Baldacci's The Christmas Train and two by Mary Higgins Clark. Of these I have read only the Baldacci novel, and that only because it was sent to me for review when it was first published a number of years ago. This got me thinking about other Christmas-themed novels I have read over the years, and I almost drew a blank.

There was A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, of course, if that can be called a novel, and a few years ago I read A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, which although it may be set in December could just as easily have been set in June. Maybe there have been others, but none come to mind. Yet I could name any number of Christmas movies I have seen, many of them more than once. We watched Love Actually again just a few nights ago.

Do a web search and you can find countless Christmas novels, so somebody must read them. Or perhaps they buy them as Christmas presents. If so, they probably won't be opened until Christmas Day and even if started that day may not be finished until February. And who wants to read a Christmas novel in February?

I think that may partly explain why most of us don't view Christmas novels with the same fondness as Christmas movies. If we start watching a Christmas movie before Christmas, we will finish it before Christmas. Novels take longer. And, with the possible exceptions of A Christmas Carol or O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi, we probably don't want to read the same Christmas story every year or every other year, the way we may experience It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story or Love Actually.

"I don't hate the holidays, but most holiday books leave me cold," Colette Bancroft, book editor for the Tampa Bay Times, wrote in Sunday's edition. I feel the same way. Some holiday books are sappy. Others just look sappy. Even if the stories are terrific, the books seem dated by the time the Christmas tree comes down.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spokesmen for their generations

"A book in its moment has romance. The book business is a romance business. Sometimes the dealer tries to build the romance, but in general, for the right books, it's already there."
George Minkoff, bookseller, quoted in Used and Rare

Some writers continue to be read and admired long after their deaths, while most others simply disappear from view. No one reads them, no one writes about them and, after enough time passes, no one remembers them. But why is this so? I have always assumed it was just a matter of cream eventually rising to the top. Just as scholars are able to examine political figures more objectively after the passage of time, perhaps the same is true of literary figures. Thus some writers grow in stature as the years pass, while lesser ones fade from the scene. But maybe that is not the whole story.

George Minkoff, one of the rare book dealers Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, the authors of Used and Rare, encounter on their travels, poses an interesting theory to them. He suggests the literary world, without necessarily even thinking about it, chooses a spokesman for particular times and places. "Spokesmen have been chosen for their generations," Minkoff said. "Steinbeck for the depression, Hemingway for the great expatriate era, Faulkner for the South after The Birth of the Nation... and that's who everybody reads ... and who everybody wants to buy."

The writer who best represents a particular niche in history is most likely to be remembered or at least gets the most attention, goes this theory. Thus, although people may still read Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and a few others, it is Charles Dickens who most of us first think of as best representing Victorian England.

If all this is true, we are left to wonder which writer of those living today will be the spokesman for this generation. Which book, of all those published within the past few years, is the book of the moment? Which one has romance? Which will be remembered long after the others have been forgotten?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Adventures in the book world

There are books that tell readers how to go about collecting rare books, but Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone's Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World shows you how to do it. The disadvantage is that there is no index at the end to help one later find specific information, but the advantage is that you can follow along as two complete novices find their way into the somewhat exclusive world of book collectors.

How exclusive is it? The Goldstones tell us about about dealers who don't have signs on their doors, often because they operate their businesses out of their own homes, or who want to know how you found them, never mind that their numbers and addresses are in the phone book. The couple makes repeated visits to one bookshop and each time are denied access to the rare book room with one lame excuse or another. The authors name names, both those of the businesses and the people who work there. If names were changed to protect the guilty, we are not told.

The Goldstones convey information while at the same telling interesting, often humorous, stories about their travels from their Connecticut home to shops in surrounding states. They describe book auctions, conversations with dealers, both the helpful and unhelpful ones, and answer questions, like how does one tell if a book is really a first edition, that other beginning collectors are going to ask.

Unlike many collectors, the Goldstones are interested mainly in books they want to read or have read and want attractive copies on their shelves. They lack the resources to spend thousands of dollars on a single rare book, yet still want to build a collection that will be valuable to them. "The more we thought about it," they conclude, "the more we came back to our original view. You don't really need first editions at all. They are just affectations, excuses for dealers to run up the price on you, charge you a lot of money for something that doesn't read any better than any other edition."

As enjoyable as Used and Rare is, it can be annoying at times, as when these two people seem to think with a single mind. We find the sentence, "'We have this in paperback, but these stories are terrific,' one of us commented to the other." These writers have the ability to repeat entire conversations word for word, but they can't remember which of them made that statement? I don't mind that the Goldstones never argue, but do they always want to buy the same books and are they always willing to pay the same price? One gets the impression that one of these two people isn't really necessary. Or maybe hiring the babysitter wasn't really necessary. One of them could have just stayed home.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fame and food

On our first night in Daytona Beach, we stopped for what was for us a late dinner at Steve's Famous Diner along the beach. I had never heard of it before, not that there are not many famous people, places and things I have never heard about. Ever since I have been wondering about such questions as: Just how famous is Steve's Famous Diner? What is it famous for? (Could it be for the saltiness of the food?) How long has it been famous? Did it become famous before or after the restaurant was named?

On another vacation earlier this year in Gatlinburg, Tenn., a town that could be famous for the number of pancake houses on the major streets, we stopped at one where the sign proudly proclaimed their "famous pancakes." I had never heard of them either. The pancakes didn't taste any better to me than those served by Bob Evans, so I have no idea how these particular pancakes won fame.

Putting Google to work I find, farther down the Florida coast, Fireman Derek's World Famous Pies in Miami. Ever hear of them? Me neither. The Soup Cafe in South Orange, N.J., boasts "the world's most famous soups." Never heard of them. There seem to be a number of establishments that serve "famous chicken," "famous pizza" and so forth. Is fame, real or imagined, really the best way to sell food to hungry people? I liked Steve's Famous Diner for its location, decor and menu choices, even if the food itself was too salty. Its being famous did not impress me at all.

That which is truly famous does not need to advertise the fact. You never hear any references to "famous Lady Gaga" or "famous Brad Pitt" or "famous Hillary Clinton." Nor does KFC need to boast about "famous chicken" or Bob Evans about "famous pancakes." Fame is something that when you've got it, there's no need to brag about it.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A great time to be a kid

In The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson reminds those of us of a certain age what a privilege it was to grow up in the 1950s. Sure there was polio, the McCarthy hearings and the threat of nuclear annihilation, but those were things our parents worried about, not us kids. For children, it was a golden time. We were allowed, no encouraged, to wander around our neighborhoods most of the day -- my friend and I called it "exploring" -- and our parents never seemed to worry about us or even place limits on how far we could go or, as long as we didn't miss a meal, when we had to be back.

Bryson, a few years younger than me, spent his childhood in Des Moines, the son of one of the best baseball writers in America, never mind that Des Moines has never had a major league baseball team. Even so his father went to spring training every year and to the World Series every fall and won many writing awards. Bryson's mother, too, worked for the Des Moines Register, so if writing skill is something that can be inherited, which I doubt, we know where he got it from.

His memoir devotes attention to the toys of that era (who can forget electric football, Lincoln Logs and, my favorite, chemistry sets?), school, family vacations (like my own family, Bryson's didn't travel much, but even so we both made it to Disneyland somehow), early television, grandparents, the discovery of sex and other topics related to growing up.

Although he has never been known as a writer of fiction, Bryson strays close in this memoir, as when he tells of his adventures as his own superhero, the Thunderbolt Kid, or when he tells about a roller coaster "about four miles long, I believe, and some twelve thousand feet high." Exaggeration works in creating an amusing, sometimes outrageously funny, book.

"One of the great myths of life is that childhood passes quickly," Bryson writes. Indeed, time passes at glacier speed for children, if not for their parents, who like to tell each other how "they grow up so fast." I continue to marvel at how much I managed to pack into each day back in the 1950s, and it seems even more marvelous now at an age when if I can accomplish one thing in the morning and another thing in the afternoon, I think I have had a productive day. It was as if I, too, were the Thunderbolt Kid.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Is it time for lunch yet?

He commuted there every morning in a boat rowed by two oarsmen, had his dinner (what we would now call lunch) in a house on Sollers Point, and in the evening was rowed back to the nearby mainland ...
Michael Korda, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

His mind was occupied with business matters, although he was fighting sleepiness from eating a substantial noontime dinner of pork chops, fried chicken, succotash, candied yams, stewed beets, green onions in vinegar, and hot buttered corn muffins.
Jack Matthews, The Gambler's Nephew

Breakfast, lunch or dinner?
I was sitting in a local restaurant about to start lunch one afternoon last week when I overheard the waitress say to the man at the next table, "Are you here for breakfast?"

That, plus the two lines above found in my recent reading has gotten me thinking about what we call the meals we eat. At one time people lucky enough to get three meals a day ate breakfast, dinner and supper. In rural communities in particular, the custom was to serve the biggest meal at noon, and that was called dinner. Michael Korda's biography of Robert E. Lee and the novel by Jack Matthews both describe terminology common in the middle of the 19th century. My rural 20th century parents called their noon meal dinner throughout their lives. When I went to school and later to work in the city, I got a lunch hour each day, and I began to think of the evening meal as dinner, not supper. This is not the case on Sundays and holidays, however, when my biggest meal usually comes in midday. Two weeks ago I ate Thanksgiving dinner at noon and had a light supper around 6 or 7.

Since my youth, terms for meals seem to have gotten more confusing in other ways. Take brunch, for example, a term popular with those who like to sleep in, especially on Sundays, or who want to skip breakfast but don't want to wait for lunch. In restaurants, however, brunch may be served until 2 p.m. or later, well after my usual lunch time.

Our words for our meals don't necessarily refer to the time of day, because that other man in the restaurant wanted breakfast at the same time I wanted lunch (and my father would have wanted dinner and somebody else might want brunch).

Nor do they necessarily refer to the kind of food being served. We associate eggs, bacon and pancakes with breakfast, but many of us like eggs, bacon and pancakes at other meals. I, in fact, am thinking about having pancakes, bacon and eggs today for lunch, even though I ate eggs and a biscuit for breakfast. We tend to associate home fries and hash browns with breakfast, french fries with lunch and baked or mashed potatoes with dinner, but there is plenty of variation on when people eat all kinds of potatoes. Some people like steak for breakfast, though when I have steak, unless it's in a sandwich, it had better be dinner.

Meanwhile people today work, sleep and eat at all hours. How can they keep straight which meal is breakfast, which is lunch and which is dinner? Here in Florida a lot of senior citizens are having dinner at around 4 in the afternoon, when some younger people are still having lunch (or breakfast). But is it even necessary that each meal have a name? Perhaps we will eventually get to the point where a meal is just meal and restaurants will serve you whatever you feel like whatever the time of day.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Miracle worker

Judith McPherson, the 10-year-old narrator of Grace McCleen's impressive first novel The Land of Decoration, defines a miracle in an early chapter as "what you see when you stop thinking." Perhaps because she thinks too much, Judith begins to see herself as a miracle worker. At first her power seems a blessing, but it becomes more and more a curse because miracles, like wishes granted by genies, don't always work the way they are intended.

Her mother died after her birth, and Judith has been raised by her father, a simple laborer who is a part of a fundamentalist congregation with strict ideas about sin and punishment. Judith knows Father loved her mother, but she isn't so sure that he really loves her.

The introverted girl spends most of her time alone in her room, in which she creates what she calls the Land of Decoration, a phrase based on an Old Testament passage. She has made, in effect, her own little world made out of rubbish, complete with mountains, buildings, rivers and pipe-cleaner people. One day she covers her world with cotton snow, and the next day an early-season blizzard strikes her town. A couple of days later she does it again. From then on, anything she does in her Land of Decoration happens in the real world, even if not quite as she might have imagined it.

Much is going on Judith's life beyond the Land of Decoration. Her father decides to continue working even though most of his fellow workers go on strike. She is bullied at school, and when one of the bullies follows her home, her house becomes a target of vandalism by him and his friends. This drives her father, already under extreme pressure at work, into a panic, especially when the police seem incapable of stopping the nightly assaults on his property. When he builds a fence to protect the house, authorities come after him for his illegal fence.

And then there are her almost daily conversations with God, who seems more like a kooky uncle.

The trouble with stories like this is how to end them in a satisfactory way without everything being a dream or the product of a character's imagination. The usual solution is to obfuscate the conclusion so that readers haven't a clue as to what is going on. Until McCleen arrives at the dilemma point, her novel proves rich and wonderful. After that, well, I for one was left unsatisfied.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Books in boxes

It was wonderful unpacking a big box filled with books, even if we had mailed it to ourselves.
Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, Used and Rare

Opening almost any kind of package can provide a measure of excitement. This may even include taking items out of bags following a trip to the grocery store. For those of us who love books, nothing can quite match opening a box of books, even if, like Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, we are the ones who placed the books in that box.

I ship books to myself every year following a winter in Florida. I reserve the limited shelf space in our Florida condo for books I have yet to read. Before returning to our much more spacious Ohio home, I place the books I've read over the winter into boxes and ship them home. These boxes await me at the post office  upon my return. I may know what's in them, but even so I look forward to opening them and removing the books one by one.

A step up in the excitement level happens when ordering books from catalogs or through an Internet site, like Amazon. Here, too, I know what to expect, but I have yet to actually see these particular books or hold them in my hands. So simply opening the box, especially when it is a large box, can become the highlight of the day.

For nearly 40 years I reviewed books for a newspaper, and as incredible as it still seems to me, a variety of publishers actually sent me books on a regular basis. Some days my desk would be stacked with boxes of books, and rarely did I know what was inside these boxes. So I could experience something of the joy of a kid at Christmas almost every day. And as on Christmas morning, the contents of the package were often disappointing. Other times I felt like I had hit a jackpot.

Although retired from professional reviewing, I continue to receive usually one review copy a month through LibraryThing, so the excitement of receiving free books directly from publishers is not entirely a thing of the past.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The art of murder

Thomas De Quincey
Writers of historical mysteries have turned everyone from Bertie, Prince of Wales, to Mark Twain to Groucho Marx into an amateur sleuth, but David Morrell's choice of writer Thomas De Quincey as his hero may be the most inspired of them all, even if De Quincey is little known today. If his name is recognized it is probably as the author of Confessions of an Opium Eater (1822) in which he describes his addiction to the opium-loaded drug laudanum after first taking it for pain relief. To support both his habit and his large family, he sold countless essays on a variety of subjects to British publications.

It is another of De Quincey's writings, On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) that Morrell uses as a launchpad for his 2013 novel, the first in a series, Murder as a Fine Art. De Quincey wrote about the infamous Ratcliffe Highway killings of 1811. Morrell imagines that, decades later, the crimes by the Ratcliffe Highway killer are repeated, almost death for death, as if to rub them in De Quincey's face.

At first, De Quincey is himself considered a suspect in the new round of bloody murders. Soon, accompanied by his youngest daughter, Emily, he is assisting Detective Inspector Ryan and Constable Becker in trying to solve the crimes. Or perhaps they are assisting him, so sharp is his mind, at least when he has access to a steady supply of laudanum.

Morrell, a literature professor before he became a best-selling author of thrillers (beginning with First Blood), became a Thomas De Quincey scholar before beginning this series of novels, and it shows in the detail he provides about De Quincey and his times. Also, Morrell provides his readers with a short history lesson at the beginning of virtually every chapter, writing about the London police force, the popularity of laudanum as a pain reliever in De Quincey's day, the spread of cholera in London in the middle of the 19th century and other topics relating to his story.

Murder as a Fine Art may be a violent novel, especially in the initial chapter, but it is an unusually fine mystery, one that may inspire some of us to seek out some of Thomas De Quincey's work.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Celebrate some words

Let's celebrate some centennials today, not of individuals, places or events but of words.

It can be difficult to be certain exactly when words were coined. Often they are used in conversation long before somebody writes them down, but not until they are written down in books or other publications can later scholars assign dates to them. Sol Steinmetz, in his book There's a Word for It (2010), provides lists of words coined, or at least put into print for the first time, every year from 1900 to 2009. So let's look at the words that appeared first in 1916, 100 years ago.

When I see lists of words arranged by their date of origin, I find myself dividing them into three groups in my mind: those I would have thought to be older, those I would have thought to be newer and those that sound about right. So allow me to do that now.

1916 words that seem older
Ambivalent, counterattack (used as a verb), dagnab it, dealership, goof, Midwesterner, multimillion and pastrami.
1916 words that seem newer

Carcinogenic, cryptobiotic, dysfunction, ecotype, environmentalist, homo-erotic, hush-hush, penny-pincher, princessy, punchline, Realtor and sex drive.

1916 words that seem about right

World War I was well under way in 1916, and certain words and phrases from that year appear to have grown out of that war. These include blimp, jarhead, munitioneer, national service, over the top, R.O.T.C., steel helmet and trip-wire.

Actually there are several other words on Steinmetz's list that I don't know where to place on one of my own. These include cuckoo-land, economy size, excludable, low-maintenance, photofinishing, profiteer and well-scrubbed.

Some of the words from 1916 we might have done very well without, but others, especially such handy gems as ambivalent and punchline, are certainly worth celebrating.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Literary prizes for songwriters?

A few weeks ago I mentioned folksinger Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in connection with Paul Simon's denial that he himself is a poet. I didn't get into the question of whether literary prizes should be given to songwriters. Let's do that now.

A fellow LibraryThing member argued in a discussion group that Dylan's "not a literary figure, he's a songwriter and there are plenty of venues that celebrate excellence in music." That is a good point. Is there a hall of fame for poetry the way there is for rock and roll music and country music? Are the National Book Awards televised the way the Grammys and other music award presentations are? And are there as many categories so that one writer can win multiple awards and many writers can win at least one? (Of course, because there are so many categories of Grammy Awards, poets and other literary figures have sometimes won them. Grammy winners have included Maya Angelou, James Dickey, Carl Sandburg and Rod McKuen.)

Yet just because a poem is set to music does not mean that it is no longer a poem. There was a time when virtually every literate person read poetry. Today relatively few people do, but they do listen to it. And so most of our poets, like those who wrote the psalms in biblical times, set their poetry to music. I argued in my Nov. 2 post that Paul Simon is a poet. I could make a similar case for Leonard Cohen, who died recently, Dar Williams and many other singer-songwriters.

The quality of the poetry should not be judged on the basis of the music or the voice of the singer or the writer's celebrity. If you are going to give literary prizes to songwriters, it had better be because the words themselves and the strength of their imagery make them deserving. It would not do to start handing out literary prizes to celebrities in the music world at the expense of those who write quality books and poems in relative obscurity. But an occasional Nobel Prize for a Bob Dylan? I have no problem with that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A writer who reads

Larry McMurtry, a prolific writer who also happens to be a prolific reader, surprised me when he observed in one of his books that many writers don't read all that much. Visiting in authors' homes and looking over their shelves, he said he often sees few books other than those they have written themselves or that have been sent to them by publishers hoping for some kind words to use as a blurb. I had always assumed that reading, whether for research or inspiration, was a prerequisite for writing.

Laura Lippman
One writer, other than McMurtry, who does read a lot is Laura Lippman. I have commented on this in past posts. Her crime fiction has numerous literary references, and in her personal appearances she often mentions books she has read. So when I read Baltimore Blues, her first Tess Monaghan novel, I decided to make note of her literary references. There turned out to be more than I expected.

She places three quotations at the front of the novel. One is from H.L. Mencken, "Of all escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient." Another comes from a letter written by a Baltimore doctor. later published in an 1873 book. The third consists of lines from A.E. Housman's poem, Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff. That Housman poem comes up twice in the 324-page novel, and another Housman poem is mentioned as well.

W.H. Auden
During the course of her story, she mentions, usually through her characters, Thomas Hardy, James Thurber's Walter Mitty character, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce (Cain, in fact, pops up again and again in the novel), W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, John Milton, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, A.S. Byatt, Edgar Allan Poe and Don Quixote.

In addition, Tess works part-time in her aunt's used bookshop, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore is referred to as "a place of wonders to Tess."

All this is in a murder mystery that could be classified as light reading. Best of all, these many literary references contribute to the plot without getting in the way.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The first Tess Monaghan

Laura Lippman has written a dozen Tess Monaghan mysteries. I had read a couple of them with pleasure, but I was eager to read the very first in the series, Baltimore Blues, published in 1997. It reveals how Tess, like Lippman herself a former Baltimore newspaper reporter, becomes a private investigator.

It's not by design. Having lost her reporting job when her newspaper folded, she works part-time in her Aunt Kitty's bookstore and looks around for a new job, maybe a new career. Then her workout buddy Rock offers to pay her to follow his girlfriend, Ava Hill, who has been acting strange lately. It seems like easy work, but Tess's efforts end up getting Rock accused of murdering a lawyer she suspects of having an affair with Ava. Then Rock's lawyer hires Tess to work for the defense team with some investigative work, to play Paul Drake to his Perry Mason.

Tess turns out to be a better detective than she thought at first, although still not good enough to actually solve the case until the killer, thinking she knows more than she actually does, comes after her.

Despite the ending, something of a cliche in detective fiction, Baltimore Blues makes enjoyable reading. The characters, especially Tess Monaghan, are vividly drawn, the story moves at a steady pace and the side stories actually add interest rather than seeming like filler. So I'm glad I sought out Baltimore Blues. Now I must find a copy of Charm City.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Where do writers come from?

The best American writers have come from the hinterlands -- Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, Steinbeck. Most of them never even went to college.
Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

The title of Edward Abbey's last book, written or rather compiled at the end of his life, is more than a metaphor, He spent much of his life in the wilderness of the American West. He had an aversion to citified, over-educated people, so it was perhaps natural that he admired those American writers who were more rural than urban, more self-educated than college-educated.

But was he right? Do the best writers come from the hinterlands? Have the best writers avoided college? He compiled quite a list of great American writers, but one could also compile an impressive list of great American writers who grew up in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and who attended college and, in some cases, taught college courses.

What Abbey perhaps should have said is that where one is from or how much education one has received has nothing, or virtually nothing, to do with writing talent. Either you've got it or you don't.

Thomas Wolfe
To pay the bills, many gifted writers teach college creative writing classes. These classes may help talented students become better writers, mostly by giving them incentive to actually write and then giving them feedback on what they have written. But if you can't write well on the first day of class, chances are you are still not going to be able to write well on the last day of class.

Because great writers are born, not made, they are likely to be born anywhere. At the time the writers on Abbey's list were born, there were probably more Americans born in rural areas than in urban areas. So that's where most of the best writers came from. Today more babies are born and raised in cities, so most great writers living today and in the future will probably be more urban. Also, more young people attend college today than at the time Twain, London, Faulkner, etc., lived. So more writers are going to be college-educated.

All of this means nothing. Great writers can show up anywhere at anytime. They probably should learn to read and write at some point, but after that, education doesn't matter much either.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

When the lights go out

For the most part, public reaction to the possibility of a massive cyberattack has not even risen to the level of apathy.
Ted Koppel. Lights Out

A power outage lasting a few minutes or even a couple of hours can be an annoyance or an inconvenience. It might even be fun lighting candles and sitting together in the dark for a short time. I recall one outage that served as a nice excuse to take my wife out of town for dinner. But what if the power went out over a large, multi-state area for weeks, even months. How would most of us -- dependent upon electric power for staying warm (or cool), preparing food, doing our jobs and communicating -- survive? Imagine the chaos. Imagine the potential for violence. Imagine the suffering and death.

Ted Koppel
Ted Koppel does more than imagine all this in his new book Lights Out. He asks the tough questions, often of those in the energy industry and government who have yet to take such questions seriously.

Koppel refers to the Internet as "a weapon of mass destruction." Already, we know, hackers in Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and elsewhere have created havoc downloading supposedly secure files and shutting down websites. It may only be a matter of time before someone manages to shut down a massive power grid. Why fly airliners into skyscrapers when terrorists can do so much more damage a half a world away just by punching in the right code on a keyboard? It is only a matter of figuring out how to do it.

The energy companies, still largely self-regulated, continue to give a higher priority to profit than security, the author says. Meanwhile Congress, bogged down in politics, has other priorities, as well. Writes Koppel, "the individual can't do anything and the government won't do anything."

Actually there is something the individual can do. So far, those self-reliant folks in places like Wyoming and members of the Mormon church are the best prepared, not because they expect terrorists to cut off their power but just because being ready for disaster is what they do. Koppel devotes three of 20 chapters to the Mormon practice of stockpiling enough food and other supplies to last a year.

It's an example most of us could follow if we would only buy a little extra food and other supplies during each trip to the market and store it under beds and behind sofas. If the lights ever do go out like Ted Koppel warns us they will, such stockpiles could save our lives.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Authors by the score

It's not every day one gets the chance to see, hear and even speak with any of dozens of authors, but that has been my good fortune two Saturdays in a row. On Nov. 5 I attended the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster, Ohio, where numerous writers with Ohio connections sat in large rooms to sign books, greet fans and attempt to recruit new readers. A week later I was at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, where writers, most of them with Florida connections, lectured at eight different locations across the campus.

I passed up such notables as Michael Connelly, Brad Meltzer, Joyce Maynard, Robert Olen Butler, Michael Koryta, Ace Atkins and Tim Dorsey, opting instead to listen to novelists Caroline Leavitt and Amor Towles. Years ago I read and reviewed Leavitt's novel, Into Thin Air, but I have yet to read either of the novels by Towles. I think I may give A Gentleman in Moscow a try, however, for it sounds intriguing. Here is a bit of what these two writers had to say.

"We have come to expect more accuracy from our novelists than our presidential candidates," Towles said. He may have been joking, but the timely comment seemed right on just a few days after two blatant liars each received millions of votes. Towles said any variation from historical fact in his novels draws comment from his readers, yet historical fact is not his objective. "I'm not a historical novelist," he said. "I'm a novelist." He tells stories that may be set in a particular time and place, but these stories are intended only as fiction, not reality.

Towles said his practice in writing both Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow was to write the first draft while doing doing virtually no research. Then he did whatever research was necessary to add detail and correct any blatant errors. Other writers may devote months or even years to research before even starting to write.

Caroline Leavitt
As for Caroline Leavitt, she spoke about how an early novel, the one I read, was successful and how she thought she was on her way. Then novel after novel failed, not necessarily because the books were bad but because publishers went out of business and editors left for other jobs. Finally she signed a contract with Algonquin and has had a string of best-sellers, including her latest, Cruel Beautiful World.

Leavitt's talk was inspirational, along the lines of, "You can do anything you want to do as long as you never give up." She seemed a little disappointed there were not more frustrated writers there for her to inspire.

Regarding her latest book, the most interesting thing she said, something I had never heard before, was that Charles Manson, yes that Charles Manson, co-wrote one of the songs on a Beach Boys album. Now she is a writer who does research.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The democracy of time

There are only two kinds of books -- good books and the others. The good are winnowed from the bad through the democracy of time.
Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Edward Abbey
I like Edward Abbey's phrase "the democracy of time." America just elected its next president. Some folks are celebrating, while others are protesting in the streets. But it will be years, even decades, before "the democracy of time" determines whether the choice made by voters on Tuesday was a good one or a bad one. Abraham Lincoln is today almost universally regarded as a great president, yet at the time he was a controversial figure. It takes time to look at things objectively.

So what about books? Does the same rule apply? Probably so. Herman Melville's Moby-Dick drew scant attention when Melville was still alive. Today it is regarded as a classic. Meanwhile, most bestsellers fade from view within a few years. Does anybody still read The Bridges of Madison County?

Yet I am not so sure "the democracy of time" is always right, any more than the democracy of the ballot box or the bestseller list is. Sometimes outstanding books are ignored when they are first published and are still ignored 50 or 100 years later. Some books that are bestsellers today may deserve to still be bestsellers decades from now.

Abbey himself seemed to be of two minds on this question. In the same book he writes, "Books are like eggs -- best when fresh," suggesting that new books, not those that have stood the test of time, are the ones to read. He also wrote, "Most of the literary classics are worth reading, if you've nothing better to do," suggesting that those books deemed great through "the democracy of time" aren't really all that great.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Buried secrets

Buried secrets are brought to light in Silence of the Grave, one of the early entries in Arnaldur Indridason's successful series of Icelandic mysteries.

A skeleton is found after, shockingly, a little boy is seen teething with a human finger bone. The skeleton, discovered with one hand reaching up as if reaching from the grave, appears to have been in the ground for decades. It also gives the appearance of murder.

Digging up the body is left to archaeologists, which means that even determining the sex or approximate age of the victim takes several days, but even so Inspector Erlendur and his team begin their investigation immediately. They discover that in the area where the body was buried a young woman, made pregnant by someone other than the man she was engaged to marry, had disappeared, and an abusive man had lived with his wife and three children. Might the body belong to one of these people?

Yet Indridason writes about other buried secrets as well, those long hidden by Inspector Erlendur himself. Long estranged from his wife and two children, he receives a brief call for help from Eva Lind, his angry, pregnant and drug-addicted daughter. When he finds her, she is in a coma. The doctor suggests that in those hours spent at her hospital bedside Erlendur talk to his daughter. Perhaps she will hear him. But what can he say to a daughter he has never been able to talk to or who has never been willing to listen to anything he has to say? So the police officer, when off duty, tells Eva Lind about his life, revealing burdensome secrets he has never told anyone.

This is a powerful tale that will make you want to read others in the Reykjavik series.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Writers on writers

Modern American Literature is a three-volume set of literary reference books once common in many libraries in the United States. The idea was to present excerpts from literary criticism on American writers for the benefit of scholars, mostly high school and college students writing term papers. If you were writing a report on, say, John Dos Passos, you could find a variety of commentary on him and his books all in one place.

When my local library discarded its set of these reference books several years ago, I bought it, and it has been taking up valuable space on my shelf ever since. Lately I have been spending some time with it. When I defended Ogden Nash from criticism of his work by Louis Untermeyer on Oct. 17, I found that criticism in Modern American Literature.

Today I want to dip into these books once again to discuss what some American writers have written about other American writers. I am not so sure writers are the most objective of literary critics. Some view other writers as rivals and so are more likely to be critical of their work. Ernest Hemingway was infamous for this. Others may want to puff up the works of other writers in hopes those writers will return the favor. Read the blurbs on paperback books and you will notice a lot of this going on. So take the following excerpts with caution.

Robert Penn Warren
Robert Penn Warren on Saul Bellow: "The novel (The Victim) proved that the author had a masterful control of the method, not merely fictional good manners, the meticulous good breeding which we ordinarily damn by the praise 'intelligent.'"

Archibald MacLeish on Stephen Vincent Benet: "His life was a model, I think, of what a poet's life should be -- a model upon which young men of later generations might well form themselves."

Dawn Powell on James M. Cain: "This is not to say that Mr. Cain's art is not important in its own peculiar way, or that it is mere hammock reading."

Katherine Anne Porter on Willa Cather: "She is a curiously immovable shaped, monumental, virtue itself in her work and a symbol of virtue -- like certain churches, in fact, or exemplary women, revered and neglected."

John Dos Passos
Sinclair Lewis on John Dos Passos: "I regard Manhattan Transfer as more important in every way than anything by Gertrude Stein or Marcel Proust or even the great white boar, Mr. Joyce's Ulysses."

Mark Twain on William Dean Howells: "His is a humor which flows softly all around about and over and through the mesh of the page, pervasive, refreshing, health-giving."

Gore Vidal on Carson McCullers: "She was an American legend from the beginning, which is to say that her fame was as much a creation of publicity as of talent."

Ogden Nash on Dorothy Parker: "The trick about her writing is the trick about Ring Larder's writing or Ernest Hemingway's writing. It isn't a trick."

William Carlos Williams on Ezra Pound: "I could never take him as a steady diet. He was often brilliant but an ass."

William Dean Howells on Mark Twain: "An instinct for something chaotic, ironic, empiric in the order of experience seems to have been the inspiration of our humorist's art."

Randall Jarrell on William Carlos Williams: "He is neither wise nor intellectual, but is full of homely shrewdness and common sense, of sharply intelligent comments dancing cheek-to-cheek with prejudice and random eccentricities ..."

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Paul Simon, poet

"The people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan."
Paul Simon, quoted in Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin

Of all the adjectives one might use to describe Paul Simon, humble is not likely to be among them. In his new biography of the singer and songwriter, Peter Ames Carlin often mentions Simon's resistance to ever apologizing or admitting he was wrong. The singer often ignores or downplays the contributions of others to his success, one of the many reasons for his breakup with Art Garfunkel. Carlin tells the story of the time Simon invited the band Los Lobos to play some tunes for him. On the second day he heard one he liked, put his own words to it and recorded it without giving Los Lobos any credit at all. Arrangers, too, found themselves ignored when albums were released.

Yet proud Paul Simon usually turns humble whenever anyone calls him a poet. "I don't consider myself a poet. I'm a songwriter," he once told Time magazine. He reads what he considers real poetry, such as the work of Wallace Stevens and Edgar Arlington Robinson, and he has never considered his own work equal to that.

Poetry, like music, is not all of equal quality, however. One can be a poet and yet still not be the equal of Wallace Stevens. I pulled off the shelf my copy of Simon's Lyrics 1964-2008 and read again the words to such Simon songs as Graceland, Slip Slidin' Away, Richard Cory (inspired by a Robinson poem), Mrs. Robinson and Darling Lorraine. They read like poems to me. I found these lines in Homeward Bound, an early Paul Simon song:

On a tour of one-night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And everything is neatly planned
For a poet and a one-man band

So maybe, despite his protestations, Simon has always considered himself a poet after all.

The mention of Bob Dylan in the above quote from Carlin's book is intriguing, especially since Dylan was recently announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Early in Simon's career, during his folk music phase, the singer resented Dylan's stature in folk music, and he hated having everything he did compared with what Dylan did. Now that his rival, a songwriter like himself, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Simon may, for once in his life, feel sorry for something he has done, namely denying that he himself is a poet.

Monday, October 31, 2016

An inconceivable legacy

"It's incredible. They knew every line."
William Goldman, author, screenwriter after the 25th anniversary showing of The Princess Bride

Robin Wright and Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride
Cary Elwes, who stars as Westley in The Princess Bride and wrote his best-selling memoir about the experience, As You Wish, says William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay based on his book, had not seen the movie with an audience since its 1987 premiere in Toronto until 25 years later when Goldman, director Rob Reiner and several cast members gathered for the 25th anniversary celebration of the film. What struck Goldman, Elwes writes, is that so many members of the audience said the lines right along with the actors in the movie. "They knew every line," he said.

That so many people do know lines from The Princess Bride speaks both to the popularity of the movie (watch a movie often enough and you begin to learn the lines) and to the brilliance of Goldman's writing (not to mention the brilliance of Billy Crystal's ad libs, many of which made it into the film.

There have been lines from many movies that have become widely known, even by some who have never even seen the movies. The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Godfather and The Big Lebowski, among many others, have given us lines that have become part of the culture. Until The Princess Bride came along, Casablanca may have been the champ, bestowing upon us such lines as "We'll always have Paris" and "Round up the usual suspects."

Elwes provides us with a long list of memorable lines from the Reiner film that fans love to repeat. Some of these include:

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."


"Anybody want a peanut?"

"Have fun storming the castle."

"Never get involved in a land war in Asia."

"Rest well, and dream of large women."

"Please consider me as an alternative to suicide."

"This is true love. You think this happens every day?"

"Mawidge. That bwessed awangement!"

"Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!"

"There's a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. It would be a pity to damage yours."

"As you wish."

His list doesn't even include "mostly dead," a favorite of mine.

Even the names of characters and places in the movie are memorable: Princess Buttercup, Dred Pirate Roberts, Prince Humperdinck, Miracle Max, the Cliffs of Insanity, the Pit of Despair, the Fire Swamp and so on.

Certain fairy tales have become part of our culture and provide handy metaphors for all sorts of situations. There is Cinderella and her glass slippers, Snow White and the seven dwarfs, Goldilocks and the three bears and so on. The Princess Bride, a modern fairy tale, fits right in with those older tales. It, too, will be remembered for a long, long time.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Where 'The Russians Are Coming' came from

Alan Arkin in The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming
Among my favorite movie comedies from the Sixties is The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming. It was a time when the film industry favored big comedies with big casts on big screens. Big titles were also in vogue. Remember It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, among others?

The movie was adapted from a novel with a much shorter title, The Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley, published in 1961. Benchley never quite achieved the stature of his father, Robert, or his son, Peter, but he did inherit some of the former's famous wit while possessing some skill at developing tension, which he must have passed on to his son, the author of Jaws. The Off-Islanders may have been his best book, although it is all but forgotten today. I read it again recently, then watched the movie for the first time in several years. I loved them both, but they are quite different.

The Norman Jewison film maintains the spirit of the novel, mostly a comedy but with a significant measure of suspense. In both a Russian submarine runs aground on an island off the New England coast. Some seamen come ashore to try to get a boat big enough to pull the sub off the rocks without alarming the local population and starting World War III. Once ashore, details of the story begin to diverge with some different characters and different plotlines. The Whittaker family, featuring Carl Reiner and Eva Marie Saint, are not in the novel, nor is Alison, the baby-sitter who falls in love with Kolchin, the handsome young Russian. But the young American who, prodded by his girlfriend, climbs aboard the submarine and tries to find a way to sink it, is missing from the movie. The novel is a bit more violent than the film version. The movie, meanwhile, has more comedy and more sentiment.

One thing that remains consistent in both is the comic spread of rumor and panic among the islanders. What we imagine to be true, such as a Russian invasion, is usually worse than what actually is true, in this case a ship, albeit a foreign warship, run aground. That human trait of imagining the worst is what both the novel and the movie make us laugh at.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Coming of age

Larry McMurtry's The Desert Rose (1983) can be viewed as a coming-of-age story, never mind that the protagonist, a Vegas showgirl, is 39 years old. Some people just reach maturity later than others.

Harmony has been the most beautiful showgirl on the Strip since she was 17 years old. She has never been one to save money or to worry about the future. Everyone likes her not just because she is beautiful but also because she is always upbeat, always the one who lifts up others when they're down. Suddenly, however, things change. When she's in a bar with other showgirls, she realizes the men are looking not at her but at the younger women. She learns that Pepper, her lovely 16-year-old daughter, has been asked behind her back to become the lead dancer at the same casino where Harmony works. Further she hears, again not from Pepper, that her daughter has become engaged to a wealthy, middle-aged man.

The biggest blow of all comes when her boss tells her that her job will end on her 40th birthday. "Topless grandmothers just aren't what the public wants to see," he tells her.

Harmony knows little about anything other than being what she calls "a feathered beauty." If no other casino in Las Vegas wants to hire her, what can she do? To her credit, she rejects an offer to become a totally nude dancer, and she doesn't even consider asking her soon-to-be son-in-law for money. She finds answers not just by looking ahead, for the first time in her life, but also by looking back. She has a neglected husband in Reno whom she has not seen in years but whom, she learns, still loves her. Might there be a new life in a new town?

McMurtry has won much of his acclaim by writing about cowboys, most notably in Lonesome Dove. In a preface to my edition of The Desert Rose, he calls showgirls "the cowboys of Las Vegas." It might be interesting to approach this novel as a western featuring lonely showgirls rather than lonely cowboys. But I think I'll stick to seeing it as a coming-of-age story.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Words new to me

Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson's historical novel The Confusion reads like something William F. Buckley Jr. might have read to strengthen his vocabulary.

At the beginning of the novel there are four pages of maps showing virtually the entire world and thus the places Jack Shaftoe visits on his long sea voyage late in the 17th century. During stops along the way in places like Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico, we get a sampling of words and phrases in the languages spoken there. Yet even the English words Stephenson throws about demand a glossary, which the author does not provide. Here is a sampling of what you are up against when you tackle this book.

chainshot - Often one can deduce from context what a word means, and that is the case here: " chainshot launched from a cannon." The word refers to small cannon balls chained together. This was at one time useful for destroying the masts of enemy ships.

insomniacal - Most of us know the word insomnia, but insomniacal? That was new to me. The story refers to "insomniacal horses and camels." According to the web, this is a word of recent origin, certainly not in use in the 17th century. It refers to someone who seems never to sleep.

obnubilated - This means obscured or covered by a cloud. Again the context helps: "Cherbourg's shore-batteries obnubilated by powder-smoke." Later there is mention of stars "frequently obnubilated by weather."

poniard - The context didn't help me here: "I seem to have lost my poniard -- have you seen it?" It is a small, thin dagger.

steganography - Once again the context helps: "...used some form of steganography in their letters." This is the practice of concealing one message within another. It is different from a coded message, which cannot be read without the code. With steganography, you can read a message, but not the message.

The speller on my computer questions each of these words, which suggests that I am not alone in not being familiar with them. I'll bet William F. Buckley Jr. was, however, with the possible exception of insomniacal.

Friday, October 21, 2016

A con-fusion of stories

"For confusion is a kind of bewitchment -- a moment when what we supposed we understood loses its form and runs together and becomes one with other things that, though they might have had different outward forms, shared the same inward nature."
Spoken by Eliza in The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson's 2004 novel The Confusion, the second part of his Baroque Cycle, seems aptly named, for readers may often find themselves confused. Its 815 pages contain numerous characters, some of whom travel around the world, and convoluted plot lines. Plus, it picks up a story begun in Quicksilver and concluded in The System of the World, both novels of comparable size. So keeping it all straight can be a challenge.

But the title actually refers to an early meaning of the word as a mixture or co-mingling or fusion. We find references to this idea at numerous points in the novel, including the fact that it consists of two stories, "The Juncto" (involving Eliza, mostly in France) and "Bonanza" (involving Jack Shaftoe on his round-the-world adventures). These stories may seem unrelated most of the time, yet eventually they become "con-fused," as Stephenson usually spells the word. Then, too, there are references to gold, coins and liquids being con-fused.

The great scientist Isaac Newton, although a minor character in the novel, actually lies at its center. Newton was also an alchemist and, for the last 30 years of his life, master of the Royal Mint. Stephenson "con-fuses" these two pursuits by imaging that Newton takes the job at the mint in order to gain access to the gold that passes through there. Alchemists and others in the late 17th century are convinced the gold once owned by King Solomon has special properties useful for alchemy. It is also believed that the gold Jack and his colleagues steal in an act of piracy is King Solomon's gold. Sooner or later some of that gold is likely to pass through the Royal Mint, and Newton wants to be there when it does.

One must read The System of the World to discover how this turns out, but in The Confusion Jack and Eliza have endless trials. He must survive, evade pursuers and somehow make it around the world and back, he hopes, to Eliza. Meanwhile, she becomes a French duchess, but is separated from her and Jack's son. As Jack is skilled at piracy, she is unusually gifted at financial affairs, and her complicated dealings gain, and occasionally lose, fortunes. She also contracts smallpox, which diminishes very little her astounding beauty.

The Confusion, if sometimes confusing, provides a wild ride.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Do writers write too much?

Do some writers write too much for their own good? I defended Ogden Nash against that charge, made by a literary critic, in my last post. But what about other prolific writers? Do any of them ever write too much? The question might be addressed according to several different topics.

1. The writer's income

Except for bestsellers, books do not make a lot of money for their authors. Therefore, for full-time writers struggling to support their families, the more books they can write, the better. Even bestselling authors strive to maximize their income by writing at least one book a year. Some writers produce new books faster than their publishers are willing publish them. Publishers usually don't want to put out a new book in hardback before the earlier book has been reprinted in paperback.. In that case, authors may use pen names to sell books to other publishers. Romance writer Kathleen Lindsay used at least 11 pen names. John Creasey wrote under 28 names other than his own. French mystery writer Georges Simenon wrote under a dozen different names. Such writers as Donald E. Westlake, Agatha Cristie and even Joyce Carol Oates have also used pseudonyms. Getting more books published is hardly the only reason for using a pen name, but it makes sense for some.

2. Long books

Some writers seem incapable of writing short books. I am thinking of Thomas Wolfe, Pat Conroy, Edward Rutherfurd and Neal Stephenson, among others. Their mammoth books may scare away some readers, but others are attracted to books with some heft to them. Why take two or three novels with you on your winter cruise when you could just take that 920-page Ken Follett novel I recently finished? But it has often been argued that Wolfe, for one, would have benefited from more ruthless editing. Writing long can indicate a lack of skill and discipline. Graham Greene, one of our better writers, says his publishers complained because his books were too short.

You might think an author could write two 400-page books instead of one 800-pager and thus double sales and royalties, but it is not that simple. Once you have developed a plot, created characters and done whatever research is necessary, writing a long book is much easier than starting over on a new book.

3. The number of books

Some people just write faster than others. I noticed that at the newspaper where I worked. Some reporters seemed to no more than return to the newsroom before their stories were done, while others struggled right up to deadline every day. Isaac Asimov, who wrote science fiction as well as nonfiction on a variety of topics, produced well over 400 books in his career. He claimed to be able to write as fast as he could think, and he rarely, if ever, rewrote anything. Would his books have been better if he had taken more time? Perhaps, but probably not. He wrote at the pace that worked best for him, and producing great literature was never his goal. He just wanted to entertain and inform, and he could do that just as well writing fast as writing slow. So he wrote lots of books. Barbara Cartland is said to have written 723 books, Georges Simenon more than 500, John Creasey more than 600 and L. Ron Hubbard more than 1,000. We might have more trees in this world if these writers had written fewer books -- or sold fewer books -- but I can't see how their high production rates were detrimental to them as writers. They might have benefited from more time with their family and friends, but that is another question.

4. Fans

I have been a Westlake fan for 50 years and read one or two of his books a year, yet there are still several of his books I have yet to read. I find this a trifle frustrating, especially since there are so many other writers I love who write books faster than I can can read them. Yet this wealth of unread books also seems like something of a luxury. It means that, while I may never catch up on my reading, I also will never run out of books I want to read.

5.  Literary quality

Most of the writers I have mentioned so far are not literary greats, although you could make a case for Wolfe, Oates, Conroy and Nash. When you are writing literature, as opposed to just telling a good story, it might be best to write deliberately and to re-write entire passages, or even entire books, on occasion. Some masterpieces have been written quickly, but usually they take time. Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, was published in 1992, and she has written just two novels since then. Is that why her books are so good, or is she just a slow writer? Joyce Carol Oates is someone who might be more highly regarded by literary critics if she wrote fewer books, but then maybe not.

In the end, writers write as they write, fast or slow, long or short, good or bad. Readers, both literary critics and the rest of us, just have to take them as they are and render our verdicts as they be.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Better in small doses

(Ogden) Nash has been applauded for his industry and his verbal ingenuities. Both are virtues, but they become vices with Nash. For one thing, he writes too much. At first his work seems amazing; then it becomes amusing; after too many repetitions of the same effects, it descends to the mechanical. The present volume contains almost three hundred pages; were it half as long it would be twice as good.
Louis Untermeyer, Saturday Review, June 4, 1938

I understand what literary critic Louis Untermeyer was talking about in his review of one of Ogden Nash's collections of light verse, but I disagree with him just the same. The problem was not that Nash wrote too much but that Untermeyer read too much at one time. Nash is one of those writers best appreciated in small doses.

This is why Nash's books are perfect for bedtime reading. By reading just two or three verses at a time before turning out the light and going to sleep, I find his poems delightful, as when he rhymes aristocrats with sophistocrats and clamoring with Gotterdammerung in I'm a Stranger Here Myself, which was published in 1938 and was probably the book Untermeyer was reviewing. Try to read more than that at one time and the poems gradually lose their charm, which is what Untermeyer found. Reviewing a book for a weekly publication, however, he couldn't very well have taken weeks to read Nash's book.

Ogden Nash sold his verses one at a time to various magazines, and every few years they would be collected into books. Untermeyer's complaint should have been with Nash's publisher, Little, Brown and Company, for waiting too long before putting a book together and thus making it too long for the critic's taste, not with Nash himself for making his living selling as many poems as possible to so many different magazines. For readers of those magazines, reading one Nash poem at a time was ideal.

But if Ogden Nash didn't write too much for his own good, what about certain other prolific writers? I'll get into that subject next time.

Friday, October 14, 2016

20th century history made simple

You could read a few history books to learn how the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian archduke led to the start of the Great War, how that war killed so many combatants, how the eventual peace treaty sowed the seeds for a Second World War, how the Russian Revolution resulted in worse oppression than that which the revolution was supposed to correct or how Prohibition in the United States fueled organized crime. Or you could read Ken Follett's massive, yet always interesting, novel Fall of Giants, the first volume of his Century Trilogy.

Follett explains these historical events through the lives of fictional characters in Great Britain, Getmany, Russia and the United States. Through their lives, we experience something of the lives of millions of people actually living during the years from 1911 to 1924, the span of time covered by Follett's novel. Real historical figures, such as Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill, also play roles in this drama.

Coincidences happen in real life, but not to the extent they happen in Fall of Giants, where main characters seem to be running into each other everywhere, even on the battlefield. As unrealistic as this may be, it does make the story easier to follow and eliminates the need for scores of additional characters. The scores we already have are plenty.

A more serious problem with the novel is that Follett attempts to turn it into a 920-page political tract. All of the characters portrayed positively share the same political ideas, as do all those portrayed negatively. In real life, there are intelligent and noble individuals at both ends of the political spectrum.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

When books become something else

Sometimes books are more than just books. Sometimes they become something else. During those periods of history when books have been piled high and burned, those books were symbols for hated people or ideas. Books can be used for decorative purposes or to give their owners an intellectual air, whether or not the books have ever been read. Books, unlike e-books, can also serve utilitarian functions. Last night, for example, my wife and I watched some slides from the 1970s, and I used a book to prop up the projector. Here are some other examples of when books become more than just books.

Books as a harem

James Salter
James Salter makes this suggestion is his introduction to Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves. He writes, "The bibliophile is, after all, like a sultan or khan who has countless wives already but another two or three are always irresistible." Of course, he could also have compared the bibliophile to the billionaire who just wants a few million more or the football coach with a 30-point lead with three minutes left in the game who wants another touchdown. Those who have want more. This analogy speaks to me as I consider my stacks and stacks of unread books yet still desire a few more for my harem, er, library.

Books as toys

"I like to play with my books, to mark them up, to give them a lived-in look," Joe Queenan writes in One for the Books. "I like to stack them up on the shelf and move them about and rearrange them according to new parameters -- height, color, thickness, provenance, publishers, author's nationality, subject matter, likelihood that I will ever read them. Then I put them back the way they were." I may not play with my books in the same way Queenan does, but still I know what he is talking about. Reading books are not the only way in which they give pleasure.

Books as sacred objects

Joe Queenan
Queenan also says this, "People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, and not merely an electronic version, are in some sense mystics. We believe that the objects themselves are sacred, not just the stories they tell. We believe that books possess the power to transubstantiate, to turn darkness into light, to make being out of nothingness." It is probably not a coincidence that most major, and even minor, religions have holy books. I wouldn't go so far as to call all books sacred objects, yet there can often be something mystical about them. Authors all die, yet their ideas, the images produced in their minds, live on in their books.

Books as friends and lovers

"A person's relationship with books does not remain static throughout his life," Queenan writes. A relationship? With a book? Well, yes. I can recall writing a couplet in college that went something like this: "My friend, the book/Holds my hand on cold nights." Not all readers are lonely introverts, but many are, and to them favorite books can be viewed as friends and/or lovers with whom one holds conversations.

Because of the relationship one forms with books, they can be hard to part with. But Queenan also observes, "Sometimes even the most loyal reader may feel a need to part company with a writer he once admired greatly. It is almost as if one is picking a fight, looking for an excuse to bit an old lover goodbye."