Friday, January 29, 2016

Music without a name

Don Cusic
The kind of music we loved in our youth is the kind of music we love for the rest of our lives. Nothing new there. But when I was in Nashville in September, I heard a series of lectures on the history of country music by Don Cusic, a professor at Belmont University and the author of numerous books on country music. He said country music tends to echo popular music, and draw the same fans, roughly 15 years later.

As examples, he mentioned Patsy Cline, whose records appeared in the late 1950s and early '60s. Cusic said she appealed to the same people who, in their youth, loved big-band singers like Doris Day, Jo Stafford and Helen Forrest. About a decade and a half after the Beatles and similar groups, the same fans who loved them were listening to Alabama and the Oak Ridge Boys on country stations.

I'm beginning to understand why my son, now in his early 40s, listens to country radio. I don't hear it, but apparently today's country performers remind him of Heart, U-2 and other rock groups he once listened to.

As for me, I loved the folk music of the 1960s, especially Peter, Paul and Mary, and, as far as I'm concerned, country music reached its zenith when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded Pancho and Lefty in 1983. Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and similar performers also had country hits during that period.

I still enjoy the same kind music, and will always stop whatever I'm doing whenever Peter, Paul and Mary or Pancho and Lefty come on Pandora or Spotify. But I no longer know what to call this music, and neither does anyone else apparently. Today neither the term folk nor country quite covers it.

Sometimes it's called acoustic, but the music I like isn't always acoustic. You also hear the term Americana. But this morning I was listening to Mary Black sing the kind of songs I enjoy, and she's Irish. Others prefer to called it singer/songwriter music, but don't many pop, rock and country singers write their own songs?

So it's music without a name, but I know it when I hear it, and I'm hearing it right now on Lucinda Williams Radio.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Get down to the facts!

McKim had opened this meeting with a wandering talk about the fair and its prospects. Hunt cut him off: "McKim, damn your preambles. Get down to the facts!"
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

Whenever you hear the phrase "needs no introduction," you know you can expect not just an introduction, but most likely a long introduction. Most of us can agree with Richard M. Hunt at that meeting of architects planning the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, as described in Erik Larson's book. We, too, would sometimes like to shout, "Get down to the facts!" or maybe, "If the speaker needs no introduction, why are we hearing one?"

Andre Dubus III
At the Writers in Paradise public readings in St. Petersburg last week, each writer who gave a reading was introduced by another writer, who would then be giving the reading on some other night. These writers, many of whom return to the writing program year after year and by now know each other very well, try to outdo each other with the wit and creativity of their introductions. Sometimes, quite frankly, the introductions are far better than the readings that follow. That wasn't the case Friday night when Ann Hood introduced fellow novelist Andre Dubus III, using the theme of "How do I love thee, Andre, let me count the ways." I don't know about Hood and Dubus, but I found it embarrassing. The essay read by Dubus, however, about meeting of his father, a terrific short story writer, with Raymond Carver, another terrific short story writer, was, well, terrific.

If the introductions of speakers, and sometimes the introductory comments made by the speakers themselves, can often be tedious, introductory passages in books can be equally so. Erik Larson's book itself has a prologue. Looking over some of the other books on my shelves, I found one with both a foreword and a prologue, another with a preface and an introduction, yet another with a foreword and a preface, and another with an introduction and two prefaces, one by the author and another by the editor.

It gets confusing, even for writers and editors, to understand what all these terms mean, but technically a preface is not the same thing as a prologue, which is different from both a foreword and an introduction. (We won't even get into afterword and epilogue.) A foreword, for example, is usually written by someone other than the author. The introduction "usually forms a part of the text (and the text numbering system)," according a source I found with a Google search. Of course, there are exceptions. My Bookstore, a book of essays by writers about favorite bookstores, includes an introduction by Richard Russo with Roman numerals.

I try to read introductions, prefaces and all the rest, and sometimes they can be helpful. Prologues especially tend to be vital to the book, although I often wonder why a prologue can't just be called Chapter One. Yet they can all be annoying at times, especially when they are numbered with Roman numerals, making it seem like you have to read page after page before you can actually start the book, and especially in fiction. "Get down to the story!" we want to shout. "Get down to the facts!"

Monday, January 25, 2016

Snapshots in the Windy City

Chicago has long lived in the shadow of New York City. Even its two best known nicknames, Second City and the Windy City, reflect back on New York. It became the Second City when its population became the second largest among U.S. cities. More accurately, it is now the Third City, more than a million people behind Los Angeles, with Houston quickly gaining ground.

As for Windy City, Erik Larson explains how that nickname came about in his book The Devil in the White City. It began as an insult aimed at Chicago by New York newspaper editor Charles Dana and referred not to the city's big winds but to its big talk. Chicago leaders loved to brag about their growing city, and some thought the World's Fair of 1893 would put the city ahead of New York. Soon the nickname caught on, but came to refer to winds, not boasts.

Yet, as Larson tells us, Chicago winds did pose a threat to the fair. One storm caused substantial damage, yet the huge Ferris wheel, which some scoffers thought would collapse as soon as it took on passengers, hardly swayed at all during the high winds. In fact, the wheel continued operation during the storm, and no attempt was made to evacuate passengers.

Larson also comments on another addition to our language, the word snapshot. This is not quite a synonym for photograph. Larson says that English hunters used the term snap-shots "to describe a quick shot with a gun." When Kodak came out with the simple No. 4 box camera at the time of the fair, the quick photos people were able to take with them became known as snapshots. Even today the term suggests photos taken in haste by tourists and other amateurs, not photos taken, even if just as hastily, by professionals.

Cameras became a point of contention at the fair. Organizers saw photography as another way to profit from the fair. So they gave one photographer a monopoly on official photographs, a share of the profits going to the committee. Anyone who wanted to take snapshots was supposed to rent one of those Kodak box cameras. If you insisted on bringing your own camera, you had to pay two dollars for the privilege.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The devil in Chicago

Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City (2003) is a study in contrasts: mankind at its best and at its worst, both occurring in the same place, Chicago, at the same time, the early 1890s.

Reading David McCullough's The Greater Journey late last year, I learned a little about the world's fair held in Paris in 1889, a reminder of which remains to this day, the Eiffel Tower. So I found it interesting to read Larson's account of how the United States hoped to top that wildly successful event with a fair of its own, one honoring the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in the New World. Many of the best architects of the day, headed by David Hudson Burnham, gathered to design what became known as the White City because the buildings were all whitewashed. They even hoped to build a tower that would be better than the one Eiffel built. Instead they settled for the first Ferris wheel, which in its own way proved to be a marvel of design and engineering.

H.H. Holmes
Meanwhile, close to Jackson Park where the fair was built, a master criminal and diabolical serial killer sometimes called H.H. Holmes set up shop. He built a hotel to profit from visitors coming to Chicago for the fair, but he equipped his hotel with special rooms for killing some of his guests (as well as wives, girlfriends, associates and others) and dissecting and burning their bodies.

Larson alternates between the story of the great fair, which ultimately did pass the Paris fair in attendance, and the story of Holmes and his crimes. Amazingly, although numerous visitors to the fair, many of them single women, were reported missing, and many of those disappearances led directly to Holmes and his hotel, Chicago police never considered the young businessman a suspect. That had much to do with the great charm of Holmes, who was loved even by his guards when, a few years later, he finally ended up on death row in Pennsylvania.

This proves a fascinating book, one that deserves the popularity it has enjoyed for the past decade.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The redemptive power of storytelling

Underlying Rockwell's every painting and gesture was his faith in the redemptive power of storytelling -- stories, he believed, were a buffer against despair and emptiness.
Deborah Solomon, American Mirror

A couple nights ago I was in the audience at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg when Les Standiford gave a reading, both from one of his John Deal novels and from a work in progress about dogs. This was part of the week-long Writers in Paradise series of public readings by authors. Reading from his dog book, he reflected on the oft-repeated observation that there are really just two basic plots in all of literature: the hero takes a journey or a stranger comes to town. All plots, or at least most plots, are about one or the other, or perhaps a combination of the two.

But is there perhaps just one plot? The stranger who comes to town is, at least in his own mind, the hero taking a journey. For each of  us, life is a journey, even if we never leave home. Each of us is on a quest -- a quest for love, for acceptance, for respect, for meaning, for significance. And this may be what draws us to stories, those we tell each other, those we read in books, those we watch in movies and television programs and those we see in Norman Rockwell paintings.

All this brought me back to Deborah Solomon's biography of Rockwell, American Mirror, and specifically to the sentence quoted above about "the redemptive power of storytelling." Stories about other people's journeys somehow comfort the rest of us in our own. They gives us hope and courage, while strengthening our resolve to continue our own quests, whatever they may be.

Take a good look at Rockwell's 1945 painting Homecoming G.I. The painting doesn't just tell a story, but it contains several subplots as well. A soldier returns to his rundown urban home, but is he the hero on a journey or, because of the changes inflicted by his war experiences, a stranger coming to town? His joyous mother spreads wide her arms, while his younger siblings run to greet him. Neighbors observe his return, and a shy girl, wearing perhaps her best dress, watches from the side. She may be wondering if he remembers her and if he has thought about her as she has thought about him during his absence.

So many of Rockwell's paintings are like that, full of stories upon stories, many of which we may only be imagining. And those stories we find in Rockwell's art, like those in the books of Les Standiford and other writers, can provide us with an ounce of redemption.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Norman Rockwell, artist

Norman Rockwell always referred to himself as an illustrator, not an artist. He wanted to be an artist, but he didn't think he was good enough. For most of his long career, the art world felt the same way. He lived at a time when Jackson Pollock and other abstract artists dominated the scene. Rockwell, besides being considered old-fashioned, was too popular and simply made too much money to be taken seriously by the art elite.

Yet Deborah Solomon's excellent 2014 Rockwell biography has a telling title: American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. To this professional art critic, also a biographer of Pollock, he was indeed an artist, and her book gives him his due as such.

The change in how Rockwell was viewed began late in his life, encouraged by, of all things, the Pop art movement of Andy Warhol and others. If a realistic painting of a soup can can be seen as a work of art, then surely Rockwell's brand of realism qualifies as well. And Rockwell, as Solomon points out, was a much better painter than Warhol. She writes, "Warhol used the techniques of commercial art to make high art, whereas Rockwell used the techniques of high art to make commercial art."

Solomon critiques each of Rockwell's major paintings, telling us how it came to be, who posed for it and how it stands up as a work of art. She does this without downplaying the main objective of a biographer's job, telling a life story. For someone who spent most of his time in his studio painting pictures, Rockwell led an interesting life. He had three wives, met many famous people and traveled a great deal. While his paintings were often considered, rightly or wrongly, a reflection of America's past, some of them, especially his painting of Ruby Bridges, the little black girl in the white dress being escorted to school by federal marshals, helped shape its future. He was, for someone so quiet and unassuming, very influential.

Where Solomon fails her subject is in her attempts to psychoanalyze him, trying to read things into his life and into his paintings that may or may not be there. She says repeatedly that "there is no evidence to suggest that he behaved in a way that was inappropriate" toward the boys who posed for him, yet that doesn't stop her from suggesting that he, at the very least, had inappropriate thoughts. She finds something sexually suggestive about the painting The Runaway showing, from behind, a cop and a runaway boy sitting on restaurant stools. Rockwell did paint many pictures of boys, in part because of his Boy Scout calendars, but he also painted many girls, as well as men and women. If he didn't paint sexy women, perhaps his own explanation, that he simply couldn't do it very well, was the truth. Solomon's most ridiculous comment may be when she says Rockwell "squeezed his feet into tight shoes, as if trying to keep the dirtier parts of himself constrained." Or maybe he was vain about big feet or simply preferred tight shoes.

Solomon insists the busy artist devoted too little time to his wives, but she says his second wife, Mary, twice read War and Peace aloud to him. How much time would that have taken?

The man had plenty of faults and plenty of insecurities and compulsions, but his biographer does him a disservice by finding shortcomings that may only be in her imagination.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The joy of diagramming sentences

I myself do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences.
Gertrude Stein

Molly and Norman Rockwell
Are students still required to diagram sentences? Probably not, since that skill might be difficult to measure on a state assessment test. In my student days back in the 1950s, however, such exercises were common in classrooms. Diagramming a sentence may help someone understand the various parts of a sentence. What the subject? What's the verb? What's a modifier? Diagrams could help clarify these things, I suppose, if you hadn't learned them already. Still it always seemed like a waste of time to me.

The above Gertrude Stein quotation, which I had come across previously, can be found in American Mirror, the Norman Rockwell biography I am reading. Deborah Solomon mentions it because Rockwell's third wife, a retired teacher named Molly Punderson, also loved diagramming sentences. "Molly believed that the careful dissection of a sentence was a lofty exercise, one that could teach a student the intricacies of not only parts of speech but of thought itself," Solomon writes.

They still teach algebra to students who will never in their lives actually use algebra. The reason is that algebra and other higher math skills supposedly teach one how to think, how to reason and how to solve problems in general, not just math problems. If that is true, then perhaps Molly Punderson was right. Perhaps diagramming difficult sentences, such as the kind Gertrude Stein wrote, could help someone think more clearly and ultimately both speak and write better.

Maybe so, but I was happy when my English teachers finally gave up and moved on to something more interesting and less difficult.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Dream vacation

Most of my travel is bookstore-based.
Ann Patchett, My Bookstore

Doesn't that sound like a wonderful idea? We've heard of baseball fans who plan summer vacations so they can watch as many games in as many major league ballparks as possible. So why shouldn't a book lover plan a trip in order to hit as many quality, independent bookstores as possible?

Ann Patchett has a good excuse for her bookstore-based travel. She goes on book tours. "I am a novelist, and when I am not at home writing a book I tend to be sitting at a small table in the back of a bookstore trying to sell it." Although she owns a bookstore of her own in Nashville, the store she writes about is McLean & Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey, Mich. "Like the town of Petoskey itself, a very good bookstore feels a little nostalgic, a place out of time," she writes. I know what she means. I have visited both Petoskey and McLean & Eakin Booksellers the past two Junes. It is where I bought the copy of Driving Mr. Yogi I wrote about here a few weeks ago. Both times entering the town and entering the bookstore I had the sensation of stepping back in time. In his youth Ernest Hemingway spent his summers in and around Petoskey, so there's some literary history in the area, in addition to a beautiful, thriving downtown and a spacious and attractive bookstore in the center of it.

My Bookstore, in which many authors write about favorite bookstores, provides plenty of other ideas for planning one's bookstore tour of America. I would want to include Strand Book Store in New York City, Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine, That Bookstore in Blytheville in Blytheville, Ark., Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C.,The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, N.C., and dozens of others mentioned in the book. It would be a totally impractical trip. Where, for example, would I put all the books I would be likely to buy in my travels, not just in my car but in my home? Still a man can dream.

Back in the early 1990s my wife went to Portland, Ore., via Amtrak. We spent nearly a week there and had a wonderful time, including multiple visits to Powell's huge downtown bookstore. Because of an Amtrak strike, we got an extra day in Portland, and that's when we called my wife's cousin, who lives in Oregon, and spent that extra day with her and her daughter. Over the recent holidays I heard this relative share her version of our visit . She said we went to Portland expressly to shop at Powell's. That's not how I remember it, but I didn't correct her, perhaps because I only wish it were true.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The best parts of authors

The St. Mark's Bookshop is a crossroads for the serendipitous and the unplanned, where you can meet older authors -- and frequently find why the best parts of them are in their books.
Arthur Nersesian, My Bookstore

Novelist Arthur Nersesian is among the dozens of contributors to My Bookstore, a book in which writers reflect on their favorite bookstores. The above quotation comes from his discussion of St. Mark's Bookshop in New York City. The sentence strikes me as a nice way of saying that authors, when you meet them in person, can often be disappointing. The "best parts of them are in their books." Face to face, they may not make much of an impression, or the impression they make may be negative, even if you love their books.

There can be good reasons for this. Chuck Palahniuk touches on this when writing about Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore. Speaking of authors on book tours, he says, "At Powell's you see the literary gods at their not-best. Exhausted from weeks of sleeping in a different hotel bed every night. Starved. Lonely for family. Hung over. Here they are."

I have been reading Yossarian Slept Here, Erica Heller's memoir about her father, novelist Joseph Heller. Catch-22 must certainly be one of the most significant novels to come out of World War II, and could even make a list of the most important novels of the 20th century. Yet even his daughter, who never stopped loving him, cannot find much positive to say about him as a human being. He was selfish, deceitful and manipulative, not just some of the time but all of the time. He left the best parts of himself in his books.

Many people, not just writers, leave the best parts of themselves in their work. The Norman Rockwell biography I've been reading makes that clear about the famous artist/illustrator. The man who could express so much emotion in his paintings had great difficulty expressing his own emotions to those closest to him. He was always tentative and insecure, yet his paintings reflect a firm hand and firm convictions.

How many of the rest of us are much like that? Strong business executives can turn to mush when they go home to their families. Respected pastors may lead much less saintly lives behind closed doors. Heroic actors are found to be nothing like the roles they play.

Sometimes, of course, the opposite can be true. I think of Rocky Balboa in the original Rocky when, because of intimidating size, he provides the muscle for a gangster. Later he turns to boxing. In truth, Rocky is a softy whose best parts come out when he is with his introverted girlfriend.

The luckiest people are not those who need people, as Streisand taught us, but those who are the same good people at work as at home, the same at the book store as on the page.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The opposite of fractions

Literature was the opposite of fractions; it combined the broken shards of daily experience into a seamless whole.
Deborah Solomon, American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell and Mary Barstow
The line quoted above comes in Deborah Solomon's biography of artist Norman Rockwell when she is writing about Mary Barstow, who would become Rockwell's second wife. Mary had studied English literature and creative writing at Stanford and hoped one day to write novels. But, just out of college, she found herself teaching school. As a student, she had never understood fractions. Now she had to try to teach them to seventh graders. A bright student, she had skipped seventh grade herself. Now she was teaching that grade, and that meant teaching fractions. And that brings us to Solomon's wonderful line: "Literature was the opposite of fractions."

I am reminded of my granddaughter, now in middle school, who like Mary Barstow loves literature and hates math, although she gets straight A's in both subjects. Not everyone who is good with words is bad with numbers, and vice versa, but that is often the case. I don't think that is the point Solomon is making, however. Rather she is speaking about how fractions are about dividing numbers down into smaller bits, while literature is about uniting the small bits of character's lives "into a seamless whole."

No novel, no matter how long it may, tells the whole story. An author cannot include a character's every thought, experience or action. Rather the novel is made up of fractions of characters's lives, assembled in a way that makes them whole.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Charlie Lovett
The plot of Charlie Lovett's novel The Bookman's Tale, reviewed here a couple of days ago, revolves around an old book with a list of signatures of men who have owned it, including William Shakespeare. The list has 10 names, not including the present owner of the book.

When I buy a used book, as I do several times each year, I dislike finding the name of the previous owner inside the front cover. Somehow a book seems less mine when it bears someone else's name. I do understand why people put their names in their books. It may improve the chances, however slightly, of loaned books being returned someday. Yet books are like money. You can't take them with you. Whether you dispose of them or your heirs do, sooner or later they are likely to belong to somebody else. And that somebody probably will resent your name on their book.

Finding the name of some prominent person in a book changes things, of course, and it wouldn't have to be William Shakespeare. To own a book once owned by, say, C.S. Lewis or Audrey Hepburn or Harry Truman would be a thrill. You can't very well expect only famous people to put their names on their books, but when ordinary folks do it, it decreases rather than increases the value of those books.

I don't know that I have ever seen a book with more than two previous owners listed inside the cover. There are reasons for this other than the fact that relatively few people still write their names in their books. Few books ever have more than two, three or maybe four owners. Either the books fall apart by then or they show their age so much that nobody wants them on their shelves. People who still read old books usually prefer new editions of those old books. They don't want to read a 100-year-old copy of Moby-Dick. They'd prefer a slick new paperback.

A few quality editions of quality books are passed down from owner to owner for several generations, but they might be less likely to be passed down if they have a list of the names of those owners inside.

Monday, January 4, 2016

A bookman's adventures

For most of us who love books, just going to a good bookshop seems like an adventure. So Charlie Lovett's 2013 novel The Bookman's Tale seems a bit over the top. There's a murder, a chase, an escape through a dark underground passage and not one but two love stories, all involving a seriously introverted young man who is just passionate about books.

The big mystery in the story is not who the murderer may be but whether a book Peter Byerly finds while booking in England is the real thing or a forgery. If it's real, it could be the literary holy grail, the evidence that proves William Shakespeare really was William Shakespeare, the man who wrote all those plays and sonnets. There has long been some question about this. Some authorities argue Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Christopher Marlowe or someone else actually did the writing.

One of Shakespeare's plays was based on a story contained in a book called Pandosto written by a man named Robert Greene. Peter finds an old copy with a list of men who once owned the book. One of those owners was a "Wm. Shakspere, Stratford." But over the centuries there have been some pretty good forgers who preyed on those naive souls who sought to obtain seemingly valuable books for a modest price. Could this be such an imitation?

Lovett tells his story alternately through three periods. One is the present day, actually 1995, when Peter discovers the mysterious book and has his adventures. Another is a decade earlier when he meets and marries Amanda, a wealthy young woman who later dies. The third thread goes back centuries, tracing the lives of others connected with Greene's book.

The novel provides a few hours of fun, but it fails to be entirely satisfying. Lovett leaves questions unanswered and relies too much on coincidence and happenstance. I wanted to believe it, but couldn't.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Grade school, elementary school or what?

Did you attend elementary school or grammar school? Or did you go to a grade school or primary school? Or perhaps a public school or a magnet school?

I find it interesting that we have so many terms for what is essentially the same thing, the school we attend before high school, which except for the more formal secondary school has been called the same thing for generations. Schools that house the lower grades, however, have been called a variety of names depending on when and where those schools were located.

Back in northwestern Ohio in the 1950s, I attended grade school. My son, 100 miles away in the 1980s, went to a private elementary school. My parents may have attended a grammar school in the 1920s, also in northwestern Ohio. I'm not really sure what they called it.

Grammar school, at one time, had more to do with Latin grammar than English grammar. And sometimes it was more likely to be a secondary school than a primary school. Such schools were originally intended for the more elite students, those taking classic courses, such as Latin. In time the name became more generally applied to primary schools. A magnet school today seems to have something in common with the original idea of a grammar school.

Public school, to most of us in the United States, simply means a school, elementary or secondary, that is supported by taxpayers. In New York City, however, the term is more narrowly applied to elementary schools, such as P.S. 3. In England, a public school is not supported by the government, in that same way that a public house, or pub, is privately owned.

Today elementary school seems to be the most widely used term, even though it is a bit long and cumbersome when either writing it or saying it. I much prefer grade school.