Friday, February 26, 2016

Slow and steady

It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

The wisdom of Confucius turns out to be the wisdom of most of us, at least those of us who slow down long enough to think about it. We live our lives one day at a time, even one moment at a time. Athletes speak of playing one game at a time, not thinking about the next opponent until they've dealt with the one at hand. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The slow and steady tortoise outraces the hare. When I get behind a slow driver in traffic I often remind myself that, slow or not, the other driver got there first.

We can apply this wisdom to just about anything, so allow me to apply it to the reading of books. Many people take pride in how quickly they can finish a book, although I've noticed that such people usually focus on thrillers or romances, the kinds of books written to be read quickly. With more challenging books, I'm not so sure a quick read is the best read. Some books reward you for slowing down, not speeding up. Instead of stopping to smell the roses, stop to reread certain sentences or paragraphs, not just to understand them better but to better appreciate the prose (or the poetry).

At present I have nine books in progress. These include a novel on CD I listen to when I am alone in my car, a novel in my car I take with me into waiting rooms and restaurants when I eat alone, a novel I read at breakfast and sometimes at lunch, plus two novels, a book of short stories and three nonfiction books on my reading table. I don't read from each book each day, but I try to open most of them and cover at least a few pages. At this pace it can be slow going, sometimes taking me weeks to finish a book, yet I actually complete quite a number of books over the course of a year. The trick is to keep at them.

Some books have literally taken me years to get through. One that comes to mind is That Dark and Bloody River by Allan W. Eckert. This is a good book, but a massive one and one that did not hold my interest for very long at a time. Yet I kept returning to it and, a few pages at a time, eventually finished it.

I have been reading The Annotated Baseball Stories of Ring Lardner, 1914-1919 for more than five years. In other words, it has taken me longer to read these stories than it took Lardner to write them, and I still have several stories to go. I left the book back in Ohio, but I expect to return to it when I get back there this spring. Maybe this will be the year I finish it, but probably not.

When Confucius said not to stop, I think he meant not to quit.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Thinning the herd

Jack and I owned a few thousand books, some of them rather obscure and wonderful. Husband and wife looked each other in the eye and swore it went downstairs to the shop if: we had owned it more than three years but not read it; if we had read it but never reread it (even if we intended to someday); or if we'd never used it in research.
Wendy Welch, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

I continue to acquire books at a faster rate than I can read them. Even so, I realize I am approaching that time of life when it becomes necessary, for the sake of heirs if not for the sake simplifying one's life, to start getting rid of things, books included. But how does one decide which books to part with?

Wendy Welch
So I was interested in how Wendy Welch and her husband approached a different, yet similar, problem. They wanted to open a used book store in their home in Big Stone Gap, Va., but they had little money to acquire inventory. That meant sacrificing some of their own books to the cause. Here is the criteria they used in making their choices:

1. Books owned more than three years but never read.

This wouldn't work for me. Just because I've owned a book for more than three years, or more than 10 years, without reading it, doesn't mean I'll never read it. I normally prefer to allow books to age on the shelf for a few years, like wine, before opening them. A few days ago I started reading The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King, which was published in 1994 and which I have owned for a number of years. I'm certainly glad I didn't toss it out after three years.

2. Books read but never reread.

This wouldn't work either. I try to reread a few old favorites. Last year I revisited Deliverance and Franny and Zooey, among others. But just because you don't reread a book, or haven't done so yet, doesn't make it expendable. Books, especially those we love, are worth keeping for the memories they stir when we see them on the shelf.

3. Books never used in research.

Welch, besides running a bookstore, teaches at a university. Her husband, Jack Beck, leads tours to Scotland. Some of their books are vital for their work. Most of us don't do research as such, but we may consult a dictionary, cookbook or other reference book from time to time. I write about books in this blog and review usually one book a month for LibraryThing, and I frequently make reference to other books I have read. Almost every book I own could conceivably be used "in research" at some point.

So what criteria will I use when it becomes necessary to use it? Books I didn't particularly care for will go before the books I loved. I am more eager to read or reread some books than others. The latter will be the first in the box. A few of my first editions may actually have some value to collectors. I may be willing to part with some of them just to put a little money in my pocket.

Clearly I am not yet as ruthless as Wendy and Jack. Maybe in a few more years.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Terry Gilliam looks back

Gilliamesque: A Pre-posthumous Memoir seems something like an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. There are episodes of wild, funny and often disjointed narrative with regular interludes of off-the-wall artwork by Terry Gilliam.

Yet Gilliam strikes me as a bit too angry for his book to be as much fun as Monty Python. He neither forgets, which is good for someone writing an autobiography, nor forgives, which is not so good from someone looking back on a long and productive life. He can laugh about his own failures, however.

He writes of a "shockingly happy childhood" in Minnesota and later Southern California. He went to church and Bible school, read Mad magazine, attended summer camp, loved Disneyland and received a scholarship to a Presbyterian college. Yet though he boasts at one point about being a non-conformist, simply because he never took LSD, he soon conformed to the spirit of the radical Sixties and has never looked back. Interestingly, however, he twice decries the fact that people today are "losing touch with the Bible." Bible stories, he says, are the "building blocks of culture" and children, his own included, suffer by not being more familiar with them.

Gilliam has lived in England for most of his life, from even before the Python years, and denounced his U.S. citizenship several years ago, although he continues to depend on U.S. audiences to make his movies profitable. He refers to Osama Bin Laden and George Bush as two of "the world's most irrational despots," but he has nothing good to say about Margaret Thatcher either.

He doesn't discuss Monty Python or the many movies he has directed as much as we might like, although I did greatly enjoy reading about the making of my two favorite Terry Gilliam films, Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Something I never realized is that Gilliam worked with Harvey Kurtzman on Help! magazine right after college. That magazine was a favorite of mine during my teen years.

As interesting as the text of the book is, I suspect Terry Gilliam, being Terry Gilliam, devoted most of his attention to the illustrations, which alone are worth the price of the book.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Antidotes for conversation

Television is the perfect anecdote for unwanted conversation. I don't know how humans ever survived without it.
Lisa Lutz, Trail of the Spellmans

I have two comments about these lines from Trail of the Spellman, the fifth book in this unusual but delightful series of low-key mysteries:

1. Lisa Lutz must surely have meant antidote, not anecdote. I'm surprised neither Lutz nor her editors at Simon & Schuster caught the error before the paperback edition. It reminds me of when I did a parody of Reader's Digest when I was in high school. I gave it a medical theme and called it Bleeder's Digest. My favorite line was, "Have you an amusing antidote?"

2. The observation by detective Isabel Spellman, the novel's narrator, seems apt. Television does serve as the perfect antidote for unwanted conversation, or even wanted conversation. Even if conversation erupts during commercial breaks, it can be quickly silenced as soon as the program returns. "I want to hear this," someone will say. Thanks to DVRs, those conversation breaks can be all but eliminated altogether.

Television has been around for as long as most people living today have been around, but newer technology has proved to be even more effective antidotes to conversation. I'm thinking of phones (which are in many cases rarely used for actually talking with anyone), tablets, electronic games and earbuds. It's possible to be around other people all day long without exchanging more than a few words and certainly without having a real conversation.

I've been at social gatherings where just about everyone looked continually at their phones. Conversation consisted mostly of reading interesting things they turned up in their searches.

Yet most people still crave conversation with others. We seek it out, going to parties, churches, clubs, taverns, wherever we might find people to talk with. We just seem to have forgotten how to do it properly. Jo Marchant's book Cure, which I reviewed earlier this week, suggests that conversation with other people who care about us can go a long way toward keeping us healthy. Thus, conversation itself can be the antidote.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The power of the mind

I can recall walking, in pain and a little slumped over, into a doctor's office to learn the results of tests and expecting the worst. Instead the problem turned out to be something relatively minor. Other than offering advice and prescribing medication, the doctor did nothing. Yet I walked out of his office pain free, and the pain never returned, in fact. Since then I have believed that what we think has a lot to do with how we feel.

Jo Marchant
Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant explores this very thing. Despite what the title suggests, there really hasn't been all that much scientific study of this phenomenon. She writes that the annual budget of the U.S. National Institutes of Health is around $30 billion. Yet less than 0.2 percent of that goes into testing mind-body therapies. This has much to do with the fact that drug companies and health professionals are driven by the need to make money. How can they maximize profits if patients don't actually need all those costly tests and treatments to feel better?

Most of Marchant's book looks into the work either of fringe researchers, who get little support from the medical establishment, or amateurs, who some might consider quacks. She studies such things as hypnosis, mindfulness, biofeedback, the power of suggestion and even the waters of Lourdes. Medically sound or not, these various strategies have produced amazing success stories.

One outcome that has been thoroughly studied scientifically is the success of placebos in making people feel better. Placebos are the sugar pills or empty capsules that some subjects in drug tests are given for comparison against those who take the real thing. Sometimes the placebos work just as effectively as the drugs. Furthermore, placebos work even when patients know they are taking placebos.

Speaking of placebos, Marchant writes, "Big pills tend to be more effective than small ones, for example. Two pills at once work better than one. A pill with a recognizable  brand name stamped across the front is more effective than one without. Colored pills tend to work better than white ones, although which color is best depends upon the effect that you are trying to create. Blue tends to help sleep, whereas red is good for relieving pain. Green pills work best for anxiety."

The point of Marchant's book is not that we don't need doctors, drugs or hospitals. Most of us do at some point in our lives. She argues effectively, however, that organized medicine would work better if it worked in conjunction with the power of the mind. More time spent listening to patients. Hospital rooms that look less like hospital rooms. Speaking in positive, comforting tones. And simply not giving warnings like "just a pinch" before injecting a needle into the skin. Sometimes it doesn't take much to help people feel better, as I learned that day in my doctor's office.

Monday, February 15, 2016

'The Meaning of Night' continued

It was a mistake to wait several years after reading The Meaning of Night by the late Michael Cox before starting his other novel, The Glass of Time. I hadn't realized the second book continued the story of the first, but from a different perspective. The perspective of the first is that of a killer in 19th century England who explains in great deal the how and why of his crime. The second novel is told from the point of view of his daughter, Esperanza Gorst, who knows nothing at first of her father or his crime.

Esperanza, directed by her guardian, takes a position as lady's maid to a mysterious and beautiful widow called the Lady Tansor. This woman may herself have been involved in one or more murders. Now  Esperanza is told to earn the lady's love and trust and ultimately to try to marry her oldest son, thus eventually becoming the next baroness herself.

The novel is long and extremely complex, with secrets revealed and mysteries unraveled in virtually every chapter. We discover, as Esperanza does, that she is not just continuing her father's story but also pursuing the same objectives.

I don't rate this as highly as the first novel. Even for the Victorian novel it purports to be, it is just too convoluted and unconvincing. It still makes good reading, however.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Bookstore reflections

My recent reading has turned up a number of quotable lines about the nature of bookstores, so today I would like to quote them. Most come from My Bookstore, Ronald Rice's excellent collection of essays by American writers about favorite bookstores, but a couple were found in The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch. Those attributed to her are from her book, the others from Rice's.

"Here was a place I belonged." -- Richard Russo

"The only place as comforting as a friendly bookstore is probably your grandmother's kitchen." -- Isabel Allende

"If you love words, it's the place to be." -- Rick Atkinson

"The place has the quietness, the friendliness, the smell, and the tangibility that a bookstore ought to have." -- Wendell Berry

"A bookstore is a physical place, of course, But it can also be a state of mind." -- Kate Christensen

"It's a kind of sanctuary." -- Carmela Ciuraru

"The main thing was that the instant you walked inside the door you knew that this was a place where books were honored." -- Jon Clinch

"Many people, myself included, think of the store as a second home." -- Angela Davis-Gardner

"Every time I enter a bookshop, I still fill the same way, filled with a sense of possibility. It's like going to a dance when you're 21." -- Pete Hamill

"It is my de facto office, my classroom, my place of worship, my site for dates, and (not unrelatedly) my ideal location for getting lost." -- Pico Iyler

"It's my personal idea of heaven." -- Ann Patchett

"This bookstore reminds me of the bar in Cheers -- we all want to be where somebody knows your name. That's what makes it work -- it's a place where people know your name." -- Lee Smith

"Sometimes you really do want to go where everybody knows your name. And sometimes you want to be where people know you only as 'that short, pleasant woman who reads J.A. Jance.' Either way you slice it, a used book store should be able to serve it up, the place where people got to define themselves for themselves." -- Wendy Welch

"Human beings breathe slower in a bookstore." -- Wendy Welch                                                              
Most of these lines get an amen from me. Do you notice how many of them contain the word place? Here's another quotation from My Bookstore. Emily St. John Mandel asks, "when was the last time you walked into Amazon and got into a conversation with a bookseller about this new book that you probably hadn't heard of before but that the bookseller thought you might really like?" You may get cheaper books by ordering them via the web or catalogs, but you can't get the kinds of things mentioned by these writers. And these are priceless.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Two kinds of people

Anne Curzan
Linguist Anne Curzan says that when she meets new people on social occasions they usually either express fear that this language expert will find fault with the words they say and the way they say them or they express contempt for the language choices of others. Are these two groups of people? Well, yes in the sense that some of them lean toward timidity while others lean toward obnoxiousness. Yet they are united into a single group by the fact that they see language in terms of right and wrong. Most of us, in fact, fall into this extremely large group.. Our parents corrected us. Our teachers corrected us. Even as adults we are corrected by friends, spouses, editors and sometimes total strangers. (Being laughed at because of the way we say something is a significant form of correction.) As a result we tend to view language in black-and-white terms.

So the second kind of people may actually include just Anne Curzan herself and a very few others capable of viewing language more objectively, not in terms of what's right and what's wrong but rather in terms of what works and what doesn't. The purpose of language is to communicate with others. If what you say communicates your message clearly, that's what counts, not your particular word choices or grammar.

Of course, I've noticed that Curzan, Steven Pinker, John McWhorter and others in this group speak and write in ways that would win the seal of approval of English teachers anywhere. They know the rules and follow them, even though they may say they don't believe in them. That's because things like grammar rules, standardized spellings and widely accepted definitions are what make language work. We couldn't communicate very well if we each spoke our own language in our own way.

Words constantly come and go and change their meanings and pronunciations. Verbs become nouns, and nouns become verbs. Last year's dictionary can go out of style as quickly as last year's dress. So as much as we may need language rules, we should not allow them to become rigid. The two groups of people may actually be those who stay both flexible and tolerant when it comes to language change and those who do not.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A peculiar detective for peculiar crimes

One of the best things about Bryant & May and the Burning Man, the latest in Christopher Fowler's series of Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries, comes on the first page after the novel ends where we find the words, "BRYANT & MAY WILL RETURN." That's good news because throughout the novel Arthur Bryant, the aging London police detective, struggles with advancing dementia. He can get hopelessly lost within a block or two of his residence. Even so, backed up by his partner John May, hardly a young man himself, and the other members of his unit, Bryant gets his man.

Someone is using fire in a variety of ways to kill a victim each day during the week before Guy Fawkes Night. Meanwhile the streets of London are full of demonstrators. Is the killer one of them or is he using the civil unrest as cover for his crimes? What do the victims have in common? And why is fire the weapon of choice? Bryant, fitting for his department and the crimes he investigates, has a peculiar way of finding answers, but find them he does, even if he can forget where he lives.

The crimes may be horrendous, yet Fowler still manages to keep the novel's mood light. The usual subplot is that the police hierarchy wants to disband the unit. That threat is made more serious by Bryant's declining health. I've always found the books in this series become less interesting whenever Arthur Bryant leaves center stage. So it's encouraging that somehow Fowler plans to bring both Bryant and his unit back for at least one more adventure.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Shaped by war

While a high school student, as I mentioned here a few weeks ago, I viewed history as the story of war, with interludes in between when nations recovered from the last war and prepared for the next. In his new novel, Sweet Caress, William Boyd seems to view his main character and narrator Amory Clay from the same perspective. She is a 20th century woman, born in 1908 and dying in 1983, and her life is shaped by the century's wars virtually from beginning to end.

Her father is a writer before the Great War. He survives combat, but afterward he is a shell of the man he once was. At his lowest point, he picks up Amory from her school and deliberately drives the car into a lake, determined to die and take his favorite daughter with him. Both survive, but Amory is forever changed.

She becomes a photographer, gets beaten up by fascists while trying to get shots of a parade and, after the next war breaks out, has some harrowing experiences following the Allied army into Europe. Her brother dies in World War II, and the war veteran she marries is, like her father, ruined psychologically by his experiences.

In her 60s, Amory leaves her twin daughters behind in Scotland and becomes a war correspondent in Vietnam. She is wounded by the Vietcong, yet her greatest danger comes from the British. Returning home, she learns that Blythe, one of her daughters, has run away to the United States and, even at that distance, has had her own life shaped by the war.

This photographer's story comes complete with photographs throughout, raising a chicken-or-egg kind of question. Did Boyd find photos to illustrate his story or shape his story around the photos he found? I suspect it was a little of each. In any case the photographs greatly enhance the novel.

In case anyone needs reminding, Sweet Caress suggests the stupidity and futility of war, yet in the end the novel manages to be life-affirming. It is not just war that shapes our lives and our history. It is also those sweet caresses of peace in between.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Lost in the thicket

I am not a fan of Joe R. Lansdale's Hap and Leonard series of novels, but his stand-alone Texas tales, such as The Bottoms and A Fine Dark Line, are excellent and The Ticket (2013) is his best yet, at least among those I've read.

The story takes place soon after the turn of the 20th century, when automobiles have just started to appear on Texas roads, but otherwise the rural areas of the state remain a wild frontier. Jack, a teenager who narrates the tale, loses his parents to smallpox, then sees his grandfather murdered and sister Lulu kidnapped by Cut Throat Bill and his band of criminals. Like Mattie Ross in True Grit, the boy wants to pursue the villains, but he needs help.

Jack's Rooster Cogburn turns out to be Shorty, a former circus midget, and Eustace, an alcoholic black man with a big shotgun and modest skills at tracking. They agree to try to rescue Lulu in exchange for Jack's newly inherited land, plus the outstanding rewards on the heads of Cut Throat Bill and the members of his gang. Along the way they are joined by Jimmie Sue, a young prostitute who falls for Jack and sees him as her ticket to a new life; Sheriff Winton, who would like a share of that bounty for himself, and Spot, a black man who cleans up the sheriff's office and goes along to make sure he gets his small reward for passing along key information about the whereabouts of the gang.

The Thicket, named for the area where Cut Throat Bill's hideout is eventually found, is by turns a funny and violent adventure, yet it also proves to be full of poignant commentary about the human condition. Explaining to Jack about the justification for killing the bad guys, Winton says, "Life isn't just black of white, here or there;  it's got some mud in it, and we're some of the mud." Later Jack himself observes, "To some extent I find sin like coffee. When I was young and had my first taste of it I found it bitter and nasty, but later on I learned to like it by putting a little milk in it, and then I learned to like it black. Sin is like that. You sweeten it a little with lies, and then you get so you can take it straight. I just didn't want to do it all the way. I wanted to keep a little milk in it." Life, in other words, is something of a thicket, a place where you can get lost but also where you can be found.

Lansdale is a fine, under-appreciated writer, and in The Thicket he is at his finest.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Unpredictable to the end

Elmore Leonard's Road Dogs (2009), published when he was in his 80s, shows that his narrative gifts didn't desert him near the end of his life. The novel about two prison pals, road dogs, and what happens to them after their release, entertains as much as any of his earlier stories.

Elmore Leonard books always remind me of Coen Brothers movies. That's because of their wit, the strength of their dialogue and the unpredictability of their plots. In Road Dogs, Jack Foley, who has robbed more banks than anyone else, wins an early release because his buddy, Cundo Ray, pays for a first-rate lawyer. Then Cundo sends him to stay in one of his California mansions, while Dawn, his beautiful and supposedly chaste girlfriend, waits for his return in the other next door. When Cundo gets out of prison, you expect him to place some demand on Foley as repayment for his generosity. But that isn't what happens at all, this being Elmore Leonard. Instead the threat, make that threats, against Foley come from elsewhere.

One of those threats is Lou Adams, an FBI agent convinced Foley will quickly return to his old habits. In fact, he is betting on it. He is writing a book about the nation's greatest, and most polite, bank robber, but he needs an ending. He figures he will have that when Foley robs another bank and Adams is there to catch him. He closely monitors Foley's activity, even to the point of hiring even worse criminals to tail him. But as threats go, Lou Adams proves to be little more than an irritation. Again, this is Elmore Leonard here.

I shouldn't reveal more of the plot, for Leonard's surprises are best left to come in their own good time.