Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Fuel of genius

I still believe that books are the fuel of genius. Leaving a million or so in Archer City is as good a legacy as I can think of for that region and indeed for the West.
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Besides being a best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Larry McMurtry is also a long-time dealer in used books. Over the years he has acquired "remnants of twenty-two bookshops" and stored them in various buildings in Archer City, Texas, his hometown. What he doesn't sell he expects to leave behind as a legacy for Archer City, a "fuel of genius."

This notion of books as a "fuel of genius" strikes me as apt. We might compare a stack of books to a stack of firewood. Each is, at least potentially, fuel, one for genius, the other for fire. Yet neither becomes fuel until it is consumed. Those books stored in Archer City warehouses will do little good until somebody actually reads them.

I know from experience how easy it can be to have the notion in the back of our minds that simply possessing a book somehow makes us smarter. Think of all those dutiful parents who, a few years back, bought costly encyclopedia sets thinking they would make their children better students. In some cases that may have happened, but only if the children actually consulted the books when doing their homework. Most of the time encyclopedia just took up shelf space.

Or consider Stephen Hawking's famous book A Brief History of Time, which became a bestseller a number of years back. How many people who bought the book actually read it? And how many of those who read it understood it? Not many, I'll bet. I am among those who bought it, read it and didn't understand it. Yet we all felt somehow smarter just having the book on our shelf.

When both read and understood, books are a fuel of genius. Not only do they convey information, but they also stimulate thought and creativity. Writers, Larry McMurtry included, create new books by consuming older books and thinking about what they've read. Our best physicians, engineers, lawyers, artists, scientists, etc., had their genius fueled by books. Not books alone, but books along with other forms of experience.

Books are not the source of genius, but just a fuel of genius. They don't start the fire. A genius for one thing or another is mostly something we are born with. Books can only fuel that genius, providing they are first consumed.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Cultivate the four boxes

John McWhorter
There are many, especially among those of us of a certain age, who fear that such developments as e-mailing, texting and tweeting will be the death of good writing. That view is not shared by linguist John McWhorter. Rather, he sees the development of these new forms of communication in a positive light, They complete, as he puts it, our four language boxes.

McWhorter imagines that each language has four boxes that need to be checked if we, both as a culture and as individuals, are to fully develop our language skills. These boxes are formal speech, informal speech, formal writing and informal writing. We all, he argues, should "cultivate the four boxes."

By "formal speech," he doesn't mean in the sense of Edward Everett Horton and other great orators of the past. Except for a very few preachers, professors and politicians, nobody speaks like that anymore. Yet most of us do speak more formally in some situations than in others. We may speak one way on the job, especially when talking to customers or to our boss, than we do with friends. We may also speak differently to our mother, to members of the opposite sex, to teachers and to members of the clergy than we do in casual conversation. Most of us checked off those two boxes long ago.

Writing is another matter, however. That is something most of us learned to do in school, and our teachers taught us to write in a formal, or you might say proper, way. McWhorter, in one of his Great Courses lectures,  points to letters written back home during the Civil War. Not everyone was literate back then, but those who were, even if they had no more than a few years of schooling, wrote in a flowery, very formal manner. That was how they had been taught to write. Today few of us write like that, or are even capable of writing like that, but even so writing tends to be formal in the sense of proper spelling and grammar. In writing, most people use complete sentences, say "going to" instead of "gonna" and so forth.

Until the advent of e-mail, texting and tweeting, however, there was no handy way to check off that fourth box. Virtually all writing, with the possible exceptions of diaries, telegrams and notes passed in classrooms, was formal writing. Now that fourth box has been checked.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Be there in one hour

Twice in the first 20 minutes of Jason Bourne characters call for meetings "in one hour." Later in the movie, Bourne himself calls another man and tells him to be at "Paddington Plaza in 15 minutes." I didn't notice anyone looking at watches, computers, phones or clocks on the wall to see what time it was now so they would know what time the meeting would be. Yet everyone was on time for each of those meetings.

It's only a movie, as Alfred Hitchcock liked to say, yet even in real life one sometimes encounters strange ambiguity with regard to time. Have you ever seen a sign on the door of a small shop that says something like "Back in 30 minutes"? Of course, you just got there and have no idea if the sign was posted one minute ago or 29 minutes ago.  Should you wait, leave and come back later or just leave and forget about it? Small businesses need every customer they can get, so you might think those minding the shop would want to be more specific about when they will return.

And as for those espionage types in Jason Bourne, you would think, with lives on the lines, they would want to be very specific about the times of their meetings, 2 p.m., say, or 1400 hours. A meeting "in one hour" suggests to me a meeting that will start whenever everyone gets there. No rush. Yet the movie is a constant rush.

An old friend is coming to my house today "around 3 o'clock." He may arrive a few minutes earlier or an hour later. No big deal either way. But it's a social call, not business and certainly not the CIA.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Someday soon

He had wanted to tell her lies beginning with the word someday.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

The phrase "someday when we're rich" is something of a running joke in my family. That cottage by the lake, that new Lexus, that trip around the world will all be ours "someday when we're rich." We don't play the lottery, so our chances of winning a jackpot are slightly less than that of those who do. There will be no more inheritances. Now that we are retired and living on a fixed income with an ever-shrinking nest egg, that joke is becoming less funny. Or more so. I'm not sure which.

During our week in a Tennessee log cabin, my wife and I watched four Ma and Pa Kettle movies. Whenever Ma asks Pa to dig a well or fix the front door, his response is always some variation on, "I plan to get around to that someday." Then he goes back to his nap, goes fishing or whatever.

We all use the word someday a lot, such as when bumping into an old friend on the street or in the supermarket. "I'll call you someday and we'll get together," someone will say. Sometimes that happens. Usually it doesn't.

Snow White sings, "Someday my prince will come."

Judy Collins sings, "Someday soon, going with him, someday soon."

Dr. Martin Luther King said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed."

Christians say Jesus will return someday.

Words like someday and one day challenge us to make a choice. Are we hearing a joke or a promise? Is it an ideal, a dream or a statement of faith? Or is it just a pretty lie?

Monday, August 22, 2016

The story is ourselves

"If Sarah Canary is just what she seems, harmless, vague ..." Chin thought Sarah Canary had never seemed harmless or vague to him. Mysterious, rather. Possibly powerful. Certainly purposeful.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

When you make assumptions about people, assume you are wrong. That is one conclusion to be drawn from Karen Joy Fowler's mysterious, powerful and certainly purposeful 1991 novel Sarah Canary.

Sarah Canary, a name just bestowed on her because nobody knows her real name, is mute. She is a "strange and ugly white woman" who shows up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s. Everyone has a different idea of who or what she might be. To Chin, who has come all the way from China to work on the railroad, she seems like a ghost, and he feels somehow obligated to watch over her. Soon she is assumed to be mentally ill and, along with Chin, is locked away in an asylum. She soon escapes with Chin and B.J., another of the inmates.

Later Sarah is thought to be a wild woman raised by wolves and is made a part of a traveling show, even though audiences find her disappointingly tame. Adelaide, a suffragette, mistakes her for a woman on the run for killing her husband. Others think her a man in disguise. There is even a suggestion she could be an alien from outer space. Readers never discover who Sarah Canary really is. True to the spirit of her novel, Fowler lets us make our own assumptions and draw our own conclusions.

Yet Fowler's novel is more than a satire on people's misconceptions about other people. It could be viewed as a philosophical treatise on reality itself. Consider the following lines near her conclusion:

"What we say occupies a very thin surface, like the skin over a body of water. Beneath this, through the water itself, is what we see, sometimes clearly if the water is calm, sometimes vague if the water is troubled, and we imagine this vision to be the truth, clear or vague. But beneath this is yet another level. This is the level of what is and this level has nothing to do with what we say or what we see."

And a few pages later:

"We listen to stories and forget that the listening also tells the story. The story we hear is ourselves. We are the only ones who can hear it."

Thus, what I see and hear is not what you see and hear, even if we are in the same place at the same time. It helps explain political differences, religious differences and, in fact, the differences that create every division, every argument, every war. It also explains the power of literature itself. What I read in a story, including this story, is not at all what you will read.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Newsroom lingo

For a press veteran like me, one of the pleasures of reading John Darnton's newspaper-based murder mystery Black & White and Dead All Over is the frequent use of newspaper lingo. As with most enterprises, newspapers have their own terminology, words that mean something to those who work there that they don't mean to most other people. Here are a few of those terms I found in Darnton's novel:

spike - When I started in newspapers back in the Sixties, sharp spikes could be found point up on editors' desks in any newsroom. They are rare, if they exist at all, now that stories are written and edited on computers, not paper. Spike, the noun, became spike, the verb, in newspaper parlance. It refers to when an editor decides not to run a story. One of these spikes is found in the body of the first victim in the novel. An editor is literally spiked himself.

desk - Most people who work in a newsroom have a desk, but the desk commonly refers to the copy desk, or the area where the copy editors do their work.

reefer - This has nothing to do with drugs when used in a newsroom. Rather it is the term for a teaser on a cover page that refers to an inside story.

lede - This is the term for the first paragraph of a story. So why isn't it spelled lead? Well, lead means something else in the newspaper business. It refers to the space between lines. Decades ago, type was made out of lead, and pressmen would put thin strips of lead to stretch out a story to fit the space available. That was called leading.

deadline - Well. everybody knows what a deadline is. We all have them from an early age. But deadlines are taken very seriously in the newspaper business. There are deadlines for reporters to get their stories to editors, deadlines for editors to the production department, deadlines for the presses to start and deadlines to get the newspapers into the hands of carriers. Advertising departments have their own deadlines. Missed deadlines cost money, so the pressure to meet those deadlines can be intense.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Murder in the newsroom

One need not have ever worked for a newspaper to appreciate John Darnton's 2008 mystery Black & White and Dead All Over, but it helps. Darnton, who had a long career as a reporter and editor for The New York Times, makes the murder of an editor for the fictional New York Globe the core of his story. And it appears to have been an inside job. There is no shortage of suspects, for not too many staff members liked Theodore Ratnoff. One who did, a woman who was having an affair with him, is soon found dead as well.

Darnton seems as interested in satirizing the newspaper industry as he is in crafting an entertaining murder mystery. He jabs at the trend, already well underway in 2008, for newspaper executives to seriously downsize both staff and news coverage, then wonder why they continue to lose readers. And after the first newsroom murder, the Globe editors bury the story, page-one news for their competitors, on page 32. Newspapers famously hide their own bad news.

The author's handling of newsroom politics and operations often seems better than his handling of the  mystery itself. The latter is interesting enough, but as bodies pile up and the serial killer keeps finding more outlandish ways of getting rid of enemies on the staff, the mystery itself falls into satire.

So it's not the best mystery you are likely to find, but you will find it entertaining, especially if, like me, you have worked for a newspaper.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Finding ourselves in the story

It's a strange sensation to read a novel about a place you know well. It had never occurred to me, growing up in that neighborhood, that it contained the stuff a great book can be made of. The great books, as they were force-fed to us in the schools, were about other countries, other cultures, other centuries. And the duller they were, the greater they were.
Mike Royko, May 13, 1981, reprinted in One More Time

Nelson Algren
I have read hundreds, probably thousands of novels and short stories in my life. I don't recall any set in my own time and place or that really nailed me as a character. Even those Dick and Jane readers in early elementary didn't seem to be about me. I didn't know any kids who got that excited about just seeing a dog run. Yet I could almost always find something of myself in these stories, whether they were Dick and Jane, Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment or The Old Man and the Sea. Good stories, or even bad stories, are about people, and people everywhere have some things in common.

Mike Royko wrote his column shortly after the death of novelist Nelson Algren, who often wrote about the same Chicago neighborhood where Royko grew up. He said he first read The Man With the Golden Arm while a soldier in Korea, and he was shocked to discover the story took place in an area he knew very well. "He had the people, the sounds, the alleys, the streets, the feel of the place," Royko wrote.

One can understand why that would be thrilling. Just finding a scene in a novel that takes place somewhere where one has visited, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon, can bring a sense of connection. Yet a story really doesn't have to be about us to be about us. When we experience fear when a character is in danger, compassion when a character suffers or celebratory when a character prevails in the end, then no matter who the characters are or where or when the story takes place, it is really about us.

Friday, August 12, 2016

When bad, Rumpole's very good

Rumpole Misbehaves (2007), the last of John Mortimer's novels about veteran British barrister Horace Rumpole, gives us more of what we expect (and desire) from these stories, as well as something new. What's new? Well, Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed in Rumpole parlance, decides to study law herself. Why should her husband have all the fun? Meanwhile, Rumpole, who for years has ridiculed the initial QC after the names of higher-ranking lawyers as meaning "Queer Customer," decides to try to become an elite Queen's Counsel himself. And thanks to Hilda's intervention, Judge Bullingham, Rumpole's longtime adversary in the courtroom, someone who can always be counted on to take the prosecution side, intervenes on his behalf.

Meanwhile, Rumpole gets the chance to defend, "alone and without a leader," a man accused of murdering a prostitute. He has other cases, too, all of which seem to conveniently aid him in defending the man being tried for murder.

As for the misbehavior mentioned in the title, Rumpole ignores a workplace directive prohibiting food, drink and smoking in chambers. The barrister manages to defend himself as ably as he defends his clients.

This is hardly one of the late John Mortimer's best Rumpole stories, yet it is great fun and not to be missed by fans of the series.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

First impressions

People speaking a foreign tongue often appear more logical and intelligent than those who can actually be understood.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

You heard the Chinese talking out loud and you still thought you were listening to chickens.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

These two lines, apparently contradictory, appear about 100 pages apart in Karen Joy Fowler's novel. They are the thoughts of two different characters, the first portrayed more positively than the second. Still there may be a grain of truth in each.

What's your first impression when you hear people talking in a language you do not comprehend? Do you imagine they must be expressing lofty thoughts or utter nonsense? Depending upon the circumstances, including how rapidly they are talking and what language they are speaking, I think it could be one or the other.

When I am watching foreign movies and reading subtitles, I am sometimes a little surprised at how trivial the conversation actually is. The French language in particular sounds to me like every sentence must be important. Yet then I read they are just saying ordinary things, or perhaps even swearing. It can be somehow disappointing.

On other occasions, especially when the conversation I overhear takes place at a high velocity, it can sound like meaningless noises, perhaps even that made by chickens.

Thinking rationally, of course, we know that people everywhere talk about the same kinds of things, no matter what language they speak. Those who speak one language are no smarter or no dumber than those who speak another. Unfortunately that isn't always the first thought that comes to mind.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The same story

"I heard a story like that once," B.J. said. "Only instead of a poet it was a princess, and instead of eight Immortals it was seven swans, and instead of having to jump off a cliff she had to be silent for twelve years, and instead of immortality it was love she wanted. Except for that, it was the same story. "
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

Two weeks ago I again enjoyed watching The Princess Bride, the now classic Rob Reiner film. The story takes the form of a book a grandfather (Peter Falk) reads to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). From time to time, the boy interrupts to tell his grandpa he is reading it wrong. That can't be the way the story goes. Westley, the hero, can't be dead. The princess can't marry someone else. The boy has never heard this story before, but he has heard or read or watched other stories, and he knows how they are supposed to go. He wants to hear the familiar story, not this new version. As it turns out, of course, Westley is not dead, just "mostly dead," and the princess doesn't really marry the evil prince. At the end of the movie, the boy asks his grandfather if he might read this book to him again tomorrow night.

Children do like the same stories over and over again, but then so do us adults, even if not so obviously. We want the hero to prevail and to get the girl, and we want the villain to get his just deserts. Those of us who enjoy genre novels, especially those written by the same authors, expect these stories to follow a similar script. If we like Agatha Christie's Jane Marple stories, we want them all to have familiar plots. Certainly the settings, the characters, the murder weapons and the clues will change from book to book, but the stories themselves are not all that different. That's why we like them. The same is true of Sherlock Holmes stories, Perry Mason stories, most romance novels and so on. We crave new stories, but we want them to be very similar to the older stories we loved.

Speaking of Peter Falk, I was a fan of his Columbo character, whose whose TV murder mysteries ran for decades. Now they can be found on one channel or another almost daily, and I have been watching many of them again. The episodes are all different, yet much the same. A prominent, highly intelligent person commits what seems like the perfect murder. Often it doesn't even seem like a murder at all. Yet Columbo soon smells out his prime suspect and hounds that person for the rest of the show until he manages to find the proof of guilt.

I was surprised by one episode that didn't follow the usual format. Viewers don't see the murder, so don't know who the killer is until Lt. Columbo reveals the identity at the end. Meanwhile the detective goes undercover in a variety of disguises. It seems more like an episode of The Rockford Files than Columbo. I kept wanting to say to my television, "That's not right. That's not the way the story goes." It was comforting when the next episode I watched got it right.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Conversation rituals

There were no surprises in the answers such questions elicited -- there never were -- but these conversations still had to take place: it was not what was said that counted, but the fact that it was said.
Alexander McCall Smith, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe

Alexander McCall Smith is writing about small talk, the exchange of pleasantries that always occurs whenever people come together. "How are you?" We ask each other. "Just fine," we reply. This is usually not the time for truth, or even sincerity. This is just a social ritual we all go through that may seem meaningless but, as Smith suggests in his novel, actually does carry meaning. After the ritual, with any luck, there may be a sharing of truth and sincerity. The ritual is something of a warmup, like a relief pitcher making a few throws before facing the first batter. It makes people more comfortable, whether they are with old friends or new acquaintances, and gives them an opportunity to consider what, if anything, to say next. Without the initial pleasantries, conversations would just seem less pleasant.

Before returning The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe to the shelf, there is one more passage deserving of a comment:

"I'm just expressing an opinion," said Phuti. "I am not one to judge these things. I am saying what I think."

We frequently say things like this. "It's just my opinion, but ..." "No offense intended, but ..." "Nothing personal, but ..." When we offer a compliment, of course, we never feel the need to qualify what we say. We just say it. Negative comments or actions seem to require some prologue to try to soften the blow, not that it ever does.

It reminds me somehow of The Godfather when one mobster tells another, "It's only business," before having him killed, as if the qualification somehow softens the blow.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Questions of identity

Alexander McCall Smith's 2014 novel The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, the 15th in his The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, revolves around questions of identity.

The agency's only case this time around involves a woman known only as Mrs. who says she doesn't remember who she is or where she is from. With few clues to work with, Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi must try to discover who she is.

But identity questions don't only ask who someone is but also what someone is. Take Mma Makutsi, for instance. She was hired in the first novel in this series as a secretary, even though Mma Ramotswe, still having no cases, really didn't need a secretary. Over the years, the ever ambitious younger woman has won from her employer not more money -- the agency makes little money -- but a series of new job titles, each more impressive than the last. Now she is made a partner, or perhaps a co-director, although Mma Ramotswe struggles to make it clear she remains the senior director.

Yet Mma Makutsi still works at defining herself. In previous novels she has started a typing school for men, married a prosperous furniture store owner and become a mother. Now she decides to open her own restaurant, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, even though as co-director of a detective agency, wife and mother, she has little time to manage a restaurant. And who are those people she has hired for her new business? Soon the restaurant has an identity problem of its own: Is it really The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe or something else?

Then there is the problem with Charlie, the longtime apprentice of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, the auto mechanic husband of Mma Ramotswe. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni can no longer afford to pay the young man, who shows no promise of ever becoming anything more than an apprentice, so he lets him go. The compassionate Mma Ramotswe then hires him, even though she cannot afford to pay him either. He becomes an assistant detective or perhaps an auxiliary detective, or should it be an apprentice detective? The discussion of choosing the right title is priceless.

After Charlies bungles his first assignment, Mma Ramotswe decides they need a secretary more than they need another detective, especially since Mma Makutsi, now a co-director, no longer likes to do secretarial work. But should he be a full secretary? The prickly Mma Makutsi strongly objects to that title. So should he be a para-secretary, an assistant secretary, a clerk or what? Again the debate proves entertaining, especially as it reminds us how important job titles become in actual workplaces.

Mma Ramotswe once again displays her gift for solving problems. The novel's closing lines -- "She held her husband's hand. No further words were exchanged, or needed." -- reveal two people who know exactly who they are and what they are.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Our mountain resort

We spent last week at a resort near Gatlinburg, Tenn. It seemed more like a log cabin to me, although a luxurious log cabin and nothing like the one Abe Lincoln was born in. There was a swimming pool and a tennis court on the property. Is that what made it a resort?

Turning to The American Heritage Dictionary, I see a resort is "a place frequented by people for relaxation or recreation." By that broad definition, a resort might also be your neighborhood tavern, a city park, a pool hall, a bowling alley or, for that matter, your own living room.

Driving through Gatlinburg, I noticed few motels and even fewer hotels or inns, but there was one resort after another, even though most of them looked, at least to me, more like motels, hotels or inns. Some looked like campgrounds.

Last year we stayed at two resorts. One of them, located in Michigan, looked like a nice motel, although we had a three-room suite with a balcony. Did that make it a resort? The other, within 10 minutes of the Disney parks in Florida, had a gate and guard, and inside, in addition to the large pool and tennis courts, there was a clubhouse with a store, a game room, a lobby and even a movie theater. Now that was a real resort.

Clearly the word resort has become cheapened so that it can mean practically anything. We loved our log cabin adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and may even return there next year. But it's not what I picture in my mind when I hear the word resort.

My idea of a resort