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.