Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Smile when you say that, pardner

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that using exclamation points is like laughing at your own jokes. I like the analogy. In either case, it is telling one's audience how to respond. An exclamation point says, "Hey, pay attention here. This is important!" Laughing at one's own joke says, "Hey, pay attention here. This is funny!" Like Fitzgerald, I favor letting others decide for themselves how they will react. It seems more polite, somehow. Or at least less egotistical.

Red Skelton
Some comics have laughed at their own jokes and gotten away with it. The laughter of Red Skelton and Phyllis Diller, for example, became a part of their acts. We laughed not just at their jokes but also at their trademark laughter. At the other extreme are those like Steven Wright and Rodney Dangerfield, who would never laugh at their own jokes, or rarely even break a smile. Most successful comedians are more like Wright and Dangerfield than Skelton and Diller.

I know a woman who laughs after virtually everything she says, although I do not recall her ever saying anything funny. Like an exclamation point at the end of every sentence, this creates a boy-who-cried-wolf effect. If she ever does say something funny, how would anyone know?

Steven Wright
Come to think of it, I have the same problem. When I attempt wit, I have a straight-faced delivery that Steven Wright might envy. As a consequence, other people, especially those who don't know me very well, can't tell if I'm joking or not. In such situations, their safest response may be none at all. At a party one night I said something that I thought was the wittiest thing anyone said all evening. But I said it with a straight face and a soft voice. Nobody laughed. But my friend, standing next to me, repeated the same line in a loud voice that told everyone he was joking, and he got a huge laugh from everyone there, including those nearby who ignored the quip when I said it.

So what does that tell us? When Steven Wright and Rodney Dangerfield are introduced as comedians, everyone knows they are supposed to be funny, so everyone feels free to laugh. For the rest of us, some compromise may sometimes be necessary. That compromise, like the occasional exclamation point, can simply be a broad smile that warns everyone it's only a joke.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Jack lives on

As an inspiration for novelists and screenwriters, Jack the Ripper has three things going for him. 1) His gruesome murders of London prostitutes in the 1880s continue to shock us, making the nickname given to him still recognizable, 2) he has never been identified, although there are numerous theories about who he might have been, including a physician, because of the way he cut up his victims, and a member of the royal family, and 3) nobody knows why the murders stopped as suddenly as they began.

As a consequence, Jack the Ripper has been a character in numerous novels and films, including two books I happened to read recently, Time After Time by Karl Alexander and The Devil's Workshop by Alex Grecian.

I read Time After Time after watching the short-lived ABC series based on the novel that ran in March. The novel was adapted for a movie, also with the same title, starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen a number of years ago.

Alexander's story turns Jack the Ripper into Dr. Leslie John Stephenson, a long-time acquaintance of writer H.G. Wells, who doesn't just write a novel about a time machine but actually builds one, Wells invites some friends over to show them his invention. When Scotland Yard comes knocking at the door looking for Jack the Ripper, Stephenson sees the time machine as a means of escaping for good, as well as providing him with a new killing field.

Stephenson takes the machine to San Francisco in 1979. Wells follows behind him, determined to bring him back to face justice. In the TV series it is a museum employee whom Wells meets, falls in love with and ultimately puts in grave danger. In the novel, she is an employee of the bank where Wells goes to get some 1979 money to finance his chase of Stephenson.

The novel, published in 1979, is much better than the ABC series, which may help explain why the show was canceled so quickly.

The Devil's Workshop, published in 2014, is the third installment of Grecian's excellent Murder Squad series featuring Walter Day and Nevil Hammersmith. It seems that there is a secret group of prominent men, including some present and former police officers, who think prison is too good for criminals like Jack the Ripper. It seems that Jack stopped killing only because he had been captured and taken to a torture chamber in the London underground. A prison break is orchestrated, not to set prisoners free but to move them underground where they can be given the punishment they deserve. The plan goes awry, however, and not only do these violent criminals escape, but so does Jack the Ripper.

Things turn very violent before Day and Hammersmith stop the chaos. The action ends at Day's own home, where his dear wife is having their first baby. Yet this doesn't end the story, for one of the men who escapes is another mass murderer called the Harvest Man. Day and Hammersmith must deal with him in the next book in the series, The Harvest Man, now in paperback.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Always room for more books

Jesse Stuart
When we packed the car to head north from Florida this week, we didn't think we had room for anything else. My wife even lacked sufficient leg room. But did this stop us from stopping twice along the way to buy books? No, of course not.

Just on the Georgia side of the Georgia-Florida border is a store that sells books returned by public libraries after short-term use. I normally avoid library discards, but these books, although they bear library stamps and plastic covers, are in good condition. Many look like they have hardly been handled at all. Plus the prices are right and the selection is impressive. I can usually find books here I've been looking for but have found nowhere else. This is the third time I've stopped here, and I always find something good.

My catch this time included And After the Fall by Lauren Belfer, At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier, The Painter by Peter Helller, Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb, First Fix Your Alibi and Blaze Away by Bill James, and The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith. These novels had once been part of the Palm Beach County Library, New York Library, Montgomery County, Md., Library, Mid-Manhattan Branch Library and Beaver Creek Library systems.

Taking a different route than usual this year, mainly to avoid Atlanta's traffic congestion, we were surprised to find ourselves in Big Stone Gap, Va., home of the Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore, the subject of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, a book I read and enjoyed last year. I had to stop and look around.

Wendy Welch, the author of the book, was away with her husband this week, so I didn't get to talk with her, but I did enjoy browsing through their quaint little used book shop, which also includes an upstairs cafe and, surprisingly, a cat-rescue service. The store has just one cat there now, one that actually lives there, but we were told there are usually several kittens on hand waiting for nice people who come in looking for books and leave carrying kittens.

Mary Mapes Dodge
The books themselves did not impress me much. They are books you are likely to find anywhere else, and not always in the best condition. But I loved the way Welch displays them, as well as the many quotations from authors that decorate the walls and shelves. Nevertheless my wife and I each found a book. My choice was Mary Mapes Dodge: Jolly Girl, a fictionalized biography written for children by Miriam E. Mason and published in 1949.

I have long wondered what family relationship there might be, if any, between Mary Mapes Dodge, the author of Hans Brinker, and me. Perhaps this book will inspire me to do a little genealogical research.

On the third day of our trip we passed through Greenup County, Ky., home of Jesse Stuart, a favorite writer of mine. Then we stopped in Portsmouth, Ohio, to see the impressive floodwall murals along the Ohio River. Pictured here are many of the notable people from this part of the world, including Roy Rogers, Branch Rickey and, I was happy to see, Jesse Stuart.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Two extremes

Isaac Asimov
For some people, once something is written, it is finished. There is no such thing as a second draft, a revision of an awkward sentence or even a quick read to check spelling and grammar. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was famous for this. He wrote as many books as he did, on a variety of subjects other than science fiction, because he could write quickly, but also because he supposedly didn't go back over his work. That's what editors were for.

At the other extreme are those who hesitate to say that anything they write is ever finished. It is for such people that the postscript at the end of letters was invented. Such writers can take years to finish a book, even after they've written the last chapter. They can always find something that can be improved.

I am somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. As a blogger, I tend to quickly forget what I wrote about last week, yet I always have in mind those topics I'm considering for the week ahead. Even so I am often torn by things I have written, especially if I go back and reread them months or years later. There are things I would love to add or take out or simply rewrite in clearer language. And then there are all those typos, so easy to miss when writing is fresh but which seem to jump off the page or the screen months later. Last week, for example, I reread a post from a couple of weeks ago and found I had written two when I meant too. In this case, I actually went back and made the correction. Now it's as if it were correct all along.

Walt Whitman
This made me wonder if the poet Walt Whitman would have thrived in the digital age, or would the ease of correction driven him to the nuthouse? Whitman's Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, yet he never considered it finished. He was continually thinking of better ways to phrase the lines of his poetry, and each edition of his book published during his lifetime was different than the one before.

But it gets worse. An article in the winter edition of Fine Books & Collections says Whitman stood behind the printer during the first printing of Leaves of Grass and directed changes throughout the printing of the 795 copies in that edition. "As a result, it is possible that each of the 184 known surviving copies is unique," writes Erin Blakemore. A team of scholars is at work comparing original copies of Whitman's work to determine what differences they can find.

All this makes it impossible to know which is the real Leaves of Grass. Which version should be the one reprinted for today's readers, the last one Whitman approved or one of the originals? Who should decide which is best?

At least with Isaac Asimov there will never be that problem.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Mere Christians

The word fan somehow doesn't seem right for someone who starts reading C.S. Lewis and then somehow never stops. Follower? No. Devotee? Wrong. Admirer? Closer, but still not perfect, since Lewis was never about drawing attention to himself, but rather to Jesus Christ. So how about mere Christian? I like it.

In Mere Christians, edited by Mary Anne Phemister and Andrew Lazo, 55 individuals tell how they how they got hooked on the writing of C.S. Lewis. The book, published in 2009, could have included thousands more, myself included.

What I found most interesting, for some reason, was the number of entryways into Lewis. Not surprisingly, Mere Christianity is mentioned most often as the book that people read first. Others tell about the influence of the Narnia books. The Screwtape Letters, the science fiction novels and works like Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain and Miracles. Yet there are others who cite Lewis's literary works, such as A Preface to "Paradise Lost" and Studies in Words, and essay collections like God in the Dock and The Weight of Glory. Lewis wrote so much and with so much variety, including poetry, with virtually everything still in print, that one can discover him through any one of many doors. And if you read one thing, you tend to seek out others.

I entered through the Mere Christianity door while in college, struck immediately by the strength of his intellect, his logic and his metaphors. Soon I was reading (and collecting) everything by or about Lewis I could get my hands on.

Some of the "mere Christians" included in the book are people you may have heard of, including Charles Colson of Watergate fame, geneticist Francis Collins, pollster George Gallup Jr. and writers like Liz Curtis Higgs, Anne Rice, Philip Yancey, Elton Trueblood and Clyde Kilby. Also included are Joy Davidman, the American poet who became so impressed with Lewis's books that she went to England to meet him and eventually married him, and Merrie Gresham, who married one of Davidman's son and Lewis's stepsons and only later became a mere Christian herself. It happened because she listened to a tape of Mere Christianity.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The plague of memory

The more you remember, the more you've lost.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Others ask, is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Emily St. John Mandel repeatedly asks a slightly different question in her post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven. Are those who remember the world before civilization ended better or worse off than those who don't?

The question is raised by many different characters in many different ways in the years after the Georgia Flu kills 99.9 percent of the world's population. The only survivors are those who are either immune to the virus or happen to be so isolated that they miss the contagion altogether. So many people are killed that the ability to do everything from produce energy to manufacture virtually anything is lost. People gather into traveling bands, the strong preying on the weak, with everyone constantly searching for food.

As years pass, older people still fondly remember airplanes, computers, cell phones and televisions. Those who are younger remember little or nothing about the civilization that was lost, although a museum established in an abandoned airport gives them some idea. So who is better off? "We long only for the world we were born into," one character says, a commentary most of us can relate to after a certain stage of life, with or without an apocalypse.

Two key characters were small children when civilization ended. The girl, one of the novel's more positive characters, remembers very little of those days. Of the boy, the story's villain, she wonders if he "had had the misfortune of remembering everything."

The story is framed by literature, Shakespeare on one end and a graphic novel called "Station Eleven" on the other. The latter, created by one of the main characters, tells of a space station that has been traveling to distant stars for so many years that the crew has no memory of Earth, the planet where their flight originated. Station Eleven is the world they were born into.

As for William Shakespeare, he was living at the time of the Bubonic Plague, and his work was influenced by it. Station Eleven opens with a production of one of Shakespeare's plays in Toronto just before the Georgia Flu strikes, and afterward one of the roving bands performs his plays on their travels, mostly through what once was Michigan. Computers, cell phones and televisions may no longer be operable, but if Shakespeare survives, can civilization be truly said to have died?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Off the beaten path

Atlas Obscura is to places what Ripley's Believe It or Not is to people. It finds points on the map, usually well off the beaten path, whose very existence can amaze us. There's a lake in Mali where fishing is allowed only one day a year, when at a signal men rush in with baskets to scoop up as many fish as they can. A river in Colombia becomes a liquid rainbow for a few weeks every year because of a rare species of river weed. Residents of a village in Poland all decorate their houses with painted flowers.

Antelope Canyon
And so it goes, country by country around the world. A few countries, such as Botswana and Luxembourg, are omitted, but most nations have at least one oddity worth a mention, and most have a number of them. The book compiled by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras and Ella Morton is not necessarily a travel guide, for there are several places mentioned you couldn't visit even if you wanted to, whether because they are on private property or because they are in locations where tourism is not allowed, such as Monkey Island in Puerto Rico, where the monkeys carry a herpes virus that can be fatal to humans.

Most of the places mentioned can be visited, and I have seen a few of them myself, including Antelope Canyon in Arizona and Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, two of the most amazing natural wonders I have ever seen, and such man-made oddities as the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, the Weeki Wachee mermaid show in Florida and Lily Dale, a small town in New York that has long been a hangout for spiritualists.

People everywhere seem to have a fascination with the human body, and the book shows many unusual cemeteries, as well as museums dedicated to torture, mummies, human body parts, undertaking, murders and, tame by comparison, medicine. Quite a number of other attractions are the work of artists, gardeners or people with delusions of grander.

There's an artist in Mexico who built a five-story house for himself in the shape of a nude woman. His bedroom was in one of her breasts. Believe it or not.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Illogical language

Most of us can think of English words or phrases that, while they might seem to mean the opposite, actually mean the same thing. Take the words flammable and inflammable. How many people have regretted lighting cigarettes in the vicinity of signs warning INFLAMMABLE because they thought the word meant nonflammable?

Or how about the words loose and unloose? Or the phrases "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less?"

Sometimes the same words can mean opposite things in different contexts. Jack Lynch lists a number of examples in his book The Lexicographer's Dilemma. Take the word oversight. It can mean either watching carefully, as in the case of an oversight committee, or not carefully enough.

To dust something can mean either adding something, as in the case of cookies and powdered sugar, or removing something, as in the case of furniture and actual dust.

Does a bimonthly magazine come out twice a month or every other month? Well, take your pick.

Lynch notes that we might encourage people to eat hardily by telling them to either eat up, chow down, tuck in or pig out. How is it possible that each of these phrases means the same thing?

Those of us who grew up speaking English have no trouble at all with such illogical constructions, with the possible exception of those who light fires around INFLAMMABLE signs. But pity those who try to learn the language as adults.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The quest for proper English

These two groups, the prescriptivists and the descriptivists, haven't gotten on together very well, and the struggle between them is at the heart of this book.
Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer's Dilemma

Those who compile dictionaries are called lexicographers. There are relatively few of them in this world. Does anyone go to college with the idea of becoming a lexicographer? Yet lexicographers serve an important function. The question, as expressed in Jack Lynch's book The Lexicographer's Dilemma, is what exactly is that function? Is it to describe words as they are actually being used in spoken and written language or to determine which uses are, in fact, proper and which are not?

The existence of the American Heritage Dictionary resulted from this conflict, Lynch tells us. Critics decided Webster's Third New International Dictionary in 1961 was just too descriptive, including vulgar words and such words as ain't that, while often heard, had never previously been recognized by a dictionary. So the American Heritage Dictionary was introduced to provide a prescriptive alternative to Webster's.

For most of the history of the English language, there were neither prescriptivists nor descriptivists. But there were no dictionaries either. Those who could write were free to spell words however they wanted to and make them mean whatever they chose. In time, as printed material became more commonplace and more people learned to read and write, some standardization became necessary. This led to dictionaries and, inevitably, to attempts by some people to tell other people the proper way to use their language.

Lynch reviews the contributions to the debate made by such people as John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Joseph Priestly, Noah Webster, James Murray, George Bernard Shaw and even comedian George Carlin. And it all makes more interesting reading than you might think.

The author concludes by suggesting there is a place for both prescriptivists and descriptivists. What's most important in any language is clarity. I must be able to understand what you are saying, and vice versa. That means we need some common ground about what words mean, how to spell them and how to use them in sentences. Enter parents who correct our grammar and teach us to say please and thank you. Enter teachers who red-ink our theme papers. Enter those copy editors who strive to make sure those books, magazines, newspapers and websites we read are, in fact, readable and understandable.

Instead of worrying about what is correct English, Lynch says, we need to focus on what is appropriate English.                                                                                                                  

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Steinbeck's prophetic novel

The passage of decades has turned John Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent, a contemporary novel about modern trends when it was published in 1961, into a historical novel, a look back at how American life used to be. Yet I am also struck, reading it now all these years later, at what a prophetic novel it was. Steinbeck had his hand on the pulse of the nation. He seemed to know that the discontent he describes in his characters will sweep the country in the 1960s. He wants to blame President Eisenhower for this, but that seems simplistic. More likely it was caused by the period of peace and prosperity, following years of Depression and war, and the hard moral choices required by these sudden good times.

The novel tells of one man's moral choices. Ethan Allen Hawley works as a grocery store clerk, a situation brought about because his father lost the Hawley family fortune. Every day he hears comments about his family's prosperous past and complaints from his wife and children about their relative poverty. It is 1960, and they still do not own a television.

Hawley recalls that as a loyal soldier during the war he had killed enemy soldiers, but he has not killed anyone since then. Killing other men then did not make him an evil man now. Similarly, he reasons, if he can make a small fortune by illegal or immoral means, he can still be a good citizen later when he builds on that fortune and reclaims his place in society. He seriously contemplates robbing the bank next to his store, then finds a way to wealth that will be safer and yet, if anything, more unethical.

Steinbeck structures his plot so that many related elements all happen at once -- an alcoholic friend happens to own the only land in the area suitable for an airport, the owner of the grocery may have entered the United States illegally some 40 years before, town officials are indicted for corruption, Hawley's son enters a national citizenship essay contest and, among other developments, the local banker, whose family may have been responsible for the Hawley family's bankruptcy, is wheeling and dealing to try to build an even larger fortune. That so much happens, even on the same holiday weekend, seems a bit of a stretch, giving The Winter of Our Discontent the feel not so much of a modern novel as of a fable, like so many of Steinbeck's other notable works.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lowercase love

The international bestseller Love in Lowercase by Spanish novelist Francesc Miralles is an intriguing, off-the-wall love story that, depending upon one's point of view, could also be seen as either full of philosophical wisdom or a collection of trite sayings.

Samuel is an introverted college literature professor who sees a woman he believes to be Gabriela, a girl he met briefly as a young boy and has never forgotten. He thinks she's the love of his life. She thinks he's nuts. While he tries to find her again and then build a relationship with her, other changes come to his life. There is the stray cat that shows up at his door and doesn't want to leave (except when a pretty vet comes to give him a shot). There's an old writer who lives upstairs and, when he goes into a hospital, asks Samuel to help him finish the book he is writing. And there is a strange man named Valdemar, who may be insane or may perhaps the sanest one of them all.

Ever so often, Love in Lowercase gives readers a line worth reading, underlining or perhaps laughing at. Among them:

"Words shape thoughts."

"Science is a shortcut to God."

"The opposite is best. Whenever you're angry with someone, apply this maxim. It means doing the exact opposite of what your body's telling you to do."

"Remember that nothing happens without a reason."

"Never reject your sensations and feelings. They're all you've got."

"Experience can never be shared. It's served in separate packets."

Perhaps the best of these is summarized in the title. This is when "some small act of kindness sets off a chain of events that comes around again in the form of multiplied love."

The gist of the novel, or at least what I like best, is the idea of taking life as it happens and following it where it leads. Plans are fine, but they rarely work out anyway. Better to practice love in lower case, then see what happens. You might even just find the love of your life with an elaborate plan.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

All about the girl

There are trends in book titles as in most things. There was a time long ago when a book's title could take up an entire page.  Some old books might have two titles, separated by the word or. Much more recently, one-word titles became popular. We had Jaws, Coma, Topaz and the like.

A recent visit to a bookstore alerted me to the fact that the current trend is for novels to have the word girl in the title, possibly replacing the trend of novels with the word daughter in the title. About a decade ago I wrote a newspaper column that listed scores of daughter novels, and it was an incomplete list.

The girl trend started slowly several years ago with books like Girl with a Pearl Earring and then the popular series that included The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl in the Spider Web and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Then came the bestsellers Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and the trend was in full swing.

Now one can find The Girl Before, Luckiest Girl Alive, Copygirl, Hemingway's Girl, The House Girl, The Silent Girls, The Perfect Girl, Girl in Translation, Pretty Girls, Sad Girls, Lilac Girls, The Girl Who Came Home, The Painted Girls, The Girl in the Glass, The Girl in the Castle, Vinegar Girl, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Small Town Girl, The Girls, The Forgotten Girls, The Girl You Left Behind, The Girl From the Train, The Girls in the Garden, The Girl in the Glass, Silver Girl, All the Summer Girls, All the Pretty Girls and The Wicked Girls.

These girls come from all over the world: The Danish Girl, The German Girl, The English Girl, Vegas Girls, The Girl From Kilkenny, Shanghai Girls, The Girl From Venice, The Girl from Krakow and An Irish Country Girl.

Many of these girls seem to be in peril: Girl Waits with Gun, Girl in Pieces, Girl on Ice and The Burning Girl.

I found just one such book among the teen titles: Weregirl. So most of these novels were written for adults, and most of them were written by women for women, and most of the title characters presumably are women, never mind the girls in the titles. And never mind all the scolding men have endured for referring to anyone over 18 as a girl.

Even more than the word daughter, the word girl in a title, suggests youth. Readers, like moviegoers, seem to prefer stories about young women. Old women can find themselves in perilous situations, but you rarely find novels or movies about them. A novel called The Old Lady on the Train or The Forgotten Middle-Aged Women probably wouldn't sell very well.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Not quite over the hill

As a younger man, my idea of a great spy novel was Robert Littell's The Amateur (1981) or James Grady's Six Days of the Condor (1974), tales about young men, inexperienced in the ways of espionage agents, who get the best of veterans. Now, an "old boy" myself, I am nuts about Old Boys (2004), written by Charles McCarry when he was about the same age I am now. His novel is about veteran CIA agents who should be retired but instead team up to find an old friend (and his mother) and prevent a nuclear terrorist attack on U.S. cities.

So maybe my taste in espionage thrillers is a reflection of my stage of life, why I would rather watch movies starring Robert Redford, Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman or Harrison Ford than ones starring any younger actor you might name. Or maybe all three are terrific novels. When I reread Six Days of the Condor recently, I enjoyed it just as much as I did back in the Seventies.

McCarry has been writing Paul Christopher novels since the Seventies (and I loved The Tears of Autumn and The Secret Lovers, too). In Old  Boys, Christopher is in his seventies when he learns that his mother, who disappeared during World War II, may still be alive.  And so he disappears, too. When ashes purported to be his are sent back from China, his old friends don't believe it. Horace Hubbard, Christopher's cousin, takes the lead, and he and the other geezers travel back and forth across the globe tracking down the Christophers, while at the same time preventing  an even older terrorist from getting his dying wish, the destruction of America.

The novel includes a reference to The Over the Hill Gang. This story is similar to that old movie, but without the laughs. These Old Boys manage to stay a step ahead of much younger men, who keep trying to discourage them and send them back to retirement homes. Of these younger agents, McCarry writes, "Little did they know that they had just been extricated from the mess they had gotten themselves into by a bunch of arthritic, pill-taking old men who last saw combat before these kids' fathers were born."

As an arthritic, pill-taking old man, I found that great fun.

Friday, March 24, 2017

A celebration of printing

New technologies always give rise to new cultural anxieties.
Andrew Root, Christianity Today (March 2017)

Once we have found the secret to the letters, there will be no need for scribes.
Alix Christie, Gutenberg's Apprentice

Most of us have, several times in our own lifetimes, seen how new technologies have produced radical cultural change and, therefore, new cultural anxieties. Consider the impact of the computer and the cell phone. Those even older remember how television and air conditioning altered their lives. What we don't often think about is how, even several centuries ago, the same phenomenon took place: Technology brought change and, with it, anxiety.

We know before we open Alix Christie's 2014 novel Gutenberg's Apprentice how it will turn out: Johann Gutenberg is going to print a Bible using movable type. Before 1450, Bibles and every other kind of book had to be copied by hand by scribes, a long process that meant every book was precious but also that there were very few books and little reason for most people to learn how to read. So whatever tension and drama the novel contains has to do with how the printing press will change the known world. How will the church accept it? How will the aristocracy accept it? Will his press make Gutenberg rich or put him in prison?

Christie sticks close to the facts, adding details, conversations and minor characters. Her focus is not on Gutenberg but Peter Schoeffer, a young man trained as a scribe and ready to begin a career copying sacred books. Then his foster father, Johann Fust, convinces him to become Gutenberg's apprentice. Fust has invested money in Gutenberg's idea for a printing press, and he wants Peter both to keep an eye on his investment and get in on the ground floor of what could be an important new technology. It is he who tells Peter, "Once we have found the secret to the letters, there will be no need for scribes."

So while Gutenberg is the driving force of the project and Fust bankrolls it, Peter eventually becomes committed to the idea and contributes many of the innovations that make it successful (even though Gutenberg later claims he did it all by himself). Meanwhile there is the constant threat of interference from church leaders, as well as Peter's on-again, off-again romance with a young woman who isn't so sure God wants his Bible to be reproduced by machine.

Christie had never written a novel before, but she is a professional printer, which gives her a unique appreciation for what Gutenberg and Schoeffer went through. And her novel, published by Harper, may not be Gutenberg's Bible, but it nevertheless is a wonderful piece of printing in itself. Few novels are as physically beautiful as this one.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Great literature on postage stamps

When I attend a stamp show, which isn't often, I seek out stamps with literary themes, those devoted to certain authors or certain literary works. This is what I did last weekend when I visited a stamp show in Largo, Fla.

Although I searched through stamps from a number of countries, I found success only among those from Great Britain and France, countries that have produced great literature and often commemorate their literary heritage on their postage stamps. Here are the stamps I brought home with me.

Oddly enough, Great Britain issued a stamp in 1976 celebrating "The Bicentennial of American Independence." The stamp, which features an image of Benjamin Franklin, thus celebrates a war the British lost, making American independence possible in 1776. Franklin always referred to himself as a printer, but he was many other things, including the author of one of the first classics of American literature, his Autobiography.

In 1992, the death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (in 1892) was remembered with the issue of four gorgeous stamps honoring the great poet and his work. Each stamp shows an image of Tennyson at a different stage of his life, as well as paintings by the likes of John Waterhouse and Dante Gabriel Rossetti tied to certain Tennyson poems.

Great Britain commemorated the Year of the Child in 1979 with four stamps showing characters from notable children's books by British authors. These include Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
The French honored Colette (1873-1954) with a stamp in 1973. The stamp I purchased showing novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was issued in 1966. The commemorative for Emile Zola (1840-1902) came out in 1967. The Proust and Zola stamps in particular have such fine detail that one needs a magnifying glass to fully appreciate them.

I paid just five bucks for all of these beauties. Each will make a very fine addition to my album.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bookstore art

There are books about books, but there are also books about bookshops. The latter has practically become its own genre in both fiction (The Little Paris Bookshop, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, The Bookshop on the Corner, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry) and nonfiction (My Bookstore, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Overheard at the Bookstore, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap).

Add to that second list Bob Eckstein's Footnotes* from the World's Greatest Bookstore, published last year. Surprisingly, this is first an art book. Eckstein did watercolor paintings of the fronts of scores of great bookstores from around the world, most of them still open but some of them no longer in business. He also tells us a little something about each store, then includes quotations about the store from owners, staff members and customers.

Eckstein is a New Yorker, so a significant number of the stores are in and around New York City, but some are as far away as India, Germany, Japan, Great Britain and Paris. The Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing, China, is located in the tunnel of a former bomb shelter. The Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Penn., is the oldest continuously operating bookshop in the world. Quimby's in Chicago specializes in graphic novels. The Weapon of Mass Instruction in Argentina is a military tank converted into a roving bookstore. A daughter confessed to spreading her late father's ashes in various places in City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco because it had been one of his favorite places in the world.

I am pleased to have shopped in some of the stores Eckstein paints and writes about. These include Parnassus Books in Nashville, Powell's Books in Portland and John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit. Most of the others are still on my bucket list.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Collectible typewriters

Last week somebody from Texas paid $37,500 for two typewriters. What made these typewriters worth that kind of money? That they belonged to author Larry McMurtry is only half of the answer. The other half is that these are the typewriters McMurtry used to write his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove (1985).

In those days McMurtry divided his time between his home in Archer, Texas, and his used book business in Washington, D.C. He kept a Hermes 3000 typewriter at each location so he could work on his novel, and presumably other books and screenplays, at either location.

The writer commented that since he owns 15 typewriters, he no longer needed these two and decided to sell them through a New York auction house. The opening bid was set at $10,000. and the winning bidder chose to remain anonymous. That the bidding went as high as it did suggests others were interested in the typewriters, as well, for their literary importance and perhaps for their importance to Texas history.

The sale of McMurtry's typewriters reminds us that literary collectibles include more than just first editions of important books. Almost anything owned or signed by a great writer can be valuable to a collector. One of my own prized possessions is a letter I received from novelist Michael Shaara asking for my permission to use a quotation from my review of The Killer Angels as a blurb on the paperback. That line was carried on paperback editions for many years. A book dealer told me that when I am ready to sell my first edition of that novel, the letter will enhance its value.

The homes of many writers, including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Thomas Wolfe, are now open to the public. These are the best places for objects once owned by writers, and we can hope that the typewriters once owned by Larry McMurtry, now 80, will eventually find their way back to Archer, Texas, and back to the home of this notable Texas writer.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A painted bird

Jerzy Kosinski
The Jewish boy saved himself from the Nazis in Poland by pretending to be a Catholic, even to the point of becoming an altar boy. Pretending to be someone else became a way of life for Jerzy Kosinski (he was born Jozef Lowenkopf), the noted Polish-American author and the protagonist of Jerome Charyn's new novel, Jerzy. "I cannot function without disguises and masks," Charyn has Kosinski say.

The theme of pretense and disguise fills Charyn's novel, and it isn't only the title character who is a master of deception. The novel begins, in fact, with actor Peter Sellers, gifted at impersonation, who played the lead role in the film Being There, adapted from one of Kosinski's novels. Other people whose lives intersected with Kosinski's, including Princess Margaret and Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalin's daughter), were good at playing roles. Of one character we are told, "Gabriela would undergo sudden changes. She'd show up dressed as a man, her long hair pulled back and hidden under a hat." Jerzy remembers his father playing chess with himself: "He could change his persona, according to which side of the board he was on."

"We're all painted birds," Jerzy says at one point, a reference to another of his novels, The Painted Bird. Charyn seems to suggest that everyone is something of a fake, our real selves hidden behind paint or false smiles or other people's hats.

The novel wanders, going back and forth in time with a variety of different narrators picking up the thread of the story. We read, in no particular order, about his survival during World War II, his escape to the West, his coming to the United States in 1957, his marriage to an alcoholic heiress, his literary success and then the accusation that he plagiarized much of his work. It was quite a life, in reality as well as in fiction, before it ended prematurely with suicide in 1991. Unfortunately it was the real Jerzy Kosinski who died that day.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A secret life

Joyce Carol Oates mentions quite a number of great writers in the course of her short suspense novel Jack of Spades, yet one she doesn't mention, Robert Louis Stevenson, may be the most influential, for her novel reads like a repackaged version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Andrew J. Rush is a successful, middle-aged mystery novelist who, late at night, churns out violent, cheap thrillers under the name of Jack of Spades. Even his dear wife and grown children do not know he is the author of such trash. Gradually we see the mild Andrew J. Rush transform into the wild Jack of Spades. At first he only hears his voice, as if an evil imp were whispering into his ear. Then he launches into a secret life, usually late at night, when he does things Rush would have never considered. In time his entire personality changes, he drinks more and, as Andrew J. Rush, he finds he can write nothing, but as Jack of Spades he becomes prolific.

Stephen King isn't exactly a character in the novel, yet he is mentioned often enough to be one. Rush regards King as his only serious rival. Then it turns out that a frustrated writer who sues Rush, accusing him of  breaking into her home and stealing her story ideas, has also sued King, accusing him of the same thing. When Jack of Spades does, in fact, break into the woman's house he finds that the plots of her stories have an uncanny resemblance to those of both Rush and King.

Another major influence on the story is the work of Edgar Allan Poe. At times Oakes makes her tale as eerie as anything Poe produced. There's even a spooky black cat, if not a raven.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A creative partnership

Ruta Sepetys
When historical novelist Ruta Sepetys spoke a few days ago at Largo Library, she said some things about readers and writers that seem worth a comment.

Readers, she said, "tell you what your book is about." Her novels, including Salt to the Sea, have been translated into a variety of languages, and when she goes on a book tour, it takes her to several different countries. Wherever she goes, she said, readers see her books differently. What they are about in one place, is not what they are about somewhere else.

Each reader, in fact, no matter where he or she may live, reads something different in a book. "The reader is always right," Sepetys said.

I have always been a bit skeptical about the phrase, "The customer is always right." When I am the customer, I know I am not always right. I doubt that other customers are always right either. Readers are another matter, however. When you read a book, your opinion is the only one that matters. What you think it is about is what it is about. The author's opinion is just the author's opinion, no better than yours. The same is true of book critics and reviewers, whose opinions may be worth reading, but that doesn't make them anything other than their own opinions.

Writers, she said, are in a "creative partnership" with readers. As in any good partnership, both partners need the other. Writers need someone to read their books. Readers need someone to write them. Beyond that, however, is the creative part of that partnership in which writers and readers together determine the value and meaning of a book.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Reading movies

Thomas C. Foster is the University of Michigan English professor responsible for such books as Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor. His latest book, Reading the Silver Screen, takes a similar approach, but with films rather than novels as his subject. It doesn't work as well this time, but he does make some interesting points, most notably the one contained in his title: By giving attention to detail, we can "read" movies in much the same way we read novels.

Most people just watch movies for entertainment. They enjoy the story, or not, then forget about it. Even when it is a film they love to watch again over and over, like Gone With the Wind or The Princess Bride, they still watch it for entertainment, nothing more. Foster's point is that even an entertaining film like The Bourne Identity or Blazing Saddles will reward us if we watch it more than once and pay close attention to the details. How is the plot constructed? What role does the music play? How much does the story depend on words and how much on what we see?

"I would argue that reading movies proves to be the harder task since they roll relentlessly forward, twenty-four frames to the second, with no pauses for reflection," Foster writes. "If you stop to analyze what just happened, you miss what's happening now." With a novel, you can stop at anytime to reflect, or you can reread what you just read as many times as you want.

As an occasional leader of film discussions, I find I watch a movie once just for its entertainment value. If I find myself thinking about questions raised by the film, I watch it a second time to determine how suitable it would be for a group discussion. Then I will watch it again for a third or fourth time with pen in hand, taking notes about anything in the movie that might be worth talking about. If a DVD has a director's commentary, I will listen to that, too, for insights into the movie.

Foster discusses a great many films, both recent ones like Birdman and The King's Speech and older classics like Safety Last! and The Magnificent Seven. His book, published in 2016, is similar in format to David Thomson's How to Watch A Movie (2015), which mentions many of the same films. Foster's book may seem more like a college class, yet Thomson's is more intellectual and will appeal more to those who take movies very seriously. For the rest of us, Foster may have more to offer.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Interesting detours

When writers of fiction stray from their story, or seem to stray from their story, it can be annoying for readers, who usually just want to find out what happens next. Instead authors stick in a flashback or a long descriptive passage. Or they feed us more technical or historical detail than we really want to know. Or they simply change the focus from one character to another just as things are getting interesting. Even if the interruption makes the story better in the end, as it usually does, we readers can get impatient.

Yet while reading Alexander McCall Smith's 2011 novel Bertie Plays the Blue, I noticed I didn't mind the author's frequent asides at all. In fact, I even found myself looking forward to them. When he strays from the plot in this novel, as in his others, the story actually seems to get better. This may have something to do with the law-key nature of McCall Smith's plots. Or it may just be that when he takes us on a detour, it is usually an interesting detour.

On page 94 of this novel, for example, Stuart is talking with Bertie, his six-year-old son, about girls, whom Bertie is convinced just want to push boys around. Stuart says, "You must remember that there are some very nice girls ... out there." At that point Stuart begins thinking about that phrase "out there." What does it mean? Where is "out there" anyway? Are the girls "out there" really any different than the girls Bertie goes to school with? This meditation goes on for a page, and while we would like to get back to Bertie, everybody's favorite character in the 44 Scotland Street novels, we don't really mind the interruption. At least I didn't.

On page 102 we are treated to a discussion of the movie Casablance between Pat and her father, Dr. Macgregor. This may have nothing to do with the story we are reading, but if you have seen Casablanca (and who hasn't?) you won't mind. And then they go from talking about the movie to talking about why people no longer talk to each other like they do in that movie, using complete sentences. (Even though that is exactly what Pat and her father are doing.) By page 104 the conversation, very much like a real conversation, has shifted again, this time to the topic of rudeness on the web and in traffic. All this has nothing to do with McCall Smith's story, except that this is always how he tells his stories. It may not be the most direct way to get from the beginning of a story to the end, but it certainly is the scenic route.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Stranger (and duller) than fiction

Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
J.B.S. Haldane, Possible Worlds

Human behavior, being very much a part of the universe, is no less queer than everything else. As predictable as some people seem to be, we never really know what they are going to say or do next. It is why drivers need to be constantly alert, why long-married people can still surprise their mates and why newspapers have no trouble filling their pages each day.

Joanne Harris
It is also why the old adage "truth is stranger than fiction" is really true. Novelist Joanne Harris phrased that idea differently in an article she wrote for a recent edition of BookPage, a free publication often distributed in libraries and bookstores. "The fact is that real life is nowhere near as plausible as fiction," she wrote, "...and if I were to base my books on actual, real life incidents encountered during my teaching career, the critics would scoff and refuse to believe that any such thing had happened."

Most of us can recall some very odd things that have happened to us over the years, coincidences that might seem far-fetched if we encountered them in a work of fiction. To mention just one small example from my own life, in the eighth grade we boys were split into basketball teams that played during the noon hour. Of course, the first order of business was to choose a name. For some reason, the name Turtles came to my mind. I decided not to propose it, however, because Turtles seemed like a ridiculous name for a basketball team. Yet at that instant another boy said, "Let's call ourselves the Turtles," and everybody thought that was a great idea. There was nothing mystical there or supernatural, but I think even J.B.S. Haldane would have agreed it was queer.

Most writers of fiction strive to make their stories believable, and that, as Harris suggests, may mean making them a little less like real life. This involves more than just eliminating the strangeness of real life. It also means eliminating all those necessary but boring things that fill so much of our days, everything from brushing our teeth and getting dressed in the morning to making beds and preparing meals. Nobody wants to read that kind of detail in a novel, yet that is what real life is like. Even if you think you lead an exciting life, the really interesting things that happen occupy just a small portion of a typical day.

Real life, thus, is both more strange and more dull and routine than any novel. No matter how realistic a novel may seem, it is still fiction.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A life with meaning

Researchers found that when nursing home residents were given a plant for their rooms, those charged with caring for the plants themselves were more social and more healthy than those told nurses would take care of the plants for them. Fewer of these people died during the course of the study. Clearly it doesn't take much to give life meaning, to make sticking around seem worthwhile. Yet so many people, including those younger, healthier and with seemingly more to live for than those nursing home residents, find their lives meaningless.

Emily Esfahani Smith explores the vital importance of having a sense of meaning in one's life in her new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. She finds four pillars on which this sense of meaning rests.

Belonging: When there's somebody who thinks you matter, you are more likely to feel that you matter. And if you matter to them, they are likely to matter to you.

Purpose: The contribution one makes to the world need not be anything grand. It can be something as small as taking care of a plant.

Storytelling: The simple act of telling the story of your life to others can reveal what your life actually means.

Transcendence: The night sky, a religious experience, a baby's ear, the Grand Canyon -- such things can make us feel small and insignificant, yet at the same time make us feel a part of something grand and eternal.

Smith provides excellent examples of each of these pillars and builds a solid case for the importance of each in our lives. Yet she nearly lost me very early in her book. In her introduction she writes about how after her Iranian family settled in Montreal, their Sufi faith and weekly meetings with other Sufis gave meaning to their lives. But then she casually writes, "My family eventually drifted away from the formal practice of Sufism," as if the faith that supposedly gave their lives meaning was of no more significance than a house plant.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Year of the Tigers

The year 1968 was a turbulent one in the U.S. It was a year of assassination, a year of violent demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and yet another year of war in Vietnam. Yet it was also one of the best years of my life, the year I married my true love, the year I moved to a new town and started a new job where I would stay for the rest of my career and the year my team, the Detroit Tigers, won the World Series.

So there was no way, almost 49 years later, I was not going to enjoy reading The Tigers of '68: Baseball's Last Real Champions by George Cantor. What I didn't expect was how terrific this book, published in 1997 and reprinted in 2014, would be. In just 230 pages of brilliant prose, Cantor covers not just a great team but also those turbulent times in which the Tigers roared.

Race riots in Detroit in 1967 left the once-great city in ruins. Much of the white population fled to the suburbs. It has been said that the 1968 Tigers saved the city, but that is not quite true, for a half century later Detroit has still not recovered. But they certainly helped, uniting fans, both black and white, at least for those few months.

Cantor did not spend much of his journalistic career as a baseball writer, but he did cover the Tigers for the Detroit Free Press (after Brent Musberger declined the job) in 1968. But then a strike kept the Detroit papers closed for much of the summer, and it took awhile for enthusiasm for the team to build and attendance to pick up.

The author's coverage takes readers from spring training that year to the seventh game of the World Series, where Mickey Lolich bested Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals. Yet he also seeks out many of the players from that team, including Lolich, Earl Wilson, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, Gates Brown, Al Kaline and John Hiller, many of whom in the mid-'90s still lived in the Detroit area, and asked them to reflect on that team and their lives after baseball. These interviews alone make the book worth reading.

So what is the meaning of Cantor's subtitle, "Baseball's Last Real Champions"? Mostly it is a commentary on the fact that Major League Baseball went to a playoff system in 1969, meaning that a team now doesn't necessarily have to have the best record in its league to get into the Series. Yet so much else has changed with baseball since 1968, including salaries, free agency, the designated hitter and the way pitchers are used. In 1968 Tiger pitchers had 59 complete games, including 28 by Denny McClain, who won a mind-boggling 31 games. Last year the pitching staff had just three complete games.

Furthermore, all the World Series games were still played during the day that year, and the seventh game took just two hours and seven minutes. Today Series games can take twice that long and are all played at night, meaning that many fans, especially children, never get to watch the ninth innings of most games.

To love this book, it helps to have been a Tiger fan in 1968, but it certainly isn't necessary.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Alphabetical disorder

Alexander McCall Smith
When I decided to try to find a certain Alexander McCall Smith novel on the fiction shelves of Largo Library, I knew the task might not be easy. Yet still hoping for easy, I searched first among the Smiths. There must be hundreds of novels in the library by authors named Smith, but books by Alexander McCall Smith, one of the most prolific authors of our day, were not among them. That meant I had to look under McCall.

Alexander McCall Smith hails from Scotland, and the British have a quaint custom, or perhaps it's an affectation, of sticking two surnames together to form a new surname, sometimes with a hyphen and sometimes not. In this case there is no hyphen, just McCall Smith, not that most people looking for his books in a library or book shop would know this.

Arthur Conan Doyle had Doyle as his surname for most of his life, but then he decided to change it to Conan Doyle. His second wife was Jean Conan Doyle, or Mrs. Conan Doyle. Visit the Arthur Conan Doyle website ( and you find the Sherlock Holmes creator referred to as "Conan Doyle."  Elsewhere he is generally just called Doyle, and at Largo Library his books can be found under D, not C. Library patrons are not treated so kindly when it comes to McCall Smith.

But looking for the novel under McCall was no simple matter either, for different organizations handle Mc and Mac prefixes differently. Some view Mc as the abbreviation of Mac, others don't. So should I look for McCall Smith under MCC, MAC, MCA or something else? I finally found Alexander McCall Smith on a shelf before the works of both Alistair MacLean and Norman Mailer, so I'm still not sure what system librarians use, but I'm sure it must be covered in some library science course. The problem is that most of the people using public libraries have never taken this course.

I checked my local phone book and found that the letters in both Mc and Mac are treated just like other letters in the alphabet. In the phone book it would be MacLean, Mailer and McCall, not McCall, MacLean and Mailer.

I'm sure I could have found my book more easily had I consulted a library computer or simply asked a librarian, but where would be the fun in that?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Full of wonders

Martin Gardner
Martin Gardner (1914-2010) was something of a Renaissance writer. He seemed able to write about anything, from Alice in Wonderland to string theory, like an authority. He wrote books by the dozens, including a passable novel called The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (made into a passable 1975 move), and articles by the hundreds.

Forty-seven of his essays, mostly magazine articles, book reviews and chapters from his books, were collected more than 20 years ago in The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995. That's nearly 60 years worth of material, which alone is amazing, never mind that these essays cover physical science, social science, pseudoscience, mathematics, the arts, philosophy (the field he studied in college) and religion. The title given to this collection is suggestive of its range. It comes from lines by Lord Dunsany:

     Man is a small thing,
     and the night is very large
     and full of wonders

The last essay in the book, "Surprise," returns to this idea, that the universe is very large and full of wonders. However much science discovers about the universe, there will always be one more surprise waiting around the next corner. This essay falls in the category of religion and speaks eloquently of his own religious beliefs. Elsewhere he calls himself a "philosophical theist." He pooh-poohs most religious belief as irrational and has no use for Christianity. Yet he quotes G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and other Christian writers as favorably as he quotes such atheists as Bertrand Russell. In the end it seems to be the wonders of the universe that convinces him there is a God. In another essay he writes, "I believe because it consoles me."

Most readers, lacking Gardner's broad interests and knowledge, will find some essays more interesting, not to say understandable, than others. Being the sort of person I am, I found more of interest in his essays about Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Lewis Carroll and William Shakespeare than in those about Robert Maynard Hutchins and Isaiah Berlin. Others will read it differently, but most intelligent readers will find something here to stimulate them, anger them, delight them or simply give them that sense of wonder.

Monday, February 20, 2017

When literature was king

It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously (Dorothy) Day and others took it -- reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books. Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.
David Brooks, The Road to Character

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a Catholic activist and writer who is one of those people David Brooks uses as as a model for character formation in The Road to Character. The period he writes about above would be her teens and 20s, which would make it the years just before and after 1920. Among the writers who influenced Day at that time were Upton Sinclair and Jack London, as well as the Russian novelists Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

Brooks reminds as that at that time in history, and for many years before that and a few years afterward, literature was taken much more seriously than it is today. Even ordinary people with relatively little formal education knew their Shakespeare, knew their Scott and Dickens and knew their Wordsworth and Milton. They also knew their Bibles.

Such reverence for literature still had a glimmer of life in my own youth. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck were still alive and were household names. So we're such poets as Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. How many living poets can you name? Many poets continue to write, and I meet one occasionally, but none has reached the prominence of a Frost or Sandburg since then, which may help explain why Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. As for novelists, most people think first of people like John Grisham and Danielle Steel, not more literary types. we still have good writers, but fewer people read them.

Today the great film directors, the likes of Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson, are the artists most widely known and discussed. You don't need a college degree to intelligently discuss The Grand Budapest Hotel, just as you once didn't need a college degree to intelligently discuss Hamlet.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A dying woman's dilemma

The future you understands that I was your sainted mother but not always such a saint.
Lauren Grodstein, Our Short History

If Karen Neulander weren't dying, she would be a hard character to like. The narrator of Lauren Grodstein's new novel, Our Short History, is a political consultant whose specialties are playing dirty tricks on other candidates and whitewashing the scandals in which her own candidates are caught. She once disclosed that a candidate's 16-year-old daughter had had an abortion, although the candidate himself was pro-life. Meanwhile, she admits that her current candidate is "one of the least trustworthy people I'd ever met." But his politics are right.

Now Karen has terminal cancer and is given maybe just a couple of years to live. She is the single mother of Jake, a six-year-old boy, and this novel takes the form of her statement of love, advice and family history to be read by Jake when he turns 18.

The complication for Karen, as if her life hadn't become complicated enough, is that Jake wants to meet his father. Dave, the love of Karen's life, had disappeared after she had become pregnant. Now he is a New York lawyer and married. When she contacts him, she is shocked by how much Jake likes him and by how much Dave's attitude toward children has changed. Now he wants to become involved in Jake's life, and this frightens Karen, who had already made plans for Jake to be cared for by her sister in the state of Washington. Will Dave, a lawyer after all, try to gain custody of his son? Can she, a dying woman, do anything to prevent that? And, considering the growing relationship between father and son, should she even try?

Karen's many imperfections add depth to Grodstein's novel that wouldn't exist if the protagonist were a goody-goody woman. Even Jake is not a perfect little boy. He is clearly spoiled, demanding and given to tantrums to get his way. As for Dave, he buys Jake too many presents and allows him to watch the wrong king of movie, yet he still comes across as too good to be true -- handsome, wealthy, well-meaning and totally reformed in his attitudes toward family. His near-perfection makes Karen's dilemma all the more difficult. She let this guy get away, now she can't keep him away.

A key passage in the novel comes when Karen goes to meet her candidate's political foe, a woman who has herself struggled with cancer. She discovers that the person she is trying to destroy is a wonderful woman, much more decent than her own candidate or, for that matter, Karen herself. This meeting, more than anything, changes Karen and guides her in the choices she must make.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Testing truth

PolitiFact was created by the Tampa Bay Times to determine the truthfulness of public statements, mainly those made by politicians, but anything said by anyone, including the media, can be subject to judgment. There is a PolitiFact website, and a detailed analysis of some statements are printed in the Times several times a week. PolitiFact strives to be objective, and certainly members of both political parties and groups of all kinds have been rated both true and false. But just how objective is it really?

A journalist for more than 40 years, I strove for objectivity every day (or at least those days when I was not writing editorials or columns) and I know how difficult that can be to achieve. Bias can sneak through in a million ways without our even being aware of it.

With PolitiFact, though the goal may be objectivity, a number of subjective decisions have to be made along the way. For example, which statements, among the thousands made each day, are going to be selected for testing? Certainly there must be a temptation to check those statements one disagrees with more than those one agrees with.

Which, of all the statements checked on the website, will be printed in the newspaper? And where in the paper will they be placed? Those appearing on the front page or on section covers will be seen by more people than those buried on inside pages. Sometimes statements are checked individually, other times as part of a group of related statements. Those judged by themselves, whether determined to be true or false, will presumably get more attention.

Then there is the very subjective matter of how a statement is judged and by what standard. On Sunday the Times rated a comment made by House Speaker Paul Ryan, abbreviated by the Times to, "We tax our exports and don't tax our exports." To rate the accuracy of that statement, PolitiFact turned to Joel Trachtman, professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. (This raises the obvious questions of how objective Professor Trachtman is and how truthful his own statements were.)

What the professor said is that Ryan's comment was "in principle true, but there's a lot of important exceptions." Among these exceptions are tariffs, which if not taxes have very much the same impact as taxes. Ryan's office "acknowledged to us that tariffs are another form of tax, but pointed out that he had been asked about the tax code, which is administered by the Internal Revenue Service rather than the U.S. Customs and Border Protection," the article said.

Ryan's statement was rated "half true," although it might just as easily have been judged "mostly true." Yet the headline on the article, "House speaker stumbles on issue of U.S. tariffs," suggests his comment was "mostly untrue."

Anytime one attempts to generalize or to speak of something complex in just a few words, the statement will almost always be something less than perfectly true. Take the statement, "Americans are free," for example. We hear this all the time, especially around the Fourth of July. But someone could point out that educators, doctors, businesses and others in America face mountains of regulations, good or bad, restricting their freedom and limiting their efficiency. And the IRS confiscates a significant portion of workers' income before they even see it. So are Americans free, or is that statement, like Ryan's, just half true?

As another example, take the simple statement, "PolitiFact is objective." The best we could say is that it is mostly true. Were I to let my own bias slip in, I would have to call it no better than half true.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The disease of adolescence

I was quite a number of pages into Through Darkest Adolescence, Richard Armour's comical lament about raising teenagers, before I realized that, since the book was published in 1963, I myself was one of those teenagers in question. From then on the book became a little more personal, even a little more amusing.

Armour is at his best in the opening chapter where he discusses adolescence as a disease, a disease that is not contagious and that you get only once, although it can hang on for several years. For a few people, he warns, it can last much longer, as among those people who act like teenagers well into middle age. After writing about some of the more serious symptoms of this disease, he concludes, "Some day a Dr. Salk will probably come along with a vaccine for adolescence. If so, the only question will be which Nobel Prize he should get -- the one for medicine or the one for peace."

From there, he moves on to such topics as getting a chance at the bathroom when there are teens in the house, teen parties, what to do when your kids are old enough to drive and problems related to cutting hair and straightening teeth. He uses his own son and daughter as examples, which must have embarrassed them terribly. However, since he was born in 1906, his kids may have been well into adulthood by 1963.

Armour wrote light verse to rival that of his contemporary, Ogden Nash. Unfortunately some of his poems are often wrongly attributed to Nash. We get a nice sampling of his verse scattered throughout this book. Here is one example:

     We've only a teen-age daughter,
     A two-legged creature indeed,
     And yet from the shoes
     She incessantly strews,
     You'd think we've a centipede.

Armour's wit seems to fail him late in his book when he addresses the subjects of smoking and drinking. His strategy for discouraging these behaviors is to encourage his kids to smoke cigars and consume large quantities of alcohol on the theory that after this they will not want to smoke or drink at all. Of course, this strategy fails. None of this misbehavior, and I'm referring to that of the parent, seems funny now, and I doubt that it was funny even in 1963.

However I do recall that when I was a little boy my father offered me a sip of his beer. I cried loudly at the taste, and my mother came running from the kitchen, giving Dad a firm lecture when she found out what had happened. But I have never wanted a beer since. So maybe Armour's strange strategy might have worked if he had only tried it a decade earlier.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Building character

Building character, like life itself, is a journey, and we get that point with the title of the David Brooks book The Road to Character. We may be born with a certain personality, but not with character. That's something that takes a lifetime to develop, assuming we even bother to try.

Brooks studies character building by studying the lives of a variety of men and women who made more effort to develop character than most of us do. They never became perfect people, but all were better later in their lives than earlier. Dorothy Day and Augustine were sexual libertines in their youth. Both later became devoted to Christian service. Dwight Eisenhower struggled with a terrible temper. Thanks to the influence of his mother and his military training, he learned to control it to become both the supreme Allied commander in World War II and the president of the United States. Frances Perkins fought to subdue her own wants and needs to better serve others.

Character building has become an old-fashioned concept, which is why younger readers may not be drawn to this book. With all the emphasis on self-esteem today, children are inclined to believe they already have it made. Why work to improve when you are already perfect? Brooks says that 53 percent of all students now get A's. Some graduating classes have a half dozen valedictorians or more. If high school is easy, why not the rest of life? And if virtue is relative and what's right for you is not necessarily right for me, then why work to become more virtuous?

Brooks contrasts Johnny Unitas with Joe Namath. Both were great NFL quarterbacks from the same region of Pennsylvania, yet their concepts of character were radically different. Unitas believed in working hard and keeping a low profile. Namath believed in having fun and showing off. Brooks sees them as symbols of their respective generations, Even though both men played in Super Bowl III, we tend to associate Unitas with the 1950s and Namath with the 1960s, when because of Vietnam and a lot of other factors, social change was rampant. Yet Brooks suggests it was actually the postwar Unitas generation, sometimes called the Greatest Generation, that actually brought about the change in how people view character. After years of Depression and war, this generation focused on material success, building big homes in the suburbs and acquiring nice things. Developing character became a minor issue, then no issue at all in many homes and schools.

Brooks says there are "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." The first includes the kinds of things we brag about and use to get jobs and impress others. The second kind of virtue includes what might be said about us at our funerals, at the end of our life journeys. And this second kind of virtue is what makes character.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Situation comedy

The Beverly Hillbillies
Most of the comedy in today's TV sitcoms seems to come not from situations but from put-downs, one-liners, sexual innuendos and parents behaving badly. In earlier days of television, sitcom comedy flowed from situations, and many of these situations resulted from misunderstandings. Gracie Allen would hear George Burns, her neighbor Blanche or one of the Harrys (can you think of any other TV series in which two of the main characters had the same name?) say something, and what she understood was always entirely different than what was meant. The results of that misunderstanding kept things interesting for the rest of the 30 minutes. A decade or so later, The Beverly Hillbillies also made the most of misunderstandings. Someone would be speaking of one thing, and the Clampetts would assume something else entirely.

In real life, such misunderstandings happen all the time, but they are rarely this amusing. In fact, the results can be disastrous. What one person says is misunderstood by another, who then fires back with a sharp comment that cannot be misunderstood, and the fight is on. Such misunderstandings can result in feuds that last for decades.

Sometimes, however, a simple misunderstanding can be amusing, at least to a third party. This happened to me twice in the past few weeks, both times involving conversations involving my wife, Linda.

On a recent Sunday morning a woman entered the worship service with two children, but she arrived 30 minutes late. After the service and after most of the people had left, another woman showed up with four small children, asking for money to feed her family and pay an overdue electric bill. A few days later I overheard Linda in conversation with another woman, Joy, about "the woman who arrived late to church." I soon realized each was talking about a different woman because Linda hadn't been in the sanctuary when the first woman arrived, and Joy had already left when the second woman arrived. Joy's and Linda's statements must have each confused the other, especially when they were speaking of the number of children, yet the conversation went on for some time before, as an act of mercy, I finally broke in to point out they were each talking about a different woman.

A few days later Linda conversed with Ted about a group going out to eat. As it happened, two groups involving some of the same people had gone out to eat twice, on Thursday to a seafood restaurant and on Saturday to a pizza restaurant. Ted, who hadn't gone out for pizza, was talking about the Thursday gathering, while Linda was speaking about Saturday's meal. For a brief while, only I realized they were not both talking about the same thing, so only I saw the comedy.

A few years ago I was the Gracie Allen or one of the Clampetts. One of the my sisters was visiting from out-of-state and wondered if Linda and I could meet with her, her husband and another sister for a meal. Would Friday work? I agreed. I even suggested a restaurant. Not until Thursday did I learn by some miracle that the Friday she was talking about was not the next day but the following Friday. My sisters had started the conversation earlier and knew which weekend was meant, but I had come in late and made the wrong assumption. The misunderstanding would not have been very funny if Linda and I had waited at the restaurant for a couple of hours on Friday, although I imagine it would have made a funny story at family reunions years later.