Monday, May 22, 2017

One writer's life

The mountains that used to imprison me have become my chosen stalking ground.
Lee Smith, Dimestore

Writers can spring from anywhere, even a seemingly nothing town like Grundy, Va. Although she grew up reading books and telling stories in Grundy, it took Lee Smith several years for this realization to hit her. Until then she had wondered what the daughter of a Ben Franklin store manager living deep in coal-mining country might possibly have to write about. Now in her 70s, the author of more than a dozen novels lives in North Carolina but keeps returning to those western Virginia mountains in her mind. That place and those people, she discovered, are virtually all she has to write about, and they are more than enough.

Smith tells her story in disjointed fashion in Dimestore: A Writer's Life, mostly a collection of magazine and newspaper articles published over the past 20 years. She describes growing up in Grundy and how, at the time at least, it seemed like paradise. She tells of being her father's "doll consultant" every year at Christmas. As a child she wanted to become a saint, or at least an angel in the Christmas pageant. Neither happened. Both of her parents suffered from bouts of severe depression, and she admits her own fears of this condition. She tells of romances, marriages, children and the tragic loss of one of those children. Mostly, however, she writes about writing and, as she puts it, "the therapeutic power of language." After the death of her son, in fact, a psychiatrist wrote a prescription for her. It said only, "Write fiction every day." It was just the therapy she needed

In one of her better essays, one called "On Lou's Front Porch," she gives one of the better definitions of writing you will find. Writing, she says, "is not about fame, or even publication. It is not about exalted language, abstract themes, or the escapades of glamorous people. It is about our own real world and our own real lives and understanding what happens to us day by day, it is about playing with children and listening to old people."

Friday, May 19, 2017

Consumers of books

My sort wants the book in its entirety. We need to touch it, to examine the weight of its paper and the way the text is laid out on the page. People like me open books and inhale the binding, favoring the scents of certain glues over others, breathing them in like incense even as the chemicals poison our brains. We consume them.
Pamela Paul, My Life with Bob

Pamela Paul
Readers, like people in general it seems, can be divided into two groups. Some people just read books for their stories or for whatever information they contain. Then they are done with them. The books can then be sold, given away, returned to the library or loaned to a friend without a care as to whether they are ever returned. Books are as disposable as empty milk cartons or used facial tissue. Once they have served their purpose, they can be discarded. Readers of this type don't even care if a book is printed on paper or if it appears electronically on some hand-held device. To them a book is not the book itself in its traditional form but what it holds.

These readers far outnumber the second kind, those among which Pamela Paul numbers herself. And which I number myself. We are those who love, and perhaps live, to touch books, to smell books and, although she does not mention it, to simply look at books. How they appear in our hands, on our shelves or even on somebody else's shelves somehow thrills us. Walking into a bookshop excites us the same way other people may be excited when they walk into a clothing store, a jewelry shop, an electronics store or a new car dealership.

For those like us, parting with a book can be a painful experience. Loaning a book, even to our most trusted friend, can cause anguish.

As Paul puts it, we want the book in its entirety. A book to us is as that ring is to Gollum: My precious! That analogy is a bit too close to the truth for comfort.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The right time for the right book

You have to read a book at the right time for you, and I am sure this cannot be insisted on too often, for it is the key to the enjoyment of literature.
Doris Lessing, quoted by Pamela Paul, My Life with Bob

Doris Lessing
This idea expressed by Doris Lessing, that certain books have a right time (and thus a wrong time) for us, strikes me as a continuation of the topic of my last post about the joy of reading without rules. To select the right book for us at a certain point in our lives, we need the freedom to make that choice ourselves, rather than have it imposed on us by someone else.

As much as I have enjoyed reviewing books over the past 45 years, the downside has always been this feeling of compulsion that goes with it. There is nothing legally binding here, and in most cases I have had some choice in which books I read and review. Even so, if I am sent a new book by a publisher, it should still be new when I read it. I can't very well wait five years until the time feels right for me to tackle this particular subject, author or whatever.

Members of book clubs may face an even stronger compulsion. If their club decides to discuss a certain book at next month's meeting, that is the book members should read. Never mind that they are in the mood for something lighter or darker or perhaps don't feel like reading anything at all.

The right time for the right book is not merely a question of mood. It is also a question of stage of life. As much as I loved The Catcher in the Rye when I was a teenager, I have always been reluctant to return to it for fear my older self would not find the same depth of meaning I found there in my youth. There have been other books, most notably Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, that later lacked whatever magic they possessed when I was young. There are other books that may be meaningless to us in our youth but will be packed with significance when we read them later in our lives.

Books do have their time and place. We are blessed when we have the freedom to make that choice ourselves.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reading without rules

When you're a child, reading is full of rules. Books that are appropriate and books that are not, books that grown-ups will smile at approvingly for cradling in your arms and those that will cause grimaces when they spy you tearing through their pages.
Pamela Paul, My Life with Bob

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer observed that "work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do." You'll remember that he persuaded other children to whitewash a fence for him by pretending it was great fun. Thus work became play.

As with fences, so it is with books. It is more fun to read them when we are not obliged to do so, when it seems more like play than work.

When we are children, as Pamela Paul notes in her memoir, "reading is full of rules." Our parents and other adults try to steer us toward certain books and away from others.  We may be able to choose our own library books, but until we are considered old enough our choices are limited to a certain part of the collection or to a school library where all the books have been screened for appropriateness. Then there is all that reading assigned by teachers, something that continues right on through college.

And so it is a relief to be old enough to select our own books, to read whatever we want and to stop reading something when we decide we don't like it and don't want to read it anymore. For most of us, unfortunately, this means avoiding anything challenging or intellectually stimulating. We prefer thrillers, romances and murder mysteries to great works of literature. If not for that reading once assigned to us by high school teachers and college professors, we might never have read a Shakespeare play, a Jane Austen novel or an Emily Dickinson poem. Ideally, of course, because we once read such literature because we were required to do so and somehow liked it anyway, we will be more inclined to read something similar because we choose to do so.

I read Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a college sophomore. Now my granddaughter, in her first year of high school, is reading the same novel. But in recent years I have elected to read Austen's Persuasion, not to mention Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens and various novels by Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and other great writers. Somehow work had become play.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Think fast, or not

While reading a book blog called January Magazine the other day, I found a list of books someone started reading but could not finish. One book on that list that caught my eye was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Just a couple weeks previously I, too, had given up on this book, after reading the first nine chapters and more than 100 pages.

It is not often that I decide a book is a hopeless cause. There are some dull books I may not open again for years, but I leave them on my reading table with a bookmark in them for that future day when I might be inspired to return to them. I have not actually given up on them, or so I tell myself. Kahneman's book, however, I did give up on, as I did Nancy Mauro's novel New World Monkeys a few months ago. That book seemed brilliant in the early going, then turned tedious. So it was with Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Kahneman says we each do two kinds of thinking. He calls them System 1 and System 2, or fast and slow. System 1 amounts to first impressions, which are often wrong. System 2 thinking is slower, more methodical and more logical. It also, he says, is more likely to give us the right answer. The author tells us this very early in his book. After that he starts illustrating his point, again and again and again. Did I really need to read another 300 pages of this?

Malcolm Gladwell makes virtually the opposite point in his 2005 best seller Blink, in which he says that first impressions are often the correct ones. Like Kahneman, he makes his point early, then devotes the rest of the book to illustrating that point. Yet I found Gladwell's book fascinating, and I read every word. I'm still not sure which of them is right. I suspect fast thinking gives us the correct answer sometimes and slow thinking works best at other times, which explains why we are capable of two kinds of thinking. But I do know that Gladwell wrote the more interesting book. And so, after giving the matter some long and slow thought, I decided to abandon Kahneman's book, while keeping Gladwell's on my shelf.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Count the carbs, if you can

Because I am a carb counter, I read food labels. This is not to say I understand them.

In recent days I have made two purchases from the same supermarket bakery that, after reading the "Nutrition Facts," have left me perplexed.

First I bought some cinnamon raisin bread, which is actually pretty good. I like one slice of toast in the morning. The label says the total carbs per serving is 29. That seems like a lot for one thin slice, so I checked to see if a serving is one slice or two. Turns out a serving is "1/11 loaf." But there were 15 or 16 slices of bread in the loaf. So how many carbohydrates in a single slice? The bakery apparently didn't want to do the math, but neither do I.

Next I purchased a package of six blueberry muffins, which are also pretty good. I had one of these for dinner last night. The label says a serving size is one muffin, which sounds easy enough. And there are 30 grams of carbs per serving. Again, that sounds easy. But then I noticed that the label says the number of servings in the container is four, not six. So are there 30 grams of carbs in one muffin or in one-and-a-half muffins? Add to this confusion the fact that the muffins are clearly not all the same size.

Nutrition Facts should, by definition, be factual. They should also be understandable by anyone who needs the information they supposedly contain.

Monday, May 8, 2017

On the run

When she saw Donovan, she felt as if she were looking on a distant shore of a place she had once loved but no longer felt such an urgency to get to. Donovan had become like England.
Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway

A major turning point in the story of Honor Bright, the young Quaker woman at the center of Tracy Chevalier's fine 2013 novel The Last Runaway,  comes very early. Jilted by the man she was pledged to marry, Honor decides to accompany her sister from England to America, where her sister plans to marry a man who has settled in a small frontier town south of Oberlin, Ohio. The year is 1850. But Honor gets seasick as soon as the ship leaves port and stays sick for the entire long voyage, She knows she can never put herself through that ordeal again, meaning she can never return to England.

Before getting to Ohio, however, her sister dies of disease, and Honor is stranded alone in a strange country. She continues her journey to Ohio and to the man who had expected to marry her more outgoing sister. Honor realizes that to survive in this tiny Quaker community, she must soon marry, but she is not drawn to this man, nor he to her. Besides, another woman, his brother's widow, already has her sights on him even before Honor finally arrives.

So many good women seem to be attracted to bad men, and such is the case with Honor. She yearns for Donovan, a tireless pursuer of runaway slaves who follow the Underground Railroad to Oberlin and then to Canada. She detests slavery and, in fact, assists Belle, Donovan's own sister, in aiding runaways, yet she can't stop wondering if she could change Donovan by marrying him. Even after she marries a more suitable Quaker man and has a baby girl, Donovan continues to occupy her thoughts. That is, until she herself becomes "the last runaway."

I love this novel. It may be Chevalier's best book since Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Beginning, middle, end

Plot is all-important; beginning, middle, and end is the most natural and satisfying sequence of events.
Lee Smith, Dimestore

Pamela Paul makes much the same point in My Life with Bob. Reflecting on her "comfort books," classics by the likes of Dickens, Eliot and Austen, she writes, "These books have recognizable beginnings, middles, and ends." Yet writers of today, at least those who strive to become the Dickens, Eliots and Austens of their own generation, so often don't put recognizable beginnings, middles and ends in their stories. They eschew linear storytelling on a regular basis, opting instead for a shuffling of past, present and future, sort of like Kurt Vonnegut having Billy Pilgrim get "unstuck in time," but with less rationale.

I'm not just talking about flashbacks here. Even writers of genre fiction do this, starting their story, then going back to fill in details about what happened earlier. You probably do this yourself when telling a story to friends. For a tale to be appreciated, you sometimes have to fill in earlier details. But modern writers with literary ambitions go beyond this. Their stories jump around in time, annoying and confusing their readers while, apparently, delighting literary critics and the committees that bestow literary prizes.

Sometimes this time shuffle works better than other times. Time goes backwards in The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. The story begins in 1947, then goes back to 1944 and finally to 1941. The climax of her story is what happens in 1941, and this explains what happens later. So her end, middle, beginning sequence works, however unsettling it may be for readers.

Jerome Charyn's recent novel Jerzy has different narrators who know novelist Jerzy Kosinski at different times of his life. Here the sequence is more middle, end, beginning, but the narrators are only telling the part of the story they know, and as with Waters, it is the beginning of the story that explains the rest.

I gave favorable reviews to both Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, two novels that move back and forth in time. I found this back and forth annoying, but it didn't seem to interfere with understanding and appreciating what was taking place.

Less successful is The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell, a novel that jumps from year to year and from character to character so often that I, for one, had difficulty following what was actually going on and understanding how the pieces of the story fit together.

Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Jane Austen, among many others of their time, wrote great, lasting stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Maybe writers of today should strive to do the same.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A life told in book titles

We need an archeology for our own lives.
Kim Stanley Robinson, "Vinland the Dream," The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson

For many of us, photo albums serve this purpose. The photographs show the many layers of our lives, revealing who we were and who we were with at various times and places. Others may rely on a diary or perhaps just those boxes of stuff accumulating in our attics or even the clothing in the back of our closets.

For Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, there is just Bob, as she describes in My Life with Bob. Bob is not a man but a book. It is her acronym for what she calls her Book of Books, a notebook in which she has recorded, in very small print, the titles of every book she has read since she was 17. These book titles work for her like photo albums and attics work for other people. They can take her back instantly to other times in her life.

And so My Life with Bob is her autobiography, the story of her life told in book titles. Brave New World takes her back to high school. It was one of the novels she read for her honors thesis. She read The Grapes of Wrath as a young woman living with a family in France. The Flashman novels remind her of an old boyfriend who liked them. She didn't, and soon didn't like the boyfriend. A Wrinkle in Time takes her back to when her children were young and she read to them every night.

Yet the books she writes about are more than just signposts for her life. They become metaphors, as the themes in novels somehow become the themes for her life at the time she read them. Such is the power of literature that it not only puts us in the stories but, at the same time, puts the stories in us. Paul sees herself as Anna Karenina, trapped in a catch-22 and even, metaphorically speaking, swimming to Cambodia.

I, too, have been keeping a "book of books" for many years, although it is actually several books. I just can't write as small as Pamela Paul apparently does. As Bob does for her, these books give me an archeology of my life.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Speaking up for Silent Cal

When we think of Calvin Coolidge at all, which isn't often, we usually want to smile. There's his legendary silence, which resulted in the nickname Silent Cal. One story finds him at a dinner party, where the woman next to him said someone bet her that she wouldn't get more than two words out of him all evening. Coolidge replied, "You lose." Then there are some of the photographs taken of him, especially those showing him in an Indian headress. And finally there is his name, which next to that of Millard Fillmore is the most likely among U.S. presidents to get a laugh. Hardly anyone remembers anything Coolidge actually did while he was in the White House.

Amity Shlaes takes Calvin Coolidge seriously in Coolidge, her fine 2013 biography. He became president in 1923 upon the death of Warren Harding, was elected to his own term in 1924 and probably could have been easily re-elected in 1928 had he chose to run. Harding had been elected on the theme of a "return to normalcy," but there was nothing normal about his scandal-ridden, playboy presidency. It was Coolidge who restored normalcy, balancing the federal budget while paying off the war debt, taking steps that encouraged economic growth, higher wages and remarkable technological change. Like Woodrow Wilson before him, Coolidge sought an international agreement that would eliminate future war. That didn't work, of course, anymore than his economic measures prevented the Great Depression not long after he left office, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

This quiet, simple man from Vermont was incredibly popular in his day. And despite his reputation for being a man of few words, it was he, not Franklin D. Roosevelt, who first used radio to speak directly to the American people. After his presidency, he conveyed his thoughts on national affairs in a popular newspaper column.

Coolidge did not think highly of his successor, Herbert Hoover. He seemed to sense that Hoover's spending policies would lead to economic disaster, yet this fear was not sufficient to persuade him to run for office again. He wanted to return to Vermont with his beloved wife, Grace. This he did, but he died within a few years of leaving office. And since then his reputation has diminished, while his usefulness as a punchline has increased. Amity Shlaes's book helps a bit to restore the proper order.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Email reconsidered

Speed and informality have been the strengths of email since its beginning. They have also been its weaknesses.

Letters, whether handwritten or typewritten, take an investment of time to write, and then there is the long wait, usually several days at best, for them to be delivered and for a response to get back to you. With e-mail, the whole process can sometimes be completed in a couple of minutes.

Letters also require a certain formality of structure: a date, a greeting of "Dear So-and So," even when writing to a complete stranger, and a closing of "Sincerely," "Yours truly," "Love" or whatever. Then there is the signature. Should you just sign your first name or your entire name? Email frees you from this formality. You simply say what you have to say. The email system itself usually supplies the date and notifies the recipient of the sender. For busy people, email was a godsend. And then came texting, which is even faster and less formal.

And yet maybe email (not to mention texting, right President Trump?) is just too easy. Fast messages can get us in trouble, especially if we are angry and hit the send button before we have had a chance to cool down and think over our message rationally. It is also easy to make mistakes. Meanwhile, the lack of formality can itself be offensive, especially when the recipient is someone who expects a little respect, such as an older person or a powerful person in government or business.

Miriam Cross
I was interested when, a few weeks ago, Miriam Cross, writing for Kiplinger, urged those wishing to make a good impression to follow some basic etiquette in their more important e-mail. "Save 'Hi' for colleagues and work acquaintances," she wrote. "New clients should be greeted with 'Hello' or "Dear,' followed by 'Mr.' or 'Ms.' (or a professional title) and the person's surname."

"To close the email," Cross wrote, "you can't go wrong with 'Sincerely,' 'Best' or 'Kind regards ..."

In other words, in business, especially at the onset of a new relationship, email should be more like old-fashioned letters, more formal and with a little more time taken to get it right.

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 comics like Steven Wright and Rodney Dangerfield are introduced to an audience, 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. 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 prevent 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 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.

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.