Friday, December 29, 2017

This year's best reading

Carrie Brown
Two of the best books I read in 2017 were novels I probably never would have read but for a literary discussion group at my local library. I connected with the group in mid-summer when I noticed they would be discussing Jon Clinch's novel Finn at their next meeting. I had read the book years previously and I wanted to hear what others said about it. I ended up staying with the group until coming south in November, and two of the books we talked about during this period were The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson and Lamb in Love by Carrie Brown. Both novels made a good impression.

Jackson's novel tells of a divorce lawyer, someone who views her calling as breaking up families, discovering she has two siblings she doesn't know she has and finding herself in the position of struggling to bring a family together. Brown writes about a middle-aged postmaster who falls in love for the first time in his life and seems to do everything wrong, yet somehow manages to do everything right.

Other notable novels read this year (none of them actually published in 2017) included Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway, about a young Quaker woman who settles in Ohio in the mid-1800s and becomes involved in the Underground Railroad while falling in love with a man trying to round up runaway slaves; Marilynn Robinson's Gilead, about a dying pastor's attempt to explain himself to his very young son; and Anthony Trollope's Cousin Henry, about a lost will and characters who take moral stands for less than moral reasons.

Which is the best of these? I'd say Lamb in Love, with The Last Runaway a close second.

Michael Korda
That said, I must admit the most fun I had reading this year was with Old Boys, a spy novel by Charles McCarry. Not far behind is Crosstalk by Connie Willis, which I reviewed here just a few days ago. For pure pleasure reading, it would be hard to beat these two books.

As for nonfiction reading, I had a good time with biographies in 2017. The best was Michael Korda's Clouds of Glory about Robert E. Lee, but Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, Mr. Strangelove by Ed Sikov (about actor Peters Sellers) and Ike's Bluff (about the Eisenhower presidency) were also first-rate.

Other nonfiction works that impressed me were The Road to Character by David Brooks, Sanctuary of Trees by Gene Logsdon, Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett and The Better Angels of Ourselves by Steven Pinker.




Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Let us play

As another year draws to a close, I want to return to a little game I like to play in late December. The object of the game is to answer a series of questions using only the titles of books read during the year. Let’s see how I do this year.

Describe Yourself The Opposite Of Everyone

How Do You Feel? Limitations

Describe Where You Live In Plain Sight

If You Could Go Anywhere, Where Would You Go? Easter Island

Your Favorite Form Of Transportation The Road to Character

Your Best Friend Is Mr. Strangelove

You and Your Friends Are Old Boys

What’s the Weather Like Where You Are? The Heat of the Sun (Ordinary Thunderstorms and The Delicate Storm would have also worked.)

What Is the Best Advice You Could Give? Suffer the Little Children (Or perhaps Start Without Me)

Thought for the Day The Night Is Large

How Would You a Like to Die? Burial at Sea

Your Soul’s Present Condition Clouds Of Glory

OK, some of the answers are a bit weak. I guess I just failed to read the right books this year.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Bluffing his way to peace

Dwight Eisenhower liked playing cards as much as he liked playing golf, but he was better at cards and one reason for that was his skill at bluffing. Evan Thomas explores how this particular skill carried over into his presidency in his 2012 biography Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.

Having spent a career in the U.S. Army, culminating in his appointment as Supreme Commander in World War II and a military success that led to his election to the presidency in 1952, Eisenhower came to believe you shouldn’t fight wars unless you were fully committed to victory. Put another way, all or nothing.

Throughout the 1950s, the Cold War threatened to turn into a hot one. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons pointed at each other. Smaller wars threatened to break out everywhere, such as over the Suez Canal, and any small war could ignite a larger one.

What Ike knew, thanks to the U-2 flights and other espionage, was that the Soviets were bluffers, too. They didn’t have nearly the nuclear weaponry or the delivery capacity they pretended to have. But they could still be formidable in a conventional war. Ike’s bluff, in a nutshell, was all or nothing. There would be no small wars. If the Soviets wanted a fight, they would have to face American nukes. Would Eisenhower really have done it? Nobody really knows, but most important, Nikita Khrushchev didn’t know, and as a result, Thomas argues, the 1950s, for all their tension, were a relatively peaceful time. “The United States was blessed to be led by a man who understood the nature of war better than anyone else, and who had the patience and wisdom, as well as the cunning and guile, to keep the peace” he writes.

Presidents after Eisenhower, beginning with John F. Kennedy, have committed American troops to smaller wars, such as in Vietnam and Afghanistan, without being fully committed to victory. The consequences have not been pretty.

Thomas suggests that Ike bluffed not just the Soviets but the American people, as well. He pretended in public to be a low-key, slightly confused old man who would rather play golf than focus on the nation’s business. In truth the golf was a means of relieving the tension from his intense attention to affairs of state. Even today some historians still fall for the bluff and underestimate Eisenhower’s presidency, says Thomas.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Nothing but the truth

There's such a thing as being too connected, you know, especially when it comes to relationships. Relationships need less communication, not more.
Connie Willis, Crosstalk

Part science fiction, part paranormal fantasy, part romantic comedy, Connie Willis's entertaining 2016 novel Crosstalk may more than anything be a satire on contemporary culture's desire for connection, preferably through technology rather than by people actually talking to one another. The lines above spoken early in the novel by C.B. Schwartz, one of the main characters, would seem to summarize the author's own view: Communication, like most other things, is best used in moderation.

Briddey Flannigan, like C.B., works for a company in the competitive smartphone industry. She and her boyfriend, Trent, have decided to each get an EED, an implant in the brain that supposedly allows lovers to communicate their emotions to one another even at a distance. Almost instantly everyone in the company finds out about their plan, and C.B., a scruffy young man who hides out in the frigid basement, tries to discourage her. She goes ahead with the operation anyway, but instead of being connected to Trent, she finds herself connected to C.B. And it's not just their feelings that are shared, but virtually every thought the two of them have.

You might not think Willis could possibly sustain this farce for 500 pages, as comic novels, like movie comedies, usually work best when relatively short, but somehow she does. The complications keep coming and coming. If some of them are predictable -- you know C.B. and Briddey will fall in love and that Trent is up to no good -- most of them will surprise most readers.

I will close with another C.B. Schwartz quote, my favorite: "If people really wanted to communicate, they'd tell the truth, but they don't."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Preserving without protecting

Nicholson Baker
The words conservation and preservation don't quite mean the same thing, though their meanings are similar. Generally we use conservation when speaking of a limited resource, such as clean water or farmland, and preservation when speaking of something rare, such as art or antiques. But both words suggest protection, whatever it is that is being protected. In Double Fold, the book I reviewed here a couple of days ago, Nicholson Baker says librarians have very different meanings when they use these two words.

To librarians at many of the major libraries across the United States, he says, conservation "refers to the repair or restoration of the original object." The object in question is usually a book. Preservation, on the other hand, refers not to the protection of the book itself but rather the contents of the book. Thus, a librarian can speak of preserving a book by copying its contents onto microfilm, even though the act of doing so leads to the destruction of the physical book, however rare and valuable and irreplaceable it may be.

"Reversibility -- the potential to undo what you or your predecessors have done -- is a watchword of modern book conservation," Baker writes, "book preservation, by contrast, is often irreversible, because the book is gone." Microfilming usually requires taking a book apart and copying it page by page. Even if it may be possible to put the book back together in some form, it is not something  librarians are interested to doing, for the main objective of microfilming is to create more shelf space and save money (even though, Baker argues, microfilming is more costly than building additional storage space).

And so, rare books have been destroyed in the name of preservation. But isn't the essence of the book, its contents, preserved? Not when microfilm, both as a material and a technology, has such a limited lifespan, much less than the original books themselves.

I should explain the meaning of Baker's title, Double Fold. It refers to a common test librarians have used to demonstrate that paper is fragile and will fall apart. You simply bend over a corner of a page. How many folds can you do before the corner comes off? But folding almost anything weakens it. You can easily tear even new paper after folding it a couple of times. How well do you think microfilm would hold up under the double fold test?

Monday, December 18, 2017

A library scandal

It's as if the National Park Service felled vast wild tracts of pointed firs and replaced them with plastic Christmas trees.
Nicholson Baker, Double Fold

Destroying something to protect it sounds like something out of Catch-22. Instead it's something out of the Library of Congress and numerous other prestigious libraries across the United States. What they have destroyed, or allowed to be destroyed, are countless irreplaceable old books and newspapers and, along with them, a good portion of American history.

So argues Nicholson Baker in his persuasive 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.

Baker attacks the claim that because paper is fragile and deteriorates with time, old books and newspapers should be copied onto microfilm, preferably with government funding. Because copying usually means taking apart these books and newspapers, they are no longer fit to be returned to shelves. So they are discarded. But saving library space, not saving books and newspapers, or even the contents of those books and newspapers, has really been the main objective all along, he says.

To be sure, the purpose of most public libraries is to serve the public, and the public mostly wants to read today's books and today's newspapers, not books and newspapers from a hundred years ago. Libraries must regularly discard older books in order to make room for new ones. Baker argues, however, that major metropolitan libraries, university libraries and especially the Library of Congress should have different standards and different objectives. These are the libraries most used by historians, writers and researchers of all sorts, and these are the people most hurt by the actions of these libraries. (But in smaller towns all over the country, old newspaper stories remain the main source for researching local history.)

Isn't microfilm just as good? During my newspaper career I sometimes had to search for old newspaper stories on microfilm. Rolls of microfilm were certainly lighter and easier to handle than bound volumes of newspapers, and one could speed through the microfilm fairly quickly to find what one was looking for. The problem was being able to actually read what you found. Reproduction on microfilm can be iffy, especially around the edges. It is also in black and white, even though portions of the newspaper pages may have been printed in color. Baker shows examples of  newspaper pages from a century ago that had beautiful color drawings and cartoons that appear drab on microfilm.

What's more, Baker says, paper doesn't actually deteriorate as quickly as librarians argued to justify their scheme. Many of us have some very old books in our attics that can still be read without fear they will fall apart in our hands. And old books in libraries don't get heavy use. Usually those historians and researchers are the only people who want to handle them.

Finally, the author says, microfilm has been found to not last as long as those supposedly fragile books and newspapers. There are newer technologies, but how do you make a good digital copy from a blurry, decaying strip of microfilm? You need the originals, and in most cases, these have been destroyed.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Hangwoman

Sharyn McCrumb's Prayers the Devil Answers has a murder, but no mystery. The man who pushes his wife from a cliff fails to notice he has two witnesses. He makes no attempt to escape and offers no defense at his trial. He goes to the gallows without protest. So where lies the drama, where the suspense? It turns out there is drama and suspense aplenty, just not where one might expect to find it.

McCrumb focuses mostly on a young woman named Ellie Robbins, who with her husband and two sons comes down from the Appalachian hills to try their luck in town. It is 1936, the Depression is at its worst and jobs are hard to come by. Her husband, however, manages to win an election for sheriff. He doesn't hold the office long, however, before he becomes sick and dies.

The author prolongs his death, perhaps longer than necessary, yet these pages may be the most powerful and most moving in the novel. She takes us into Ellie's mind, showing us how her husband's illness and then his death impacts her in so many ways. Later, a terribly introverted woman, she must bear up under the strain when people, many of whom she barely knows, come to the house to offer sympathy and bring food. She has no idea what to say and only wants to see them gone.

Then comes the question of how she will support her boys. She hits on the idea of asking the county commissioners to appoint her sheriff until a new election can be held. Strangely, nobody else wants the job, and so this timid young woman is sworn in as county sheriff. Mostly she just acts as administrator and handles the paperwork, something she already did for her husband. Then the young man murders his wife and is condemned to death by hanging. And she learns state law requires the sheriff to be executioner. (The novel is loosely based on an actual case in Kentucky in 1936.)

Complications abound. Relatives want to take her children away from her. Reporters come from all over, making the female sheriff, not the condemned man, their story. She discovers her husband was not quite the man she had believed him to be. She had gotten what she wanted, to be made sheriff, but she has to wonder if it was really God who answered her prayer.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Fake news or just careless reporting?

The phrase "fake news" suggests to me either satire, as with The Onion or Saturday Night Live, or propaganda, deliberate lies spread by governments, political candidates, big business or anyone else evil enough with money enough (not that money is still a requirement, thanks to Twitter and the Internet). As a former journalist, I am hesitant to apply the term to others in my profession. Not that I don't recognize the blatant errors that keep cropping up and that President Donald Trump uses to denigrate the press and network news.

Some of these errors have, in fact, been deliberate. A case in point is the photo a Washington Post reporter sent via Twitter showing a sparse crowd in an auditorium which the president had claimed was "packed to the rafters." He later admitted the photo had been taken long before the president spoke. Even though it was on Twitter, not the Washington Post, I think it can still be called fake news.

In most instances, however, I think the journalists in question think they were reporting the truth but are guilty of carelessness and/or wishful thinking.

The now rampant use of anonymous sources, especially in Washington, is an invitation to disaster. Sources who will not allow the use of their names are notoriously less dependable than those willing to stand behind what they say. Of course, leakers in the White House, the Department of Justice and so on are not likely to allow the use of their names. The challenge for reporters is to find ways to confirm the information. Careless reporters don't bother.

As for wishful thinking, I suspect most of us are more likely to believe positive things about those we like and negative things about those we don't like. When the president is victimized by errors, what he terms fake news, they are almost always the work of journalists who don't like him, who want to discover negative things to report about him and whose standards thus are lower than they might otherwise be.

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Monkee looks back

Many people are best remembered for one thing when they would prefer to be remembered for something else, such as retired athletes who have become successful in business yet are famous only for what they did in the field or on the court decades before. One such person is Michael Nesmith, who will forever be known as one of the Monkees back in the Sixties, never mind all the innovative things he has accomplished in music, technology and philanthropy since then.

In his recent autobiography Infinite Tuesday, he puts his brief career as a Monkee in perspective. It gave his show business career a big boost, allowed him to form friendships with such individuals as John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Douglas Adams, but he has had many other more important accomplishments since then. If others won't mention them, then he will.

Nesmith, for example, invented the music video, way before MTV. He had written a song called Rio, but when he tried to get it some airplay in England he was asked to provide a video. What was actually wanted was just a cheap video of himself performing the song, but instead he put together a costly, highly entertaining video. Everyone who saw it loved it, but nobody knew what to do with it. It was an idea whose time had not yet come.

Michael Nesmith
Nesmith tried his hand at making movies, calling himself a Hamburger Movie Tycoon, his term for people who make their fortunes in other fields, then think they can be successful in Hollywood, too. Usually they can't, and Nesmith couldn't either.

He had more success buying up rights to countless videos for low prices before VHS tapes became as popular as they soon became. He was later sued by PBS, who wanted their rights back and resented Nesmith acquiring them so cheaply. Their ruthless attempt to ruin him and use the courts to steal the videos back may make you think twice about pledging to PBS in the future. Yet Nesmith ultimately won the case.

He has also had success on the Internet and with the philanthropies entrusted to him by his mother, who made her fortune after inventing Liquid Paper, then dying young.

From this you might get the idea the book is full of little more than name-dropping and boasting. There is some of that, to be sure, but I was impressed with his candor about the many mistakes he has made both in his personal life and in his career. He regards himself as perfect illustration of what he calls Celebrity Psychosis, or thinking oneself more important, more special than one really is. He doesn't seem to have liked the other Monkees, for he has little to say about them, but it would appear the feeling was mutual.

With age comes wisdom, at least sometimes, and such appears to be the case with Michael Nesmith.

Friday, December 8, 2017

An Ace fantasy

Since the 1970s, Alan Dean Foster, who just turned 71, has been a popular and prolific author of fantasy and science fiction novels. I am wondering if his career might easily have taken off in a different direction early in his career, however.

I recently found found Foster's 1988 novel, Maori, a paperback original, in my library and decided to read it. The book may have been sent to me for review, but I managed to ignore it for nearly 30 years. When I started reading I had no idea what to expect. I recognized Foster's name as a sci-fi writer. The novel's cover calls it "the epic historical fantasy of the year!" On the back it says, "One man ... on the mystical adventure of a lifetime" and "discovered a magical world beyond his strangest dreams" and "a dazzling epic fantasy of a strange but enchanted land."

It turns out the novel has more in common with James Michener's Hawaii than Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. It tells the history of New Zealand from the early 19th century when whalers stopped there to resupply their ships to the late 19th century when it became the first part of the British Empire to give women the vote. In between were decades of war between the white settlers and the Maori natives. Mostly we follow the story through the eyes of Robert Coffin, a businessman who builds his fortune while helping to build a country, yet managing to destroy those he loves along the way.

The novel might qualify as a fantasy in the way any novel is a fantasy, the work of the author's imagination. But Ace Books, Foster's publisher at that time, built its reputation selling fantasy and science fiction, not serious historical novels. So what were they to do with Maori? What they did, apparently, was to disguise it as a fantasy novel, thus disappointing those who bought it expecting a fantasy and keeping it hidden from those readers who might have actually enjoyed it. Had I known what it is, I might not have waited three decades to read it.

It's too bad, for Maori is a good novel, one that deserved a wider audience than it probably received. Had it gotten that audience, Alan Dean Foster might have chosen to write more books like it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Why keep books?


The question most asked of bibliophiles is probably, "Have you read all these books?" Not far behind, however, comes this one: "If you've already read them, why do you keep them?"

To true bibliophiles, this question seems like a no-brainer. They collect books because they like books, the way someone who collects tea pots likes tea pots or someone who collects stamps likes stamps. The fact that a tea pot may never again hold tea or a stamp may have already been canceled has nothing to do with it. Nor does the fact that a book has been read, or for that matter, may never be read.

Two years ago members of LibraryThing (a place on the web where booklovers gather) discussed this topic and provided some interesting answers to the question of why they collect books. Here are some I particularly liked:

"The same kind of panic about not having anything to read that caused my mother-in-law to fill closets full of toilet paper so she would never, ever have to face running out."

"Because knowing I have more books in my immediate environment than I can possibly read in this life makes me feel happy in the way the monied feel knowing they will never run out of dough."

"When I read a book, I'm forming a relationship. Once I'm done, I could throw it away. But do you do that to your friends once you've made them?"

"Life is short and books are nice."

All these are good reasons, especially the one about forming relationships with books. Parting with a good book really is something like parting with a good friend.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Personal catch-phrases

What a revoltin' development this is.
Chester A. Riley (William Bendix) on The Life of Riley

Among the earliest catch-phrases I remember from television is the one above often heard on The Life of Riley, an NBC comedy that ran from 1953 to 1958, although there was an earlier version of the show starring Jackie Gleason that I never saw. Soon Gleason would have his own catch-phrase ("How sweet it is!"), as well as others as Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners.

Many other television series generated popular catch-phrases. Those on situation comedies always drew laughs, no matter how many times they were repeated. Other kinds of shows, such as Superman, Dragnet and The Lone Ranger had them, too, and they are repeated to this day even by people who have never seen the programs. Modern shows have their own catch-phrases, such as The Big Bang Theory ("I'm not insane. My mother had me tested.").

As entertaining as these TV catch-phrases can be, the fact is that many of us have our own personal catch-phrases, and most often they are just annoying, at least to those who have to listen to them. I had some X-rays taken last week by a very nice woman who prefaced almost every request for a change of position with the words "do me a favor." This was endearing at first, but soon I cringed each time she said it.

I am a fan of The Great Courses lectures, and I often have one playing in my car. One course I thought I would enjoy was about the books written by C.S. Lewis, a favorite of mine. Unfortunately the lecturer is one of those people who repeats the phrase "but guess what" again and again. I had to force myself to complete the course.

On a Great Courses podcast recently I heard a philosophy professor talking about his course. He kept saying things like "The truth should be valued in and of itself, right?" and "What good is that, right?" I don't think I want to invest in that course, right?

In our conversations we can hear speakers inserting expressions such as "like I said," "you know what I mean" and "first of all" into everything they say. Others punctuate their speech with their favorite profanities. Maybe these kinds of things don't bother you, but they bother me. But I am also bothered by the thought that I may have my own personal catch-phrases I am not even aware of but others are.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Listening to the Fifties

The early rock and roll of the 1950s was subsumed and transformed by the rock and roll of the 1960s.
Michael Nesmith, Infinite Tuesday

During our two-day drive down to our winter paradise in Florida last week, Linda and I listened to nonstop Fifties music on SiriusXM. Other than Blue Moon by the Marcels and some songs by the Platters, Bobby Darin, Della Reese and a few others, I am not that fond of the songs of the Fifties (nor was I that fond of them back in the Fifties), but they do rekindle memories. Best of all, unlike other Sirius stations, there are few songs so objectionable one feels compelled to change to something else.

After we arrived in Florida I began reading Infinite Tuesday, an autobiography by Michael Nesmith, once one of the Monkees. Nesmith is a contemporary of mine, someone who grew up in the Fifties, then reached adulthood in the Sixties. He says that in the Sixties, "Popular music was coming from the hymnal of a new church." He is right. By the mid-Sixties, popular music was radically different from that of the Fifties. He attributes the change mostly to the influence of the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

During the long drive from Ohio, I noticed several things about Fifties music that separate it not just from Sixties music but from the music of every other decade. Here are some of them:

1. A major theme of rock and roll music of that decade was rock and roll music.During that decade we were subjected to Jailhouse Rock, Jingle Bell Rock, Rock Around the Clock, Shake, Rattle and Roll, Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay and other variations on the theme.

2. Another popular theme was teenage girls, especially 16-year-old girls. Consider Sweet Little Sixteen, Sixteen Candles, Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen and others. Young love, of course, has always been a major topic of popular music, but has there ever been as much focus on girls still in high school?

3. Male singers in that decade favored little-boy names. There was Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Lymon, Jimmy Reed, Jackie Wilson, Richie Valens, Johnny Mathis, Johnny Cash, Johnny Burnette. Bobby Darin, Bobby Freeman, Bobby Vee and numerous others. You might add to the list Little Richard, Little Anthony, Little Willie John and Little Walter.

4. Novelty songs were unusually popular. Every decade has its novelty tunes, of course. These are songs played just for laughs. My favorite novelty tune of all time has to be Junk Food Junkie from 1976. But in the Fifties these songs seemed to get radio play all the time. There was Charlie Brown by the Coasters, Christmas Don't Be Late by the Chipmunks, The Thing by Phil Harris, The Purple People Eater by Sheb Wooley, Monster Mash by Bobby Pickett and many others.

So yes, popular music changed in the 1960s. It matured, as did those who performed it.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Exploring Easter Island

Jennifer Vanderbes has several stories going on at once in her 2003 novel Easter Island.

1. Although Elsa, a young Englishwoman, loves a German man she has met, he has inconveniently returned to Germany and she doesn't know when, or even if, she will see him again. So she agrees to marry Edward, a middle-aged scientist, to provide security both for herself and her sister, Alice, who may be autistic and, whatever her condition, needs constant care. Edward, knowing Elsa would never abandon Alice, promises to take care of her, too. The year is 1912.

When Edward gets the chance to go to Easter Island for a long-term study of the Moai statues, he takes both Elsa and Alice with him. To have something to do other than watch over her sister, Elsa attempts to translate the inscriptions found on ancient stones on the island. Meanwhile, Alice develops a mind of her own.

2. In the 1970s a botanist named Greer Farraday, still recovering from the deceit by and death of her husband (he stole her research and claimed it as his own) goes to Easter Island to study the migration of plants from one part of the world to another.

3. Graf von Spee, a German admiral, commands a fleet of warships in the South Pacific when war is declared. Knowing he has little hope of getting his fleet safely back to Germany without being tracked down by Allied ships, he anchors off the coast of Easter Island. (This part of Vanderbes's novel is mostly true.)

4. Also true is the fourth story the author tells, that of the island itself. Along the way she conveys a great deal of information about Easter Island's human history, cultural history and scientific history, although much about this mysterious place remains mostly speculation. How did those massive statues get there? What happened to the trees that once stood on the island? Were they all used to move those stones into position?

Unfortunately these stories, although occasionally interesting in their own right, never really mesh. Those interested in scientific research or in Easter Island may find something fascinating here. Those who just want a good story should look elsewhere.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Happy birthday, boogie

A year ago I celebrated here the centennial of words coined in 1916. So now let’s do the same for words believed to have originated in 1917. Again I am using as my source There’s a Word for It by Sol Steinmetz.

The Great War in Europe was still raging, so some of the new words most likely sprang from that. I am thinking of airdrome, ammo, camouflage, enlistee, machine-gun, storm-troops and tailspin. Other words like Aussie, careerist, cootie, Doberman pinscher and takeover might also be war-related.

The Russian Revolution gave the English language a number of new words at this time: Bolshevism, Bolshevist, Leninist, Red Guard and Soviet.

New music of that generation produced such words as boogie, jazzbo and jazz up.

Increasing automobile traffic was probably responsible for jaywalker. The automobile may have had something to do with the words chauffeur, machinable, part-work, sideswipe, stainless steel and trade-in.

This was also the year that gave us ball hawk, blotto, chowhound, conk, earful, egg foo yung, emote, filthy, G-man, goofus, hokum, moronic, narcissist, package (used as a verb), pep pill, persona, pinpoint, Pollyanna, psych, soft-focus and even Technicolor.

It was quite a year for new words. Most of these I’ve mentioned remain in common usage.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Walking in sunshine

Sinners are more interesting than saints, or so most writers (and readers) of fiction believe. Alexander  McCall Smith disputes this notion in his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, in which an unusually good woman, Precious Ramotswe, holds our interest in novel after novel. She is the title character in The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, the 16th installment. Sunshine seems to follow her wherever she goes, even when she takes a well-deserved, if undesired, holiday.

The holiday is Grace Makutsi’s idea. The ambitious younger woman, who has tapped Mma Ramotswe’s generosity to advance all the way from secretary to co-director of the agency, persuades her to take a few days off. Mma Ramotswe suspects Mma Makutsi is more interested in running the business by herself for awhile, but when everyone else in the detective agency/auto garage encourages her to take time off, she agrees.

Soon it turns into a busman’s holiday, however, for she becomes involved in the life of a street boy who, to survive, has started his own little protection racket. Then she learns of a new case Mma Makutsi is working on that apparently has her overwhelmed. It involves a supposedly great man whose reputation is threatened with scandal after his death. Mma Ramotswe looks for answers without letting her associate know she is helping out.

McCall Smith gives his readers some surprises this time around, and in so doing proves that doing right isn’t the same thing as being right, or perhaps that even when walking in sunshine one can trip over a stone in the road.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Grace comes late

I'd have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Marilyn Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead takes the form of an old and dying pastor's letter to his young son, the product of his late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman. Yet the focus of the novel is another man's son, that of another old and dying pastor, his friend since childhood.

John Ames and the man he calls "Old Boughton" grew up together in Gilead, Kansas, and have stayed there all their lives, pastoring nearby churches. Boughton had his own son at a more typical age and named him after his friend, John Ames Boughton, called Jack. Yet Ames has never warmed to his namesake. Jack was a sneaky, thieving, mischievous boy, and adulthood hasn't brought much change in his character. What's more, Jack has always been an agnostic, skeptical of the faith both his father and his father's friend hold so dear. Now he has returned to Gilead, presumably because his father is dying, yet he seems to spend most of his time at the Ames house, befriending both Ames's wife and his little boy. Ames worries what might happen in these relationships after his death.

Yet Jack has problems of his own, problems he wishes to discuss with Ames, but the latter's coldness to him prevents the confidence and the confession he desires. Grace comes at last, both to Jack and to Ames. The letter to his son probably reveals more about himself than Ames intends, but someday when he's old enough to read and understand, the son may find grace, as well.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Why dust jackets?



There are those who regard dust jackets as little more than packaging. When they acquire a book, they discard the dust jacket as one might discard the box a bottle of cough syrup comes in, then place the product itself on the appropriate shelf.

At one time, this may have even been the sensible attitude toward dust jackets. Dust jackets have been around for only about a century. Before that books were published without them, and nobody felt shortchanged. Dust jackets came about as a marketing scheme, a way to put attractive illustrations, complimentary blurbs and summaries of the contents of that particular book and others to tempt book buyers. They were all about advertising, not dust. As Paul Collins points out in Sixpence House "If you store a book properly, standing up, then the jacket doesn't cover the one part of the book that is actually exposed to dust, which is the top of the pages. So a dust jacket is no such thing at all."

Because dust jackets were, in fact, just advertising wrappers and, because made of paper, easily worn and torn, most of them were thrown away by book owners, if not at first, then later. That means that old books with their dust jackets still intact are relatively rare, and thus became more valuable to collectors than the same books in the same condition without dust jackets. Today a rare book without its dust jacket is worth much less than one with a dust jacket. Even a ratty dust jacket can enhance the resale value of a good book.

Of course, most of the books we purchase will never be worth more than what we paid for them, with or without their dust jackets. Just the same, most of us now keep the dust jackets and try to keep them in good shape ... just in case.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Books nobody wants

Among the many banes to a secondhand dealer's existence, four unloved genres reign supreme: textbooks, theology, celebrity autobiography, and military history.
Paul Collins, Sixpence House

We buy textbooks only when we are taking certain classes and are required to buy them. When I was in college it seemed the required textbooks had often been written by the professors teaching my classes. I can understand why textbooks would be difficult for secondhand bookstores to sell, especially if the stores are not located in a college town and/or the books are no longer being used in any class.

As for theology or religious books of any kind, they do seem to get little attention in secondhand stores or used book sales. Titles by certain authors may be exceptions to the rule. I'm thinking of such people as C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Henri Nouwen.

Celebrity autobiographies don't sell well in secondhand stores because a) they are usually not well written and b) celebrities come and go. Some people might once have been eager to read a book by Pat Boone, for example. But who would be interested now? The same is true of political autobiographies. Even during the political campaign for which a book was written, few people wanted to read them. Later almost nobody does.

It's amazing to me how many books on military history are published each year, so somebody must read them. (I've read quite a few myself.) A shelf of military books in a secondhand store may get little attention, but to a certain reader, probably a man and probably a veteran,  it can be considered a goldmine.

Looking at the question from the perspective of a book buyer, rather than a bookseller, I could add other categories to this list. Take former bestsellers, for example. Most people who wanted to read a book like The Bridges of Madison County have already read it. Now there are countless copies of the novel out there and relatively few people interested in buying them. Most people want to read today's bestsellers, not yesterday's. I usually skip over such books very quickly when I am shopping. Sometimes there are exceptions, however. A couple of years ago I bought several secondhand books by Alistair MacLean, once a bestselling author, because I had neglected him at the time but was now interested in seeing what I had missed.

I ignore most self-help books when they are new, so naturally I ignore them when they are used, as well. Again there may be rare exceptions.

Finally there are self-published books. When you have to pay somebody to publish your book, you will probably have to pay somebody to read it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Literacy for peace

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else's thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person's vantage point.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Among the many reasons Steven Pinker gives in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature for the gradual decline of human violence over the centuries (see "The decline of violence," Nov. 13), one of the most important may be the spread of literacy. As more people learned to read and the printing of books and other materials increased, rates of violence gradually declined.

Harriet Beecher Stowe
Why might that be so? Pinker answers that question in the lines above: Reading almost anything gives us another person's point of view. There's an American proverb that goes something like, "Never criticize a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins." Reading puts us in those moccasins. Even if we still disagree with what writers are saying, we can at least see they have reasons for their viewpoints. Rational argument becomes a better response than fists or bullets.

Of course, books can sometimes lead to violence. Abraham Lincoln was not entirely joking when he said of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, that she was the "little woman who wrote the book that started the great war." Yet consider the impact books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird have had on race relations in the United States. Such books put white readers in the "moccasins" of black Americans. Other books help readers understand the points of view of American Indians, Asians, Moslems, Mormons, atheists, evangelical Christians, Republicans, Democrats or anyone else one might feel a compulsion to take up arms against.

Movies, television and now the Internet have broadened what Pinker calls the "technology for perspective-taking." Almost every day, through one means or another, most of us are exposed to how other people live, how they think, how they feel and what they believe. Sometimes this may make us angry, but rarely does it make us violent.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The decline of violence

The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

I have read enough history to agree with Steven Pinker's thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature that the trend of human existence has been toward less violence, less cruelty and more tolerance. Yet most people, aware of ongoing wars, global terrorism, mass shootings, the soaring murder rate in Chicago and the violent protests on certain college campuses whenever conservatives try to express an opinion might believe otherwise.

Pinker takes nearly 700 pages to make his case, and though he often strays from science into opinion, it is a sound one. War, if still commonplace, is not as common as it once was. Nor is the mistreatment of animals, the owning of slaves, the burning of witches, the torture of criminals, the spanking of children, the beating of wives or the persecution of minorities and, despite what has been taking place at those college campuses, those who hold unpopular points of view.

The reasons are many. For one thing, people everywhere seem to be getting smarter. IQs keep rising. Smart people are more likely to realize that violence may not be the smartest way to solve a problem. (Again those college protestors stand as a notable exception.)

Before the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, human rights were not something most people even thought about. Now, in much of the world at least, everyone thinks of and speaks of rights. You can't walk into a doctor's office without being told of your right of privacy. All those groups of people who once had few rights now have them written into law. Recognizing the rights of others has led to less violence. (And once again those college protestors are an exception to the rule.)

Stronger central government, a government with a license to put down violence with violence when necessary, has been vital to the pacification of the populace. When someone damages your car, you call the cops; you don't try to resolve the matter yourself with your fists or a gun.

Trade and international organizations, says Pinker, have made countries less inclined to go to war. Why invade a neighboring country when you are already getting what you want from it through trade?

Pinker develops these ideas, and others, in great detail, complete with graphs and illustrations. Much of what he says will surprise you, much will probably anger you. Whether or not he is correct on all points, I think he is right on the central one: Human beings are less prone to violence than we once were.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Battle of generations

Nancy Pickard's 2006 novel The Virgin of Small Plains threatens now and then to become a traditional murder mystery, a traditional romance or a traditional supernatural fantasy, but Pickard cleverly controls these impulses and instead gives us an original novel not so easy to place into any category.

Mitch Newquist and Abby Reynolds, the offspring of two the most prominent families in the small town of Small Plains, Kansas, are just teenagers in love when the story opens. Then Mitch witnesses something so shocking, so horrible that it forces, him into exile. What he sees involves the body of a dead girl and the actions of both Abby's father, a physician, and the sheriff, the father of their friend, Rex Shellberger. Hearing his story, Mitch's father, the judge, sends him away, telling him he must never return and never reveal what he witnessed.

Years later, following the death of his mother, Mitch, now a lawyer, does return. Rex has succeeded his father as county sheriff. Abby, in a dead-end affair with Rex's worthless brother, still pines for Mitch. The older generation remains steadfast, unwilling to talk about that dead girl or to tolerate any attempts to get at the truth of who she was or how she died.

Meanwhile, the dead girl has become something of a saint, her grave attracting pilgrims seeking healing. Many of them claim to have found it.

Pickard's twisty plot, a succession of surprises, comes down to generational battle, the young punished for the sins of their elders without understanding what those sins are or why they should suffer for them, their parents believing that some things, including that girl in the grave, should stay buried. The real miracle wrought by the Virgin of Small Plains is the power of truth revealed.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

In praise of stand-alone mysteries

Publishers like series mysteries because readers like them. Once we get to know and like a character or a group of characters, we want to read about the same characters in different situations. New characters can make it more difficult to get interested in new novels. Thus, when we go to the bookstore, most of us are more likely a purchase a book with characters we are already familiar with than a book from a different, untried series or a stand-alone book, even if it's by an author we have read before and liked.

Writers, however, can be of two minds about series mysteries. On the one hand, they can provide a steady income, or a growing income as the series gains in popularity. They also give an author a framework of characters with which to start each novel. Much of the work of writing a novel is already done because the major characters have already been created.

Elizabeth George
The downside is that series books tend to become formulaic. There can be less opportunity for creativity and originality. Some writers, such as Elizabeth George, combat this by creating a group of characters and sometimes switching the focus from one to another. Her books are usually thought of as Inspector Lynley novels, but sometimes her main character is Barbara Havers or Simon Allcourt St. James, the forensic pathologist. She has said that she originally intended St. James to be her main character until Thomas Lynley took over the lead role.

Another way mystery writers try to feed their creative impulses is to develop a new series of books, sometimes written under a different name. Some writers have several different series going on at the same time.

Another problem with a series of books is that it challenges credulity. How many times can an aging spinster like Jane Marple, living in a quiet English village, realistically become involved in a baffling murder mystery?

Some writers manage to break away from their series and write successful stand-alone novels. Laura Lippman is a prominent example. She made her name with her series of Tess Monaghan mysteries, but now she writes mostly stand-alones like I'd Know You Anywhere and Life Sentences. These books may have, if anything, expanded her audience.

All this brings me to Nancy Pickard, another writer who was able to break away from the series rut and write successful stand-alones. For years she had moderate success with her Jenny Cain mysteries and then her Marie Lightfoot mysteries. Then in 2006 she published The Virgin of Small Plains, a stand-alone novel set in her native Kansas. Since then she has written The Scent of Rain and Lightning, now a motion picture. She has expanded her readership, to me at least, and freed herself to create outside the box mandated by established characters and storylines. Perhaps I will review The Virgin of Small Plains next time.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bedtime reading

Many busy people get a chance to read only when they go to bed at night. What puzzles me is how busy people can stay awake to read anything once they hit the pillow. I've never been able to read more than a couple of pages before it's lights out.

Reading in bed can accomplish one of two things: either put one to sleep or keep one awake. I have never understood those who say a certain book kept them awake all night. Why read thrillers or edge-of-the-seat mysteries at bedtime? Isn't going to bed usually about going to sleep, not staying awake? Another poor bedside book would be something challenging that requires one's full focus, such as a textbook or a literary novel, unless falling asleep, not understanding what you are reading, is your main objective. I recently used a collection of poems by G.K. Chesterton as my nap time reading, one  or two poems a day. The poems helped me sleep, but I feel I shortchanged the poetry.

Clifford Fadiman
In his essay "Pillow Books," written in the 1950s, Clifton Fadiman argues that to use books to either put one to sleep or keep one awake is a misuse of those books. To read through the night "is to trespass upon nature," he says. But "dull books soothe only dull brains -- a moderately healthy mind will be irritated rather than rested by a dull book," he argues. He favors a middle ground, a book that is interesting but not too interesting, relaxing but not too relaxing.

To Fadiman, Anthony Trollope is the perfect author for bedtime reading. "He never fails to interest, but not too much; to sooth, but not too much," he writes. Reading Trollope, or any comparable author, one can turn off the light whenever one chooses. They are books one can easily put down, but which one will be eager to pick up again the following night.

As for me, I never read novels of any kind before sleep. For a time I tried reading short stories, but it could take me weeks, even months, to read a single story of moderate length, simply because of my inability to read more than a couple of pages a night. Most nights I am too tired to read anything at all. Besides I have always been able to find other times during the day to read, so I have never felt that bedtime was my only chance.

For my bedside table, I favor books with very short segments. Meditations can work if they don't require too much concentration. Better are books of quotations or light verse. I have long felt Ogden Nash to be the ideal writer for late at night, and I have one of his books beside my bed right now.

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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Girl becomes detective

Constance Kopp doesn't think of herself as a detective until the very end of Amy Stewart's engaging 2015 novel Girl Waits with Gun, and if not for messages conveyed by the title and cover drawing, readers wouldn't either for much of the book. Constance is an unusually tall, unmarried woman in her mid-30s who lives on a New Jersey farm with her two sisters, Norma and Fleurette. It's 1914. She just wants to collect the money she thinks she is owed by Henry Kaufman, a business owner, after he and his carousing friends damage the sisters' farm wagon with their car.

Kaufman doesn't think he should have to pay, even maintaining at one point that the horse and buggy ran into his car. Soon the sisters get threats, some delivered by bricks thrown through windows. The threats usually has to do with Fleurette, an alluring, overly-dramatic teenager. Constance will do anything to protect Fleurette, including learning how to use that gun mentioned in the title.

Meanwhile there's a girl whose baby boy, Kaufman's son, is missing, and an overworked sheriff who takes Constance's complaint seriously but is handcuffed by lack of evidence and the fact that Kaufman has a business (even if it is his sister who is actually running it.).

All this, a mostly true story, may not sound like enough plot to power a 400-page novel, especially one as compelling as this one, but Stewart keeps her focus more on character than plot, and her characters are wonderfully rich and always fascinating. Constance has a deep, dark secret. Steady Norma wants only to run a farm and raise her pigeons. Fleurette seems like a typical teenage girl, but then much, much more. These three, plus the sheriff and a few other characters, are sufficient to support the novel, as well as bring us back for the others in the series.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The making of a novelist

Graham Greene explains the odd title of his 1971 memoir of his youth, A Sort of Life, in its very first sentence: "An autobiography is only 'a sort of life' -- it may contain less errors of fact than a biography, but it is of necessity even more selective: it begins later and it ends prematurely."

The word selective certainly describes the great British novelist's attempt at autobiography. It begins with Greene's earliest memories from his childhood, and he seems to remember more than most of do from that period and seems to tell us everything he remembers. Later the selectivity begins. Certain individuals and incidents from his early life are singled out for mention, sometimes in great detail, while others are all but ignored. A notable example is the detail with which he describes his first love for a woman about a decade older than him, his siblings' governess, while barely mentioning the woman he later married or the child they had together.

To be sure, his severe depression after the governess left to get married contributed to his prolonged dependency on Russian roulette to snap him out of it. Apparently his wife led to nothing as dramatic, so was worth mentioning only in passing.

Other than the Russian roulette, easily the most mentioned part of A Sort of Life whenever the book is discussed, the book's significance lies in what it tells us about Greene's becoming a novelist. He wrote some early novels that went nowhere, while working for newspapers to pay the bills. Eventually The Man Within found a publisher in 1929. Lest you think "the rest is history," his struggles continued, and not until 1932 with the publication of Stamboul Train did he finally feel he had arrived, and there his memoir ends, with his most important works such as The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair still to come. Yet his experiences during these early years did find their way into some of those later novels, and these insights, too, make this memoir worth reading for Graham Greene admirers.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What make bestsellers?

The best books don't necessarily become bestsellers. That's easy enough to understand. Most of us most of the time don't look for great books when we go to a bookstore. We look for good books, books that will entertain us in the case of fiction or inform us in the case of nonfiction. Sometimes great books also happen to be good books, which is why Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird continue to sell many copies each year. And sometimes great books do work their way to the top of bestseller lists, as in the case of The Goldfinch a couple of years back.

But how do certain books become bestsellers when other, often better, books do not? We rarely buy books we have already read, unless as a replacement copy or as a gift. So we don't know ahead of time that we will like a book, or that we will even read it past the first few pages. So why are some books purchased more often than others? Here are some reasons that come to mind.

Publicity

Advertising sells books just like it sells anything else. A frequent complaint of authors is that their publishers spent little or nothing on publicity. Relatively few books manage to get ads in The New York Times Book Review or other publications, but those that do can benefit from them. Yesterday USA Today ran a quarter-page ad promoting a live video chat with Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush promoting their book Sisters First. Both the ad and the chat should help sell a few copies of the book, and in the book world, it really doesn't take that many copies to make a bestseller.

Promotion by the authors themselves

Ann Patchett signs one of her books.
In lieu of paid advertising, most publishers expect their authors to sell their own books. This is done by book signings at book stores, appearances at book fairs, talks to literary groups and video chats like the one mentioned above, among other things. Some authors are better at this than others. I've attended two speeches by novelist Ann Patchett, plus a panel discussion in which she was one of the panelists. She seems to do a lot of this, and I'm sure it sells a lot of books because of her big smile and warm personality. Not all writers are as effective in public, however, and they may sell fewer books as a result.

Track record

This reason may be most important. There are bestselling books, but there are also bestselling authors. These are those whose books repeatedly climb the bestseller lists. If you liked one book, you are likely to want to read other books by the same author. Thus, virtually anything written by Mary Higgins Clark, James Patterson, David Baldacci and others are all but certain to become bestsellers. They may even become bestsellers before they are even published on the basis of preorders.

Reviews

Good reviews can sell a few copies, and bad reviews may discourage some sales, but I doubt that book reviews are really that important in creating bestsellers, for the simple reason that few reviews are read by large numbers of people. What reviews can do, however, even if they are not actually read, is inform the public that certain books by certain authors have been published. If it's an author we like (see "Track record" above) that alone may send us running to the bookstore.

Covers

When authors don't have much of a track record on bestseller lists, a good cover illustration, a good title and some good blurbs from prominent individuals can help get them on those lists. I judge books by their covers all the time, and I'm sure others do, too.

Popularity

Most of us, some more than others, like to be in with the in-crowd, which is why fashions change and we change with fashions. Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature writes about an experiment done via a website in which subjects could download songs. When they could see which songs others had downloaded, people tended to download those same songs. If different songs were shown to be most popular, then those songs were most likely to be the ones downloaded.

So it goes with books. People buy books others are buying, which explains why once a book makes it to the bestseller list, it tends to stay there. Success begets more success. But sometimes even the perception that a book will become a bestseller, such as perhaps that book by the Bush sisters, may help it become a bestseller. Even better than being part of the crowd is being ahead of the crowd.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Rules for mysteries

In a used book shop in Akron a couple weeks back I found stacks of The Armchair Detective, a magazine published from 1967 to 1997 that was dedicated to mystery fiction. It contained a few original stories, but mostly the magazine carried interviews with authors, articles and reviews. I subscribed to the quarterly from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s. The first issue I received looked like it had been written on a typewriter and copied, the pages then stapled together. The only graphic elements in the magazine were an amateurish cover drawing and an ad for a California bookstore specializing in murder mysteries.

The quality of the publication improved with the very next issue and continued to improve over the years until it actually had a slick color cover and was bound with glue, not staples. Still, it was always a low-budget magazine, even though the subscription prices kept climbing and my own low budget eventually forced me to drop it. So finding copies of TAD, as it liked to called itself, in that Akron bookstore was a delightful surprise. Learning that they were giving the magazines away was even better news, and I left with an armload of copies from the quarterly's last few years.

One of the articles that has caught my attention so far is in the fall 1985 issue, or just a couple of issues after I let my subscription drop. It's called "The Whodunnit List" by Herbert Resnicow. The list is that mystery writer's 40 rules for whodunnits.

His first eight rules could apply to fiction of any kind. It must be entertaining, educational, internally consistent, etc. Not until rule 9 does Resnicow get down to whodunnits: "The crime must be murder." Most mystery writers do follow this "rule," although interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the pioneers of whodunnit fiction, usually did not. Most Sherlock Holmes stories did not deal with murder at all. Other exceptions include mysteries written for children, such as those Nancy Drew stories.

Rule 16 states, "The killer must be an amateur." One finds professional killers in thrillers, but rarely in detective stories, and probably for good reason. A good murder mystery gives us a number of suspects, any of whom may have had a reason to kill the victim. Such a group is unlikely to have a professional hitman in it. There could be somebody who would hire a killer, however.

One of the oddest rules is No. 25: "Red herrings, per se, are out. No person or clue may be introduced solely for the purpose of confusing the reader ..." I thought that's what all mystery writers did. The murderer usually winds up being the least likely suspect and the most important clue is usually the one not even noticed by the reader. So doesn't that make every other suspect and every other clue a red herring there "for the purpose of confusing the reader"?

I like rule 29: "Luck is OUT." Too many fictional detectives just get lucky at the end. Or killers reveal themselves by committing other murders or by doing something stupid that gives themselves away. I like detectives, whether amateurs or professionals, to actually do some detecting.

"All questions must be answered, none left hanging," says Resnicow in rule 31. That's why there is usually a chapter after the one in which the killer is revealed. The detective has to explain how he or she arrived at the right answer and how and why the crime was committed. Answering all questions is one reason whodunnits rarely, if ever, qualify as literature. Literature always leaves questions unanswered, something to talk about after the last page. There's not much to talk about after an Agatha Christie or Robert Barnard mystery. Although maybe I'm wrong. The Armchair Detective found plenty to talk about for 30 years.

Friday, October 20, 2017

A love triangle that works

Men feel lonely when they do not do the one thing they ought to do. It is only when we fully exercise our capacities -- when we grow -- that we have roots in the world and feel at home in it.
Eric Hoffer, Working and Thinking on the Waterfront

Eric Hoffer, writing in his journal in 1958, neatly summarizes the plot of Carrie Brown's novel Lamb in Love, written 40 years later. Actually, this describes the essence of quite a number of novels: a character steps out in faith from his or her confined, routine life and discovers life at its fullest and richest. Brown's beautiful 1999 novel seems particularly to fit, however.

Middle-aged Norris Lamb leads a quiet life as a postmaster in a small English village. Never married, he collects stamps and plays the organ on Sunday mornings. That's just about it. Then one night, as it happens the same night that Neil Armstrong walks on the moon, he happens to see Vida Stephen dancing naked in a garden. He has known Vida, now in her 40s, all her life, but only now does he fall in love with her. Never having been in love before, he has no idea what he "ought to do," and so he does it all wrong. What to him seems like a bold, if anonymous, declaration of love, his own "one small step for man,"  would, to most other people, seem more like stalking.

As for Vida, she became a nanny for baby named Manford as a young woman. Now more than two decades later, she remains Manford's nanny, for though his body has grown into that of a man, a very large man, his brain remains that of a small child. And he has never spoken, or as much as made a sound, in his life. Manford's mother is dead, and his wealthy father is an architect who is rarely home. Even when home, he remains distant from his son. So Vida, too, is ripe for love, or for just about anything that can break her out of her routine. She has not enjoyed a holiday, or as much as a day off, since she became Manford's caregiver.

Love triangles in fiction tend to be complications, obstacles to be overcome if they don't lead to tragedy first. In Brown's hands, this unusual love triangle helps all concerned to, in Hoffer's words, "have roots in  the world and feel at home in it." Manford loves Vida, but when Norris befriends him, giving him a male friend for the first time in his life, his life becomes richer and the creativity hidden inside him emerges in surprising ways. Norris loves Vida, but he probably has little chance of winning her until he also discovers his affection for Manford. Vida loves Manford, but hers is a narrow, confined life until introverted, awkward Norris opens doors for her.

In other hands, all this could easily turn into sentimental slop, but Brown manages it skillfully and artfully. Lamb in Love is a novel to be savored, sentence by sentence.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Doctors who write

Amit Majmudar
Amit Majmudar of Dublin, Ohio, was among the featured authors at the 2014 Ohioana Book Festival, where he participated in one of the panel discussions I attended. The following year he was named Ohio's poet laureate. Besides poetry, he has also written novels, including The Abundance, and a number of published articles and short stories. Most of the time, however, this writer is referred to as Dr. Majmudar, for he is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist.

Both a medical career and a writing career require a great deal of devotion, not to mention time and talent. Yet  Majmudar is hardly the only doctor to also become a successful writer. Nicholas A. Basbanes mentions a number of them in his book Every Book Its Reader.  Some may surprise you. John Keats became a licensed surgeon before turning his full attention to poetry. Anton Chekhov once called medicine his "legal wife," while referring to writing as his mistress, Today his medical practice is all but forgotten. His patients are all dead, while his short stories and plays live on.

Other writing doctors mentioned by Basbanes include John Locke, Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mikhail Bulgakov, W. Somerset Maugham and, more recently, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Michael Crichton and Ethan Canin.

Some doctors turned writers were not particularly successful doctors. Arthur Conan Doyle is one of these. He had few patients, which gave him plenty of time to write. Soon writing proved much more profitable than medicine.

Basbanes doesn't even mention A.J. Cronin, who had a thriving medical practice in London before developing an ulcer. His own doctor advised rest, and it was during his time off that he wrote a novel, which became a bestseller. He preferred writing, which was also less stressful, and he soon gave up medicine.

Other doctors who became famous as writers include William Carlos Williams, Robin Cook, Walker Percy, Khaled Hosseini, Abraham Verghese, Tess Gerritsen and dozens of others whose names are less recognizable. Gertrude Stein dropped out of medical school or she could be added to the list.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that highly intelligent people should be able to succeed in more than one arena. Yet somehow it just doesn't seem fair.

Monday, October 16, 2017

What to name the carpet

Finding myself waiting in a carpet store recently, I killed time looking at carpet samples. It is a huge store, but I stood in one spot for several minutes and examined scores of little squares, each different even if only marginally so. What struck me were their names.

Some of these names were suggestive of color or pattern: Graham Cracker, Pecan, Oat Meal, Speckled Doe, Aspen, Morning Tea, Wheat Field, Georgia Clay and Rawhide, for example. Others gave no clue at all as to what the carpet might look like: Delicate, Bird's Nest, Jet Set, Cannon, Wishing Well, Leather Strap, Kitten Whisper, Bride to Be, Fossil, Moose Antler, Angel Wings, Caviar, Swap, Poem, Bashful, Tahiti, Birdhouse, Fence Post, Sea Bean, Vigor.

Perhaps most curious of all were those with names like Vintage, Traditional and Natural. These names suggest there should be something familiar about them. Yet the patterns, frankly, were hardly distinguishable from those next to them.

Most of the names could have been assigned randomly, and perhaps they were. How, I wondered, do carpets get their names? Whose job is it to select an original name for each new carpet pattern? And how do manufacturers and dealers keep them all straight? Numbers, of course. Each carpet pattern has a number for official use, but names like Kitten Whisper and Georgia Clay are more likely to please the customer. Wouldn't you rather walk on Angel Wings than GR3877614?

Paint manufacturers must face the same difficulty. How does one find the right name for each shade of blue or brown? A quick web search turned up, from just one manufacturer, Linen Pink, Southern Belle Pink, Peppermint Pink, Terra Cotta Pink, Shell Pink, Italian Pink and Zephyr Pink. None of these should be confused with Dixie Dawn or Cameo Rose, both of which look pink to me.

Whosever job it is to think up these names, I'm glad it isn't mine. I recall the great difficulty my wife and I had finding the perfect name for our baby all those years ago. That's not the reason we stopped at just one child, but it would have sufficed.

Friday, October 13, 2017

More on reporters

Stanley Walker (1898-1962) was born and raised in Texas, but he made his name as a New York City newspaperman, the editor of the New York Herald Tribune for many years. He was also the author of City Editor, a best-selling book about the newspaper business published in 1934. Much of what he says about newspaper reporters, as I noted last time, is still interesting, and much of it is still relevant. Here are some more examples:

The job of reporter has heartwarming compensations. Sometimes it pays a living wage. Sometimes it is "a stepping stone to better things." Again it is a satisfying career in itself.

Employees in any field often get promoted "to the level of their incompetence," as the Peter Principle states, and this is especially true of reporters. Editors of all sorts normally get promoted out of the reporting ranks, but good reporters don't necessarily make good editors. A higher salary, rather than a promotion (with a higher salary) might be a better way to reward outstanding reporters. Some reporters never get promoted, and they may like it this way for, as Walker states, it can be "a satisfying career" with "heartwarming compensations."

No business on earth calls for more thought, or, to the pious, prayer.

This seems like a stretch to me, for surely there are many other businesses that stir one to both deep thought and prayer. Still Walker has a point. Reporting the news requires a commitment to truth and objectivity, as well as an appreciation that the stories one writes directly impact the lives of real people. The difficulty for reporters has always been that newspaper deadlines allow little time for either thought or prayer.

Women, wampum and wrongdoing are always news.

In other words, sex, money and sin. No argument there.

Of the four who wrote of Jesus, John was the only one who showed signs of being a lively, inquisitive reporter. He wanted to know things, and he asked about them.

I would compare John more to an op-ed columnist. Matthew, Mark and Luke reported the news, or the Good News, while John added insightful commentary.

There have been heartbreaking instances of this metamorphosis from plain reporter to hoity-toity specialist.... Somehow, however, the news is handled, usually by working reporters who take all news in their stride and do not fancy themselves pampered specialists.

Walker's strong feelings about beat reporters are hard for me to understand, for I was a reporter at a time when most reporters were specialists. I was the city hall reporter, and it was my job to cultivate  sources there in the city building and to know anything of importance that might be going on. I spent part of every morning and every afternoon talking with those who worked in that building. This would be impossible for a general assignment reporter to do, if that reporter also had to know everything going on in the county courthouse, the police department, etc. Yet in recent years, because of severe budget cuts and reporter layoffs, many newspapers have eliminated beats. Those few reporters they have are responsible for everything. Somehow I doubt Walker would have been any more pleased with this development than I am.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

An ode to reporters

Stanley Walker
Although rarely read today, Stanley Walker's City Editor, published in 1934, was once a popular source of information about newspapers, especially New York City newspapers. The copy I found at a used book sale a few years ago was part of the 13th printing, published in 1938. I was drawn to the book not just because my own career was devoted to newspaper journalism but also because of the name of the previous owner inside the front cover: "Virgil A. Stanfield, Sept. 1938."

Stanfield, or Stan as he was known informally, was associate editor of The News Journal in Mansfield, Ohio, when I was hired as a reporter in 1968. That was mostly an honorary title, for Stan, once the managing editor, by then had little to do with the day-to-day management of the newsroom. He distributed the mail and wrote an occasional editorial, but mainly he wrote a column and a Sunday piece about local history. He officially retired at some point, and I can remember his retirement party, but he kept his desk at the paper and wrote his history column right up until his death. He used an old Royal typewriter after staff members had moved on to electric typewriters and then to computers. He showed up for work more regularly than most of us who were paid to be there and had an opinion on everything, which he was willing to share with anyone who stopped by his desk.

I have started reading Walker's book, and although it describes a world barely recognizable today, I find much of it fascinating. Of particular interest is what he says about reporters. Although I was a reporter for only a few years at the start of my career, I was surprised at my own retirement party that most of the comments made about me had to do with my performance as a reporter, not with anything I did in the later stages of my career. This may suggest that reporting, more than any other part of the business, is central to newspapers. The editors, printers, ad reps, circulation staff and everyone else just serve supporting roles. And for all the changes in technology over the decades, the job has changed relatively little.

Most of what Walker says about reporters comes in a chapter called "Notes on a Noble Calling," which sums up nicely how he feels about them. He disputes the notion, fed by movies, that reporters are a hard-drinking, disreputable bunch of characters who will do anything for a story. He writes that if reporters from any newspaper were placed at the same dinner table as "the board of governors of the Racquet and Tennis Club" the contrast would favor the reporters. The others, he says, would be "lacking a certain urbanity and zip."

I don't know that this would be true with all reporters and all boards of governors. Reporters, in my experience, are as varied as other segments of the populations. Some are introverts who, though they might be terrific at their jobs, show little zip in dinner conversation. Some are slobs, while others are as sharply dressed as anyone you'll meet. I worked with two reporters, a man and a woman, who every day looked like models for GQ or Vogue. I rarely saw the woman wear the same outfit twice, and she wore heels even when covering crimes and traffic accidents in snowstorms. The young man always wore a nicely tailored suit and tie, even after other reporters were celebrating casual Friday five days a week.

Yet however they look and whatever their personalities, reporters keep their jobs because of their intelligence and their commitment to truth. So maybe they really would outshine any board of governors.

I'll share more about what Stanley Walker says about reporters in may next post.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Freud the fraud

It is this passion for the sharp edges of truth that makes Freud a hero.
Alfred Kazin, "Sigmund Freud, 1856-1956: Portrait of a Hero," Contemporaries

When literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote about The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud by Ernest Jones in 1956, words like truth and hero were not uncommon when Freud was under discussion. He was widely regarded as one of the greatest men in history.  The decades since, however, have seen an erosion of that reputation as letters and other documents that Jones, a Freud disciple, and Freud's daughter, Anna, tried to keep hidden gradually came to light. Now in 2017 comes Freud: The Making of an Illusion in which Frederick Crews shows that the famed psychoanalyst was anything but a hero and truth was the last thing he was interested in.

This book, less a biography than an expose´,  has little positive to say about Sigmund Freud, which may be its greatest flaw, for it suggests that Crews, like Jones, has an agenda.

Freud attended medical school even though he recoiled at the sight of blood and couldn't stand to touch patients. (Crews shows repeatedly that Freud was more a mental case than any of his later patients who came to him with psychological problems.) So the young doctor turned to research and then to problems of the mind. In whatever he tried, fame and fortune, not the welfare of his patients, were his major goals.

His practice of manufacturing data to fit his thesis in scientific papers began early. As a young doctor he saw cocaine as miracle cure, and he used it himself for much of his life. He wrote a paper about how cocaine cured a patient's addiction to morphine. What he didn't say was that not only didn't the treatment cure the morphine addiction, but it led to addiction to cocaine as well. Nevertheless he continued to suggest cocaine to patients.

Easy answers to difficult problems continued to be Freud's practice. For awhile he regarded every patient's complaint as a symptom of hysteria. Then he decided all his patients were sexually abused as children, probably by their fathers. Later he concluded they had all, since childhood, desired to have sex with their mothers or fathers. He told his own daughter this.

As with his cocaine paper, Freud often fudged his findings. He would write that his conclusions were based on many case studies even when there was just one case, and often that one case was himself. He never had many patients because most patients soon realized they were wasting their money going to him. Besides he was interested only in wealthy patients, and there were relatively few of them. Freud always changed the names of his patients in his books, not to protect them but to protect himself.

Crews says Freud was a Sherlock Holmes fan and that he modeled his case studies on Holmes stories, with himself as the hero, of course.

The author piles on the incriminating evidence against Freud. Will he succeed in destroying his reputation? I doubt it, for the illusion of greatness created by Jones, Anna Freud and Sigmund Freud himself remains strong. Most of what one reads and hears about Freud today continues to be positive. But that reputation is gradually deteriorating, and this book will help it along.