Friday, June 23, 2017

New beginnings

Every second can mark a new beginning. Open your eyes and see: the world is out there and it wants you.
Nina George, The Little French Bistro

Memorize those lines from the middle of Nina George's The Little French Bistro and perhaps you can save yourself the trouble of reading this novel, which really isn't very good. All the book's wisdom is right there. The rest is just illustration and is less inspiring than you might think for a story about people remaking their lives.

The main character is Marianne, a 60-year-old German woman stuck in an unhappy marriage for most of her life. She runs away to Paris, planning to drown herself in the Seine. Rescued, she is put in a hospital, from which she escapes. Having seen an artist's rendering of the city of Kerdruc in Brittany, she decides to go there to complete her mission, that of killing herself.

Once in Kerduc, she encounters people who start transforming her into a new woman, one who is beautiful and admired and who has a place in the world, working in that little French bistro for a start. What's more, she meets and falls in love with that French artist whose work drew her to Kerdruc in the first place.

Meanwhile, other characters find their lives made over, as well. For a time the novel reads like a French version of the British movie Love Actually in which everybody finds love with somebody else. But then Marianne's husband, Lothar, tracks her down, and she must decide if the new Marianne can survive resuming life with the old Lothar.

The novel has its moments, but mostly it feels manufactured rather than authentic.

Readers may think The Little French Bistro is a sequel to The Little Paris Bookshop. In truth it is more the other way around. Bookshop was first published in Germany in 2013, with the English translation, which became a bestseller, appearing in 2015. Bistro appeared first in Germany in 2010, and the English version was published this month on the heels of Bookshop's success.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is it still funny?

I reread Three Men in a Boat recently and it wasn't funny at all -- well, the bit where they get lost in Hampton Court was, though not quite as funny as it used to be.
Susan Hill, Howard's End Is on the Landing

When I read Three Men in a Boat a few years ago, I didn't think it was funny at all, though my whole reason for reading it was that I had seen it mentioned several times as a British humor classic. Susan Hill thought it funny the first time she read it, but not the second time years later. Humor, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder, and each beholder's idea of what's funny changes over time. And each generation laughs a little differently at different things. It's probably no wonder that Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889, doesn't seem as witty as it once did.

Yet Hill notes that the books of P.G. Wodehouse remain funny today, even a century after some of them were written. Why has his humor held up, while that of other writers has fallen flat with time? (To be fair, Wodehouse has never been funny to some readers, both a hundred years ago and today.)

I have in my library a number of books by humorists popular around the middle of the 20th century. How does their humor hold up in the second decade of the 21st century? To get some idea, I decided to read short excerpts from some of these books and try to determine if, at least in the eye of one beholder, they are still funny.

Robert Benchley
Robert Benchley (1889-1945) was a well-know humorist in his day. In addition to his magazine pieces, he also had a radio show and appeared in a number of movies, including Foreign Correspondent. The book I own is Chips Off the Old Benchley (1949), which collects articles he wrote for The New Yorker and other publications, mostly in the 1930s. I read the last essay in the book called "Why Does Nobody Collect Me?" and found it very amusing. One can imagine Dave Barry or some other more recent humorist writing something similar about the fact that while books by certain other writers are considered highly collectible, their own books are practically worthless.

James Thurber (1894-1961) was a contemporary of Benchley, and a rival since they both sold pieces to the same publications and appealed to the same readers. I read "My Own Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage" from Thurber Country (1953). Some of Thurber's comments about the eternal battle of the sexes might raise a few eyebrows in 2017, since some attitudes have changed a great deal over the decades, yet the piece remains witty.

Richard Armour (1906-1989) was a favorite of mine in the 1960s, and I confess I still find him funny.  I read his brief biography of Herman Melville in his 1960 book The Classics Reclassified. It has lines like this: "Melville was treated kindly by the cannibals and would have been pleased with the way he was plied with coconuts and papayas had he not noticed that Thanksgiving was approaching." That's as funny now as it was when I was in high school.

Sam Levenson (1911-1980) was a teacher who became a writer and then a television star. He was roasted at the very first New York Friars' Club roast in 1950. I read the chapter "Wedded Blitz" from his book You Don't Have to be in Who's Who to Know What's What (1979). As with Thurber on the same subject, some of Levenson's material might strike some people as insensitive today, but still most of it is funny. It has lines like, "Alone can be very lonely, especially if you have nobody to tell it to. Apparently the time had come for God to approach Adam with, 'Have I got a nice girl for you'!"

Art Buchwald
Art Buchwald (1925-2007) wrote a popular column of humorous commentary for the Washington Post for many years, and he even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. From his collection of columns I Never Danced at the White House (1973), I read one called "Inspector Columbo at the White House," published during the Watergate investigation. It imagines TV detective Columbo interviewing suspects at the White House. It happened that I had watched two Columbo episodes the night before I read this piece, so I found this very funny. Yet this is probably the most dated of all the excerpts I read simply because it was so topical. If you are too young to remember Columbo or don't know who H.R. Haldeman or Martha Mitchell were, you probably wouldn't find this amusing at all. Topical humor doesn't age well, as you can tell from Johnny Carson's monologues on Tonight Show reruns.

Erna Bombeck (1927-1996), like Buchwald, wrote a popular syndicated column for many years. I read the first few pages of her book The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank (1976) about her family's move to the suburbs. Because the lots in the Diamond, Ruby, Pearl and Zircon sections of the development are all taken, they settle for the Frankly Fake section. I don't find her exaggeration-based humor funny at all now, but I don't recall liking back in the 1970s either.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Novelty in novels

There is a certain kind of writer who seems to feel that unless he is breaking apart everything that came before him, composing something that in his own view is astonishingly new, he is not writing great literature. ... Writers like this have given novelty a bad name.
Wendy Lesser, Why I Read

Every novel is, by definition, novel. Even the worst of novels are, to some extent, new and original. They are inventions, creations, the stuff of thought. No two are alike. Yet some novels seem more inventive or creative than others. But does this make them better? Not necessarily, Wendy Lesser argues in her book Why I Read.

Pages from The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Sometimes novelty in novels manifests itself graphically. Photographs or drawings can be inserted as illustrations, the way William Boyd does in Sweet Caress or Umberto Eco does in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The first pages of chapters in Alix Christie's Gutenberg's Apprentice use graphic elements common at the time Gutenberg's Bible was printed, although this may have been the publisher's decision rather than the author's.

More commonly novelty shows up in the prose itself, and this can be more problematic. Sometimes the inventiveness works, and sometimes it doesn't.

We can find countless examples of this from as far back as the earliest novels. Lesser discusses Don Quixote in this context, for example. Or we might think of the way Herman Melville inserts informational chapters about whales and whaling periodically in Moby-Dick or the way William Faulkner strings thoughts together into single convoluted sentences in The Bear. More recently Rabih Alameddine wrote I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters. It is about a woman who tries to write a book about her life, but abandons each attempt after the first chapter. Yet taken together, these first chapters tell the whole story. Or consider The Luminaries, a novel reviewed here last week, in which Eleanor Catton gives us a sense of accelerated action, like a chase at the end of a movie, by gradually shrinking chapters at the end of the novel and revealing less and less detail. She makes the end of the story, actually its beginning, seem more exciting than it actually is.

Yet such novelty works only if it helps to tell the story. It is the story, after all, that matters. As Lesser puts it, "This is the paradox that lies behind formal inventiveness: you can only achieve an exemplary kind of novelty if it is not, primarily, what you are trying to achieve." Novelty must be the means to an end, not the end itself. Only the readers themselves can decide whether the novelty works, or if it is just novelty for its own sake.

Wendy Lesser's prime example of writers who "have given novelty a bad name" may surprise many. That's because James Joyce is widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists in the English language, and his Ulysses has repeatedly been ranked as the best novel of its century. Lesser thinks these critics are judging style over substance. She rates Dubliners and Portrait of then Artist as a Young Man as Joyce's better works of fiction. In Ulysses and especially Finnegans Wake, she argues, Joyce was just showing off.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The conversation of children

Children do not converse. They say things. They ask, they tell, and they talk, but they know nothing of one of the great joys in life, conversation.
Charles M. Schulz, You Don't Look 35, Charlie Brown!

Charles Schulz, of course, made a very successful living with a comic strip, Peanuts, featuring children engaged in conversation. That was where the humor lay. No reader ever believed that children of that age really stood around and talked about things like theology (Linus), Beethoven (Schroeder) or even baseball (Charlie Brown). That, like a dog who imagined himself a World War I flying ace, was fanciful and, thus funny.

In a collection of Peanuts strips published in 1985 called You Don't Look 35, Charlie Brown!, Schulz goes on to say, "Then, along about twelve, give or take a year on either side, two young people sitting on their bicycles near a front porch on a summer evening begin to talk about others that they know, and conversation is discovered. Some confuse conversation with talking, of course, and go on for the rest of their lives, never stopping, boring others with meaningless chatter and complaints. But real conversation includes making questions, and asking the right questions before it is too late."

I believe children learn to converse long before age 12 in most cases, but Schulz was right in saying that it is a skill that takes time to develop. And some people never develop it. Either they just talk and expect others to listen, or they just listen because they can think of nothing to contribute, at least not until after the conversation is over. I count myself among the latter.

I wrote a post a few days back called "Accidental memoirs" in which I said writers sometimes write their memoirs when they think they are writing something else. For Schulz, his comic strip was his memoir, a record of his own life told through the stories of conversing little children. His 1985 book was also a memoir. Groups of panels are preceded by a few paragraphs from Schulz about incidents in his life that inspired them. The lines above come from a page about a time in which the cartoonist was invited to speak to school children. He writes that he didn't know what he was going to say until he stood up and told them the importance of asking their parents questions about their lives.

"Don't stop until you have learned something about your father's first job or your mother's early dreams," he says he told them. "It will take energy but it all be infinitely worthwhile, and it must be done now. It must be done before it is too late." The pages that follow are filled with panels showing Charlie Brown and the gang talking about their parents and what they have learned about them. The last one in the series is one that ran on a Father's Day. It shows Lucy bragging about her dad, saying he has more credit cards, etc., than Charlie Brown's dad. Then Charlie Brown then tells her about going into his dad's barber shop. "I can go in there anytime, and no matter how busy he is, he'll always stop, and give me a big smile ... and you know why? Because he likes me, that's why!"

Charlie Brown's memory was also that of Charles Schulz, who knew the importance of asking questions but also that there are some important things you know without having to ask.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Hard to hold, hard to put down

Eleanor Catton's massive 2013 novel The Luminaries manages to be both hard to hold for long and hard to put down. Set in New Zealand in 1865 and 1866, the novel blends a Victorian style of storytelling with a modern, nonlinear style of storytelling.

The story itself involves mysterious deaths, stolen treasure, missing people and lives gone astray. Catton's novel has so many characters that there may be no true protagonist. Yet four characters most hold our attention. Anna Wetherall is an alluring young woman forced into both prostitution and opium addiction. Emery Staines is a young man even more innocent and gullible than Anna, whom he loves. Francis Carver, though he actually appears very little in the book, is nevertheless always in the immediate background, the cause, along with Lydia Wells Carver, of much of the harm that comes to others in the story.

The narrative begins in the middle of the story, when several men in Hokitika, a gold-mining town, meet secretly to talk about what has been going on and what should be done about it. One of these men is Walter Moody, a newcomer to town who eventually represents both Wetherall and Staines when they, not the Carvers, are taken to court. These trials all but end the story, but then Catton takes us back to the beginning to show us what really happened, although even then leaving huge questions unanswered.

Early chapters are long, detailed and proceed at a leisurely pace, yet gradually Catton speeds up the pace as chapters get shorter and shorter and tell us less and less. She gives her novel an astrological structure with 12 parts, one for each sign, and chapters with titles like "Jupiter in Capricorn" and "Mars in Aquarius." Yet, thankfully, the story itself has little to do with astrology, except perhaps in Catton's mind. The real message of the novel is not that we are influenced by the stars. Rather we are influenced, for good or ill, by the actions of other people, many other people. And, as in the novel, none of us is the main character.

Monday, June 12, 2017

When writers write back, part 2

William F. Buckley Jr.
"Thanks for your bittersweet review," William F. Buckley Jr. wrote to me in a letter dated Feb. 23, 1979. His letter, written on National Review stationery ("Dictated in Switzerland. Transcribed in New York," it says at the top), was in response to my review of his book A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts, which appeared on Jan. 28.

I thought bittersweet to be a good choice of words, for my review had, in fact, been full of both high praise and sharp criticism. His letter, too, was bittersweet, concluding as it did with the words, "Thanks for your encouragement," as if my humble review in a relatively small newspaper could somehow encourage one of the great political commentators of his generation.

The main thrust of his letter, however, had to do with my complaint that some of the columns reprinted in his book seemed dated, specifically one about Ronald Reagan's choice of a running mate in 1976. "For your information -- and maybe I should make this plain in an introduction in a future collection," he wrote, "I attempt to republish pieces that are essential to a narrative -- in the case you cite, the big event between the primaries and the convention was Reagan's designation of Schweiker for VP. If I had left it out I would not in my opinion have adequately told the political story of 1976." I am sure Buckley was right. Old newspaper columns become part of the historical record, and who was I to say that history is dated?

Steve Allen
Another letter from a very prominent author was dated Jan. 27, 1994. Steve Allen, who had long been one of my favorite television personalities, had sent his complaint not to me but to my editor. You always know you're in trouble when someone with a complaint goes directly over your head without first giving you a chance to respond. Such a complaint, from another prominent individual, once nearly got me fired. This time, however, the blow was softened considerably by a note from Allen's secretary that accompanied his letter. (The letter actually was signed by his assistant, but had been dictated by Allen.)

Besides being a TV star, Allen was a prolific writer, and I had reviewed his book Make 'Em Laugh, supposedly a guide for comedy writers. I had written that the book "comes across more as bragging than instruction." Allen ignored this dig, but was incensed that I wrote, "Allen accuses Johnny Carson of stealing much of his material from Allen, Jonathan Winters and others. Allen says Carson has 'the worst reputation in the field of comedy.'"

To this Allen said, "Mr. Allen has never made any such assertion, either in print or speech. For whatever the point is worth, it is his personal opinion that Mr. Carson has a very good reputation indeed in the field of comedy.

"There is, however, one specific regard in which Carson's reputation is low, among his peers, and that is as regards the narrow question of plagiarism: the use of other comedians' material." I thought that is what I had written, but Allen apparently read my quote from his book as being more broadly interpreted than either he or I intended.

The hand-written note from his assistant, Karen Hicks, says as much. "Between you and me," she wrote, "the quote was obviously referring to Johnny's reputation for plagiarism. This letter was dictated by Mr. Allen under (sic) my signature. Apparently he wants it made very clear that except in this one area he has nothing bad to say about Johnny."

The worst part of this exchange, from my perspective, was that Steve Allen didn't sign his letter, so I don't have his autograph.

Friday, June 9, 2017

When writers write back

Authors seem to be of two minds about those who review their books. On the one hand they realize that a good review, or even any review, can spur sales of a book. It's like free advertising. Yet critics can often be critical, failing to appreciate the work these authors may have invested years of their lives in producing. Negative reviews have to hurt.

When I reviewed books for The News Journal of Mansfield, Ohio, from 1972 to 2010, the standard practice was to send two copies of each review to the publisher. One of these copies would then be sent on to the book's author. Rarely did an author ever acknowledge my reviews, but on rare occasions that did happen, and I have kept most of these letters. I will share some of them.

Among the earliest letters I received was from Jack Douglas in March, 1973. Douglas had been a comedy writer for the likes of Bob Hope, George Gobel, Laugh-In and a variety of other radio and TV shows. He was a frequent guest on The Jack Parr Show, which is where I first heard about him. He also wrote humorous memoirs, one of which, The Jewish-Japanese Sex & Cookbook and How to Raise Wolves, is the book I reviewed. He had married a Japanese woman, Reiko, which helps explain the title. He said my review "helped to make my year" and went on to say that he and Reiko had purchased a hotel in Maine. "I'll either get a good book out of it or burn it down for the insurance," he added. That book he later called Benedict Arnold Slept Here.

Three years later I received one of the most generous responses to a review ever sent to me. It came from Rene Jordan, author of an early Barbra Streisand biography called The Greatest Star. His first order of business was to apologize for that title, which he said was his publisher's idea. He wanted to call it A Portrait of Barbra. Jordan said that most of the reviews of his book had focused on its juicy gossip, or lack of same. "When I read your review," he wrote, "I felt someone had at last understood what I basically had set out to create: a critical analysis of a specific performance at a particular point in her life." This surprised me, for I didn't think my review had been all that positive. He concluded, "And when you find that kind of insightful and responsive review, you should let him know."

Evan H. Rhodes, author of a fine novel called The Prince of Central Park, sent a hand-written note in which he said, "I know of no greater reward for a writer than to be so beautifully interpreted by a peer."

Robert R. McCammon
I am not a fan of horror novels, but I did review Robert R. McCammon's Usher Passing. I don't recall what I said about it, but I know I didn't like the novel well enough to keep it. (Although I enjoyed his Boy's Life and Gone South very much.) His letter, dated May 14, 1985, simply expressed his appreciation for my review and apologized for his late acknowledgement of that review.

After retiring from auto racing, Sam Posey became interested in model railroads and wrote a terrific book about his new passion called Playing with Trains in 2004. I interviewed him by phone and packaged that interview with my review of the book. "I'm flattered and thrilled," he wrote in an email. I had mentioned that Posey had raced at Mid-Ohio, a track near Mansfield. He said, "Your mention of Mid Ohio brought back happy memories. I won there in 1972 when I beat David Hobbs in a Formula 500 race."

Perhaps the longest letter from an author I ever received was from Edward Frey, who wrote a somewhat obscure book called To Please a Chinese Wife. He dissected my review in detail, taking exception to just one point I made. The most surprising thing he wrote was that three readers had sent him copies of my review.

Don't get the idea that authors have always received my reviews with grace and thanksgiving. I will mention some notable exceptions next time.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Literature, as viewed 100 years ago

I want to return once again to the New Century Book of Facts, which a hundred years ago was a popular one-volume reference book. It was the equivalent of what the World Almanac became later in the 20th century and what Wikipedia is today. This time I will mention some things that caught my eye as I leafed through the section of the book devoted to literature.

There is quite a bit about literature in the Grammar chapter of the book, as I mentioned last time, and many pages of the Biography chapter are devoted to writers, but the Literature chapter gives 115 small-print pages to literature alone. One finds a summary of the literature from many of the world's nations, a summary of plots from many great literary works, a dictionary of pseudonyms, a dictionary of mythology, book reviews and a list of suggested books for a family library, among other things.

George Eliot
Of particular interest to me is what the book's editors have to say about certain writers, and how their assessments jive with how those same writers are viewed today. About George Eliot, for example, the book says her Scenes from Clerical Life is "considered by some critics her masterpiece." Yet the Wikipedia article about this early book of stories by Eliot says it "has been interpreted mainly in relation to Eliot's later works." I don't recall ever even seeing a copy of Scenes from Clerical Life, while novels like Middlemarch, Adam Bede and Silas Marner are easy to find and still highly regarded.

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is called "the only truly literary classic which America produced before the nineteenth century." In the American literature classes I took in college, Franklin's book was the only thing we studied from before 1800, so perhaps this opinion still holds. As for the early 19th century, "the very names of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Poe mark this era as the most important in American literature." This was written early in the 20th century, but it is conceivable that that opinion remains valid.

The reference book lumps Herman Melville with Richard Henry Dana Jr. as "writers of our best books of adventure." I suppose Moby-Dick can be viewed as an adventure story, but it seems much more than that today. Mark Twain is barely mentioned, except as "probably the one American writer who enjoys a world-wide fame." There is no mention of anything he wrote. (There is much more about Twain in the Biography section.) Meanwhile the book mentions Edward Eggleston, George W. Cable, Mary Noailles Murfee and Harold Frederic, among other writers of the same era who are rarely read today and whose names few of us even recognize.



Monday, June 5, 2017

Grammar via literature

As I noted last time, the all-purpose reference book New Century Book of Facts, published early in the 20th century and reprinted for years thereafter, has both a section on language and one on grammar. The second reads like a continuation of the first. Skimming through this second chapter I found a few things worth a comment.

1. This section has much to say about literature, even though literature is the topic of yet another chapter in the book. That is because the authors argue literature is an effective way to teach good grammar. Learn from the best, in other words. Yet one can have good literature without good grammar, such as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the stories of Ring Lardner. Sometimes, too, the grammar found in great literary works, especially very old ones, may not be the grammar educators want to teach. William Shakespeare was known to use double negatives, for example.

2. "No childish life is complete without a love of poetry," the authors say. Children may eventually come to dislike poetry, but when very young they love nursery rhymes and other simple poetry. We remember some of these poems for the rest of our lives. "Rhythm always charms the ear and makes the blood quicken in our veins," they write. We don't lose our love of rhythm and rhyme as we age, so why do most of us lose our love of poetry? To be sure, modern poetry is less about rhythm and rhyme than it once was, but that change in poetic style was only beginning at the time this book was first published. Whatever our age, most of us love the rhythm and rhyme of the poetry in songs. It's just the poetry on the printed page that loses its audience as that audience matures.

3. This book states, "Yet the race began literature on this earth with poetry, and good poems existed long before good prose, so far as our historical records and legends testify." So is this true? Did good poetry really come before good prose? Certainly there were epic poems long before the first novel, but what about other kinds of prose? Might not good stories have been told around fires before those same stories were put into verse?

4. This reference book lists nine things related to reading and writing that a child should learn before entering the upper grades in school. Some of these, like being able to answer questions simply and directly and being able to recognize common words seem obvious enough. But then there is No. 7: "To recognize good from bad literature." That seems a bit ambitious. How many of us long past school days are always capable of distinguishing good literature from bad? Isn't this something literary experts argue about?

5. Finally this chapter on grammar devotes six pages to diagraming sentences. Imagine that. A sentence diagram, it says, "is something like a bird's-eye view of a sentence." That strikes me as a good line, but do we really need a bird's-eye view of a sentence? I never understood the point of diagraming sentences when I was in school, and I still don't.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Old facts

Cleaning off an attic desk, the top of which I had not seen in years, I discovered an old book I had forgotten I owned. Called New Century Book of Facts, it was published first in 1900, then brought out in new editions every few years up until at least 1947, which is when my copy was published. It has 1,748 thin pages and represents an attempt to stuff as much information as possible into a single volume.

The contents are divided into 15 sections, from language (grammar is given its own chapter) to fine arts. Oddly, there is one section devoted to kindergarten, not the broader category of education as one might suppose, but just kindergarten.

In the 123 pages devoted to language, I found several things of interest. There is a long list of many of the world's languages, including a description of where each language is spoken, how many people speak it and what other languages it is related to.

Then comes four pages of Americanisms, or English words that originated on the western side of the Atlantic. Many of these are slang terms, such as carpetbagger and squatter. Some have Indian origins, such as succotash and wigwam. Many relate to the American West, such as butte and cowboy. As for the word squelch, the book says it originated in England, but is no longer used there.

There's another entry about various attempts to simplify spelling. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others, as a list of 180 spellings proposed in 1907 by the Columbia University board of trustees shows. Many of these spellings are now in common use, at least in the U.S. These include clue, defense, draft, era, humor, judgment and patronize. Less successful were fulfil, gipsy, instil, phenix and practise.

I was also interested in a section about the misuse of words. The editors pick at some things that don't seem to bother us as much today. For example, we are told not to say audience when we mean spectators. That's because "an audience listens; spectators see what occurs." Today the distinction between the two words seems to have more to do with the event itself. That is, a concert or play has an audience, while a sporting event has spectators. But, true, when a baseball game is broadcast over the radio, it would sound foolish to speak of spectators.

I may have more observations to make about the New Century Book of Facts next week.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The reproduction of error

Gene Logsdon
Those who produce reference books, in most cases, do more of their research in libraries than out in the field. In other words, their reference books are dependent on other, earlier reference books. You can't very well expect writers and editors to start from scratch each time. No, a new atlas begins with maps from earlier atlases. A new dictionary begins with words from earlier dictionaries. And so on.

Unfortunately, what this means in practice is that erroneous or misleading information contained in one book tends to get repeated in subsequent ones. "After several generations of copying each other's book knowledge," Gene Logsdon writes in A Sanctuary of Trees, "the errors feed on themselves and multiply."

Logsdon laments his own small role in reproducing wrong information in a reference book on which he worked for Rodale Press back in 1976. The book was Trees for the Yard, Orchard, and Woodlot, and he was one of the editors, even if not the editor responsible for the error in question. Nevertheless, he writes, "I have a notion I would have overlooked the error anyway." The error referred to the "small size" of the  chinquapin oak and to the use of its wood in construction. After years of walking through woodlands, Logsdon realized this particular oak can grow to a great size, but because of its scarcity, he adds, "if you can find a board of it in any house or barn built in the last thirty years, I'll buy you a steak dinner at the restaurant of your choice."

This was a case of Rodale repeating information about a tree from some previous book, and no doubt subsequent reference books have repeated the same information, or misinformation, from the Rodale book.

When I worked for a newspaper I believed that no error-free newspaper has ever been printed. The same is probably true of reference books. It is simply impossible to double-check and triple-check every fact, every name, every spelling and every piece of punctuation.

I just discovered this morning that Gene Logsdon, who lived just a couple of counties away from me, died nearly a year ago on June 2, 2016. He was 84. Errors happen, but it's good to know there are a few people in this world like him who care so much about getting things right that they fret about past errors, even errors they were not directly responsible for. In his own book, he tried to make it right.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A lifetime among trees

Gene Logsdon, author of A Sanctuary of Trees, has spent most of his long lifetime among trees. As a boy, trees were his playground, as the cover photograph illustrates. Later they became his classroom, where to this day he continues to learn their lessons. He has eaten food produced by his own trees, used trees to make everything from fence posts to furniture for his wood home among the trees and heated his Ohio home with wood from those trees since 1979. Mostly trees are his sanctuary, where he feels most at home and most at peace.

As a young man he flirted with the idea of becoming a priest, until he realized the main appeal of the seminary he attended was that it was set in a wooded area. When later he became a staff writer for Farm Journal, he and his wife were required to live in Philadelphia. Yet they managed to find a house on a wooded lot adjacent to other wooded lots. Later he returned to Ohio to the very woods he knew as a boy, and he has since made his living as a professional writer.

Although he loves trees, Logsdon doesn't see the cutting of trees as the evil that many others do. Trees have a way of coming back. He calls them "big weeds" at one point. They grow whether you want them or not. Even with all the trees being cut down for firewood and to clear land for development, he says, the number of trees in the United States is actually on the rise. He speaks of "urban forests," those acres of trees found in most cities, towns and subdivisions in America.

Logsdon's book is part memoir and part meditation, but it is mostly a handy guide for identifying trees, growing trees and using trees for all their many benefits. He advocates returning to a wood-based culture, and he tells how to go about doing just that. How much wooded acreage do you need to heat your home with wood, yet not deplete your woodland? How do you build a fire in a fireplace? How can you turn your trees into money? Logsdon answers these questions, and many more you would have never thought to ask.

"When I look at a tree, I find it difficult to think of it as a plant," he writes. "It looks like pure magic to me." Like trees, Logsdon's book has a bit of magic in it.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Creative reading

Everybody recognizes that writing is a creative activity. Colleges even offer courses in creative writing. (This phrase has always seemed redundant to me, like offering courses in creative art.) But what about writing's partner, reading? Isn't reading also a creative activity? The fact that each of us can respond differently to the same work of literature suggests that it is.

Wendy Lesser
Two comments found in my recent reading has furthered my thinking on this subject. First, here is what Wendy Lesser says in Why I Read: "Even as it fully engages you with another mind (or maybe many other minds, if you count the characters' as well as the author's), reading remains a highly individual act. No one will ever do it precisely the way you do."

Each reader completes the creation of the author. A book without a reader is like a play without an audience or a masterful painting hidden in a closet. It is the reader who interprets what a book, a poem or a story means, and because interpretations vary, each completed creation comes out differently.

Read different reviews of the same book, something I do frequently on LibraryThing, and it can seem that the reviewers are writing about different books. To them, they are different books, simply because they have responded to them so differently. What seems meaningful to one person will seem meaningless to another. A third person may miss it altogether. That's because, as Lesser puts it, none of us reads in precisely the same way.

In My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul says this about readers and the books they read: "Nobody else has read this particular series of books in this exact order and been affected in precisely this way." So it is not just a matter of how we respond to a particular book but also what books we have read previously. Our interpretation of one book will influence our interpretation of another. People like Paul and Lesser who have read a great many books are likely to give more sophisticated or creative readings to a new book than someone who has read relatively few books. If you have read one Jane Austen novel, you will feel better equipped to tackle the next one. Readers, like writers, get better with practice.

Creative reading does not just manifest itself in the reading of fiction. If this particular blog post is in any way creative it is because, within a matter of a few days, I read both that line in Lesser's book and that line in Paul's. Either comment on its own (or read months apart) might not have triggered a response in me, other than to write it down on a notecard. But read back to back as they were (perhaps even, as Paul suggests, in an order nobody else has ever read them), I was inspired to write this brief essay on creative reading.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Accidental memoirs

All criticism is a form of autobiography.
David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael, The New Yorker's film critic for many years, was once asked if she had considered writing her memoirs. "I think I have," she replied. Her response, echoed by David Shields years later, meant that when she was writing about movies, she was also writing about herself. Often, it seems, memoirs are written when writers think they are writing something else.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, has said she didn't realize her recent book, My Life with Bob, was a memoir until she heard her publisher refer to it as such. She had thought she had just written a book about the books she has read.

Lee Smith
Lee Smith's book Dimestore: A Writer's Life began as a series of articles she wrote for such publications as the Washington Post, the New York Times, House and Garden and the Independent Weekly. When these essays were assembled under one cover, they became a memoir, covering her life from girlhood to now.

Novelists often write their memoirs in the form of fiction, especially first novels. One reason second novels are often so difficult for writers is that they have already told their own story in their first novels. The second novel requires more creativity, and is thus more difficult. Smith admits as much in one of the essays in Dimestore. Her second novel was awful, she says, "as second novels sometimes are if we write them too soon, having used up our entire life so far, all the great traumas and dramas of our youth, in the first one."

Smith realizes now that all of her novels, as different as they may seem, were really about herself. "I write fiction the way other people write in their journals," she says. She quotes another novelist, Anne Tyler, as saying, "I write because I want more than one life." Different novels by the same author may tell different stories about different characters, yet each, in a sense, is a disguised memoir of that author, which is why authors' biographers devote so much attention to the published works of those authors. The trick, of course, is to separate the truth from what is truly fiction.

Other forms of writing, including blogs like this one, can also be accidental memoirs, telling life stories on the way to telling something else. Any form of self-expression (which is, by definition, the expression of self) does this.

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 and tweeting, 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 sons 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?