Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Something for everyone

I put down most books, unfinished. Most books aren't very good, and there's no reason they should be.
Richard Ford, By the Book

Richard Ford
While reading By the Book, Pamela Paul's collection of interviews published in The New York Times Book Review, I was surprised how many published authors, like Richard Ford, quickly put down books that don't immediately grab their interest. I would have expected that professional writers, who expect other readers to give their own books a fair chance, would be more tolerant of books written by others.

Jonathan Franzen said, "Most books I pick up I put down without finishing." "I put down at least a book or two a week," James Patterson said. "My time to read is too short," said Michael Connelly, "so I only give a book -- any book -- a short leash. It's got to draw me in quickly." E.L. Doctorow said, "Sometimes I put books down that are good but that I see too well what the author is up to."

Joyce Carol Oates
At the other extreme is Colin Powell, former secretary of state and an author in his own right, who said, "I find some greatness in every book." Joyce Carol Oates said she was trained to view disappointment with a book as a character flaw on the part of the reader, "a failure to comprehend what others have clearly appreciated." Ford actually made a concession to this viewpoint when he added to his own comment, "sometimes I return to a book I've left unfinished and discover -- pleasurably -- that it was I, not the book, that was unsatisfactory."

Pliny the Elder once wrote, "No book so bad but some part may be of use," which would seem to place him in the Powell-Oates camp.

My own view lies somewhere between the extremes of most books are good and most books are bad. It is expressed in the title of a 2005 book by Nicholas A. Basbanes, Every Book Its Reader. This comes from Five Laws of Library Science, written in 1931 by S.R. Ranganathan. Two of these laws are Every Reader His Book and Every Book Its Reader.

Perhaps this is a romantic idea, like saying, "There's someone out there for everyone," but I find it appealing. Even the self-published book that never sells a single copy has its reader, namely the person who wrote it and thought highly enough of it to pay to get it published.

The writers and others whose reading profiles are presented in By the Book reveal an amazing variety of reading tastes. Books that excite some of them, turn off others. That variety is multiplied many times over among the rest of us readers. For each of us there is a book somewhere that will speak to us, and for every book there is someone who will respond to what it says.

While searching for that one ideal book, each of us, like Richard Ford, has every right to put aside those books that fail to interest us, even if, as Joyce Carol Oates suggests, the fault lies more with us than with the books.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Making a family

No one here talks like me or gets my references or knows the songs I know. I don't look like any of them. Even my bond with Joya was based on not belonging here.
Joshilyn Jackson, The Opposite of Everyone

Paula Vauss views breaking up families as her specialty. A divorce lawyer in her mid-30s, ever resistant to starting a family of her own, she continues to be plagued by guilt for the 911 call she made as a girl that led to a prison sentence for her mother on drug charges and her own stay in a home for girls. Although later reunited with her mother, their relationship was rocky after that, and she left home in her teens and hasn't spoken to her mother in years

But now a young man named Julian shows up at her office and reveals he is a younger brother she didn't even know she had. He was born while her mother was in prison and given up for adoption. Then comes a letter from her mother revealing she is dying of cancer and has another daughter, Hana, now 10. Paula finds she has a family, whether she wants one or not. But can she, of all people, find a way to locate Hana and bring it together?

Joshilyn Jackson, the author of The Opposite of Everyone, begins every chapter with Paula's reflections on her youth, when she could "measure the years of my childhood by my mother's boyfriends," and especially that terrible period spent in the orphanage. Clearly those years weigh heavily on her, and the feeling she's had all her life, that there is nobody else like her, persists. Yet she makes unexpected discoveries, not only the two siblings but also that Birdwine, her alcoholic boyfriend, is burdened by his own broken family and that even some of the girls she despised in that home have, like her, managed to make something of their lives. Rather than being the opposite of everyone, she is actually not so different after all. "There were more of us," Jackson writes. "The world was full of us, the leftovers and the leavers, the bereaved and the broken."

Jackson weaves a powerful story offering hope that both broken families and those broken by families can be restored.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The place to go in your head

Writing is a job, a talent, but it's also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.
Ann Patchett, Truth & Beauty

Novelist Ann Patchett identifies three qualities that make a writer.

Ann Patchett
First, writing is a job and should be viewed as such. That means working hard to earn the expected compensation, whether that be a book contract, royalties, a magazine sale, a weekly paycheck, public recognition and respect or simply the satisfaction gained from a job well done. Many published writers, Patchett included, don't believe there is such a thing as writer's block. One writer calls it laziness block. A job requires work whether you feel like it or not, or maybe you are in the wrong occupation.

Second, some talent is required. Some people with little writing talent have had several books published, simply because they worked hard and got lucky. Others have a great deal of talent but never seem to get around to actually writing anything. Yet the best writers are those with a natural gift for putting their thoughts down on a page, as well as the determination to follow through.

The third quality is one often overlooked, that imaginary friend in your head. Not all writers are introverts, but so many of them are because writing is lonely work, and introverts don't mind being alone for long hours at a time. In fact, they prefer it. Extroverts need other people to bounce off ideas. Introverts can do this more easily within their own heads. It comes natural to them.

"Writing is talking to oneself," Alan Bennett has said, and so it is. You say it in your head to see how it sounds, then transcribe it to written form. Readers are just other people eavesdropping.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Out in the storm

Ordinary thunderstorms can sometimes turn into violent and destructive super-cell storms. William Boyd runs with this metaphor in Ordinary Thunderstorms, his thinking-man's thriller from 2010.

Adam Kindred, a climatologist in London for a job interview, has a casual restaurant conversation with another scientist, a drug researcher. When Philip Wang departs he leaves behind a file, which Adam finds. It has Wang's address and phone number on it, so Adams calls him and offers to drop the file off at his place. This minor inconvenience is the ordinary thunderstorm.

When he arrives at the flat he finds the door open and Wang with a knife in his chest. He pulls out the knife, Wang dies and just like that Adam finds himself the chief suspect in a murder case, his fingerprints on the murder weapon and his name on the visitor register. But this is now a super-cell thunderstorm, and Adam's even greater danger is that Wang's killer, an ex-soldier called Jonjo, is hiding in the flat and, because of that file, wants to kill Adam, too.

Boyd keeps up the tension in the novel's first few pages, but after that those who make a steady diet of thrillers, with their constant action and murders every other chapter, may get bored with Ordinary Thunderstorms, for the center of this storm is prolonged lull, though hardly an uninteresting one for more discerning readers. The author takes us into the London underground, not the subway system but rather the shadowy world into which countless people disappear each year.

Adam finds it amazingly easy to disappear from view, even in a city that has cameras everywhere. He supports himself by begging in the street, avoids using his real name or his credit cards, grows a beard and, for a time, sleeps outside. Gradually he forms a new identity, gets a job as a hospital porter and begins to probe the mystery of what got Philip Wang murdered.

Some of this may strain belief, as when Adam starts dating a police officer and she falls in love with him without bothering to probe his past even a little bit. Still it is fascinating stuff. The novel ends with the suggestion that, while this particular storm may be over, another one may be just over the horizon.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The genetic code of America

There's nothing rhetorical about the question Nathaniel Philbrick asks in the title of Why Read Moby-Dick?, for his 2011 book, brief as it is, answers it in full.

Herman Melville's American classic, he says, has just about whatever one might want in a book: history (he calls it "nothing less than the genetic code of America"), natural history, poetry, theology, humor, psychology, philosophy and a terrific story besides. OK, female characters are scarce, so don't expect great romance, but there is action, suspense and drama aplenty.

What Philbrick doesn't say is that the fact that Melville packs so much into Moby-Dick is what makes the novel intimidating to readers. If it's just the story one wants, those detailed chapters on whales and whaling can be off-putting. Of course, they can also be skipped or skimmed without missing any of the story, as I learned as a college freshman when the novel was assigned reading. When I read it again years later, I gave more attention to these chapters.

Philbrick calls this "the greatest American novel ever written." Others might argue in favor of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises or some other work, but Philbrick makes a good case for Meville. He says it "deserves to be called our American bible."

While reading By the Book, Pamela Paul's collection of interviews with notable writers, and a few others, about their reading habits, I was struck by how often Moby-Dick is mentioned. Joyce Carol Oates says it should be required reading for American presidents. "This truly contains multitudes of meanings: the Pequod is the ship of state, the radiantly mad Captain Ahab a dangerous 'leader,' the ethnically diverse crew our American citizenry." It is one of the books Michael Chabon would want on his desert island. Andrew Solomon somehow missed it in his literary education but still yearns to read it. Actor Bryan Cranston says it is the novel that has had the biggest impact on his life.

Unfortunately, Why Read Moby-Dick? is a book most likely to be read by those of us who have already read the novel, rather than those who haven't. Perhaps it should have been titled Why Read Moby-Dick Again? It certainly has made me want to.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Patron saint of Lucy Grealy

Whether Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett's memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, another writer, makes her look like a saint or a fool readers must decide for themselves. But then saints often look like fools, and fools, if you watch the movie Being There, sometimes look like saints.

Lucy Grealy
Patchett and Grealy went to college together but didn't actually become friends until they both showed up at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1985, Patchett an aspiring novelist, Grealy an aspiring poet. They ended up sharing an apartment together and becoming devoted friends. The friendship continued for nearly two decades, even after Patchett settled in Nashville and Grealy, an Ireland native, moved to New York City.

Yet it was never an equal friendship. From the beginning Patchett was the giver and Grealy the taker.

Grealy, who died from a drug overdose at the age of 39, underwent nearly 40 operations in her short life because of a facial disfigurement caused by cancer of the jaw. Even though her vibrant personality resulted in more friends and lovers than most other women could imagine, she became dependent upon Patchett to reassure her constantly that, yes, she was loved and, however her ever-changing face happened to look at the moment, she would have sex again.

Ann Patchett
At one time Grealy was the more famous of the pair. "I was famous for being with her," Patchett writes. Her friend wrote a fictionalized memoir called Autobiography of a Face, which became a best seller and led to television interviews in which she wowed audiences. But then, despite a handsome book contract, she could write nothing, while Patchett began turning out one novel after another, beginning with The Patron Saint of Liars.

Never able to manage money, nor anything else, Grealy gave no thought to paying her mounting medical bills, and she would just move to another apartment whenever her landlord became too demanding. Patchett, or some other friend, was always there to help her out and take care of her after those frequent surgeries. At one point Patchett even offered to write her novel for her.

Eventually Grealy became addicted to painkillers, then resorted to harder drugs, all the while insisting she was not an addict. She died in 2002, and Patchett's book came out in 2004.

I vote for saint.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Passed is present

Amy didn't like hearing a euphemism like "she had passed" from a physician. It sounded smarmy, and besides, yes, he really should have come along in the ambulance.
Jincy Willett, The Writing Class

Had Jincy Willett written her novel in 2017 instead of a decade ago, I wonder if she would have written those lines, for it seems to me that in those few short years the terms passed, passed on and passed away have gained much wider acceptance.

Such euphemisms have long been favored by the general public, especially when loved ones die. Euphemisms serve to distance us, at least in our minds, from an unpleasant subject, whether it be death or defecation.  In more official circles, not counting funeral homes, the usual practice was to say that someone had died.

During my newspaper career, which ended in 2010, people died, they didn't pass away. When funeral directors used a euphemism in an obituary, we would change it to "died." But then, like most other papers, we began charging funeral homes to print obituaries, with the costs passed on to the families or estates. If someone is paying to have something printed, they can say whatever they want. Whether someone died, passed away or went to glory is now up to family members.

More recently I have notice phrases like "passed on" showing up even in front-page stories and headlines in major newspapers. If it once sounded smarmy, at least to some of us, it doesn't anymore, although I continue to favor the word died even when talking about my own parents.

I found a Huffington Post article in which William B. Bradshaw comments about a minister using the word died at a funeral. The word choice seemed a bit shocking when the funeral home and everyone else had been using a euphemism. Bradshaw notes that nobody says that Jesus passed away on the cross, so why should the word died be too strong for anyone else? Good point.

At some point in the future, perhaps not many years from now, even the phrase "passed away" will begin to sound too blunt and a new euphemism will be required. Euphemisms tend to need euphemisms themselves in time. Who knows what the new euphemism will be, but it may have already started and I just haven't noticed it yet.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A killer in the classroom

If a member of your night class were murdering classmates, wouldn't you find something better to do those evenings? So would I, but thankfully the members of the writing class in Jincy Willett's The Writing Class keep coming back for more.

That's just one of the things about the novel that don't quite add up, but I don't think a realistic murder mystery was Willett's objective in her 2008 novel. It is more a satire on writing classes, literary aspirations and even murder mysteries themselves.

Amy Gallup is a novelist, or former novelist, whose books are out of print and whose literary career, like her personal life, lies in ruins. To support herself and her dog, she teaches a writing class for adults, most of whom have little or no talent but who pay the fees, so they're in. Just wanting to be a writer is good enough for Amy. That's more ambition than she has anymore.

Even early on it is clear some member of her new class has a screw loose. Ominous phone messages, notes, etc., keep appearing as the weeks go on. Then one class member is found dead, then another. The police don't take it seriously. (Since Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, police incompetence has been more rule than exception in murder mysteries.) Since her class refuses to disband (and she needs the money), Amy realizes it is up to her to find the Sniper, as the killer is dubbed.

The Writing Class, sometimes interesting and sometimes not, doesn't earn an A, but it is good enough to make you glad you kept coming back for more.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Personality in flux

As far as I'm aware, I have no personality of my own whatsoever.
Peter Sellers

His personality, or lack of one, dominates Mr. Strangelove, Ed Sikov's lively 2002 biography of the great British actor who died too soon, then several years later died again. "Dying changed him," Sikov writes, referring to the first time Sellers's notoriously bad heart stopped beating in 1964. It didn't change him enough however to clarify his personality.

The first of his many wives said of him, "It's like being married to the United Nations."

Stanley Kubrick, who directed the masterful Dr. Strangelove, said of Sellers, "There is no such person."

The actor himself said, "I'm like a mike -- I have no set sound of my own. I pick it up from my surroundings."

And so on throughout the biography. Yet however often it may be said of some people that they lack a personality, everybody has one. In the case of Peter Sellers, his personality was fluid, constantly changing. This is what made him such a terrific actor, the embodiment of characters as diverse as Inspector Clouseau and Chance the gardener, as well as all those roles he played in Dr. Strangelove and other movies. In real life, his personality was equally diverse, able to go from lovable and carefree to a raging maniac at the flip of a switch somewhere in his brain. With Sellers, nobody knew who they were getting, or even who they were marrying.

Sellers features prominently as a character in Jerzy, Jerome Charyn's recent novel about author Jerzy Kosinski, and Kosinski appears in this biography as well, although they apparently got along with each other much better in real life than in fiction. For they were very similar men, both with chameleon personalities, able to adapt to any situation without finding their true selves in any of them.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Bach as bigot

Had Johann Sebastian Bach been born 250 years later, might he have become a Nazi?

That seems more than possible in Lauren Belfer's novel And After the Fire in which Susanna Kessler, following the death of her uncle, finds in his Buffalo home what appears to be an unknown Bach cantata, the words of which call for the violent persecution of Jews. The words are those of Martin Luther. The uncle, a veteran, had brought  it home from Germany after World War II and kept it hidden ever since.

Susanna, herself a non-believing Jew who had lost members of her family in the Holocaust, turns to two young Bach experts to determine if this is indeed a Bach cantata. It is. Meanwhile both men, a Jew and a Lutheran, fall in love with her. A third Bach expert learns about the cantata and decides he knows best about what to do with it, if only he can bend Susanna to his will.

While moving this story along, Belfer traces the history of the cantata from the time one of Bach's sons, near the end of his life, gives it to his best music student, a young Jewish woman from an aristocratic family. It passes through other hands, including the family of composer Felix Mendelssohn, until the time Susanna's uncle finds it, more accurately steals it, in 1945. So skilled a writer is Belfer that both threads of the narrative prove equally interesting.

She never fully develops the love triangle aspect of her novel, nor the greedy ambitions of that third Bach expert. Her interest, for better or worse, seems to lie more with the cantata than with the characters.

I couldn't love this book as much as I did Belfer's first novel, City of Light. This has much to do with the way the thrust of her story seems to blame Christians for the Holocaust in much the same way some Christians, including the Bach of this novel, have blamed Jews for the Crucifixion. Throughout the novel her most favored characters, both Christians and Jews, are those who no longer believe anything, as if this were the best way to achieve peace and understanding. Tell that to the millions of people persecuted by atheist regimes in places like China, North Korea, Cambodia and the former Soviet Union.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Lines in the sand

She was sure that she would hold by her purpose, and yet she feared that her purpose was wrong.
Anthony Trollope, Cousin Henry

The Ten Commandments are written in stone and governmental laws are codified on paper, but many of those personal moral positions we take are more like lines in the sand, both arbitrary and temporary. For example, because of some slight, real or imagined, Person A refuses to speak to Person B, to which Person B reacts by refusing to speak to Person A. Both of them convince themselves they have taken a high moral stand.

Anthony Trollope explores this idea in his 1879 novel Cousin Henry about an elderly squire with no offspring to inherit his estate, Llanfeare. His choice for an heir comes down to a beloved niece, Isabel, who has lived with him and cared for him and whom all the servants adore, and a despised nephew, Henry, a clerk in London. His heart tells him to leave Llanfeare to Isabel, but his own line in the sand tells him he must have a male heir. And so he invites Henry to visit him, telling him the estate will soon be his. Yet the more he sees of Henry, the more he dislikes him, and so before he dies he changes his will without the benefit of his attorney. Although there are witnesses to the signing of the will, it cannot be found later.

Isabel tells herself and everyone else she has no objection if Henry gets the estate, but she decides that if she does not inherit it, she cannot marry Mr. Owen, the man she loves. Owen, meanwhile, draws his own line in the sand, saying he cannot marry Isabel if she does inherit Llanfeare.

As for Henry, he inherits the property on the basis of the existing will, then spots the missing will in a book of sermons the squire had been reading just before his death. He reasons, conveniently, that since he did not hide the will nor destroy it, he owns the high moral ground. He found it without looking for it, so let someone else find it if they want it.

The novel's hero, the only main character with a straight moral compass, is Mr. Apjohn, the attorney first for the squire and then for Cousin Henry. He behaves honorably toward everyone, but especially toward what is legal and honorable. And it is he who finally deduces where the missing will is to be found.

What makes this novel more interesting, at least to me, is that Trollope is never clear about why Henry is disliked by everyone, except perhaps his London employer, who keeps his job open for him during his long stay at Llanfeare. True, Henry proves far from honorable after he discovers the missing will, but he is despised long before that. Mostly, it seems, people dislike him because he is an unattractive introvert, not for anything he has actually done.

"He has been hardly used," Mr. Upjohn says of Henry late in the novel, and that is certainly true. His uncle invites him to Llanfare, telling him the estate will soon be his, then changes his mind. After Henry asks Isabel to marry him, arguing that this way both of them can inherit the property, she responds by telling him how much she hates him, when a simple no-thank-you would have sufficed.

Trollope shows us that when we draw lines in the sand, we often place ourselves anywhere but on high moral ground.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Mysterious motel

David Macaulay
David Macaulay is an illustrator skilled at showing the way things work. And The Way Things Work is the title of what may be his best-known book, but he has also illustrated books showing how cathedrals, pyramids, castles and other structures were put together. Yet Macaulay's most unique book may stand out less because of his illustrations than because of his prose.

Motel of the Mysteries (1979) is a nifty piece of satirical fiction set in the year 4022. It seems that back in 1985 "an accidental reduction in postal rates" quickly buried most of a country known as Usa under several feet of junk mail. One of Macaulay's illustrations shows just the top of the St. Louis Arch sticking up out of the ground.

Now a daring explorer named Howard Carson, who in the illustrations looks like someone from the 1930s, falls down a hole and thereby discovers something called a motel. And in one of its rooms he finds two skeletons, one on a bed and the other in a bathtub, except that Carson thinks he has discovered an ancient crypt and that one body lies on the Ceremonial Platform and the other in a "highly polished white sarcophagus." To him, the toilet is the Sacred Urn, the television is the Great Altar, the remote control is the Sacred Communicator and a bra strewn across a piece of furniture is a "ceremonial chest plate."

And so Macaulay has his fun with junk mailers, the United States Postal Service, archaeologists and even motels and those who stay in them. Perhaps by the year 4022, nobody will think this is funny, but so far time has not dulled the wit of Macaulay's wonderful little book.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The young adapt

During the uproar that followed the October 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast about an invasion from Mars, one of the arguments used by those urging greater regulation of the radio industry was that children were especially vulnerable when scary radio programs seemed real. Yet research found that children and teenagers were actually less fooled by the broadcast than their parents and grandparents.

These kids were more familiar with science fiction, either because of other radio dramas or pulp magazines, than older generations. They were also more likely to recognize the voice of Orson Welles. "Because kids knew the medium better than adults," A. Brad Schwartz writes, "they would have been more likely to pick up on cues that War of the Worlds was fiction."

And so things haven't changed much. Youngsters of my own generation mastered television before our parents. Then with VCRs. DVDs, DVRs, home computers, smartphones and every other advance in consumer technology, same thing. The young adapted more quickly than their elders.

The July 17 issue of Sports Illustrated has an item about a study commissioned by SportsBusiness Journal that found that the TV audience for nearly every major sport is aging faster than the general population. Only international soccer has an average viewing age under 40. For the NFL, the average age is 50, for baseball it's 55, for NASCAR 58, for PGA golf 64. Does this mean younger people are not interested in sports? Well some sports perhaps. But mostly, says Sports Illustrated, the results suggest young fans are following their favorite teams and athletes using other media. Even I, hardly a youngster, sometimes watch soccer games on my iPad.

During the three days last week we spent with our son and his family in the Smokies, the TV was turned on just once, to watch a soccer game. Their phones were on continually, however. I don't even own a cell phone.

As it is with sports, so it may be with books, not so much a decline in interest as a change of media. Those of us who grew up with books, magazines and newspapers all printed on paper have difficulty understanding the appeal of reading these same things on electronic gadgets. Just as in 1938, the kids adapt, their elders get confused.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Hysteria or panic?

Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News by A. Brad Schwartz compels the reader to run to the nearest dictionary for the definitions of both panic and hysteria, for Schwartz again and again makes the point that what resulted from the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 was not panic, but hysteria. Never mind that he sometimes uses the word panic himself.

My nearest dictionary, the Oxford American, defines panic as "sudden terror, wild infectious fear" and hysteria as "wild uncontrollable emotion or excitement." So, yes, although both definitions use the word wild, terror and fear sound much more severe than emotion and excitement. That seems to be Schwartz's point, that reaction to the broadcast was not as severe as popularly held.

Relatively few people actually tuned in to the Mercury Theatre on the Air that night. It drew less than 4 percent of the radio audience, which was still about four million listeners. (A later estimate makes that 2 percent.) The largest audience by far listened to The Chase & Sanborn Hour featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Yet just as today people tend to channel surf during commercial breaks, so radio listeners sometimes turned their dials to other stations during commercials or musical numbers. These may have been the people most likely to believe something serious was going on. Many such people even missed the part about aliens from Mars. They thought this apparent news report was about human invaders. Adding to the problem was that the first act of the production was closer to 40 minutes long than the usual 30, meaning that there was no break for station identification at the usual point. And the show did not have any sponsors, so there were no commercial breaks.

Amazingly radio broadcasters of that day considered it unethical to broadcast recordings of actual speeches and other news events. Instead they would recreate these events using actors and sound effects. So radio personnel were very skilled at making the phony sound like the real thing, which is what the War of the Worlds script called for.

Although Schwartz himself puts most of the focus of his book on Orson Welles, he points out that Welles was not as responsible for the program as he later claimed and as is widely believed. John Houseman directed the production, which was written by Howard Koch. Welles was the star, but he was a busy young man at that time and couldn't even find time to attend the rehearsal. Only later, after it was clear there would be no legal repercussions, did Welles claim he was the driving force behind the production.

Hundreds of people who heard the broadcast that night wrote letters, whether to CBS, the FCC, newspapers, Welles himself or some other party, stating their reactions. Schwartz gained access to the letters and uses them extensively. Sometimes it seems chapters are little more than quotes from these letters strung together. Yet it is clear from at least some of them that for some listeners that night there was much more terror and fear than emotion and excitement.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Truth in fiction

More than any other collection of writers, the Russians evidently believed that to tell the truth is literature's highest calling, its primary aim ...
Wendy Lesser, Why I Read

My mind tends to turn a little fuzzy whenever the subject of truth, or often Truth, comes up in literary discussions. What exactly are we talking about? When Wendy Lesser says the great Russian writers were more committed to telling the truth than any other group of writers, what does she mean? And does she mean the same thing that others mean when they talk about truth in fiction?

So let us consider some of the possibilities.

Is it true because it's factual?

This one seems easy. Of course not. Even when it is based on fact, like All the King's Men or especially In Cold Blood, it is still fiction, and thus not fact. Lesser says as much when she writes, "One is allowed to make factual errors through a combination of negligence and good intentions." In other words, a writer of fiction can tell the truth even while straying from the facts.

Is it true because it's realistic?

Or put another way, must a story be believable to be true? We may be tempted to answer in the affirmative.  Certainly we can be turned off when a plot turns on unlikely coincidences or when a happy ending seems contrived. Such stories just don't ring true. Yet can't fiction be true even if its characters are talking animals or if the story involves time travel or aliens from Mars? Just how realistic does fiction have to be to be true?

Is it true because it's artful?

"Art needs to rest on truth, even if it does so counterfactually," Lesser writes. So something apparently must be true to be art. But is it artful because it is true or true because it is artful? Surely artfulness and truth cannot mean the same or why even talk about truth? But if they are different things, why can't you have one without the other?

Is it true because it's meaningful?

I like this idea, although it implies that truth, like meaningfulness, is relative. What has meaning for me may not have meaning for you (or may mean something else entirely). In that case, what's true for  you may not be true for me. I prefer the concept of universal truth, as rare as such truths may be.

Is it true because it's honest?

A better word could be trustworthy. "How do I know when the author of a fictional work is lying to me?" Lesser asks at one point. Elsewhere she quotes D.H. Lawrence: "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." This sounds like something you either feel in your gut or you don't, sort of like when you are buying a house or a car. And again it makes truth relative.

Perhaps the best thing Lesser says about truth in fiction is this: "The truths in literature are incidental and cumulative, not global and permanent. In some moods I think that those are the only kinds of truth that really matter."

Excellent. Except that I still don't understand why the Russians were more truthful than anyone else.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Serious pleasure reading

Where but in Wendy Lesser's Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books might one find a discussion of both Isaac Asimov and Henry James in the same paragraph? True, James fares better, but she finds "serious pleasure" in both. To this writer and literary critic, virtually any book can stimulate intellectual excitement.

To Lesser, it isn't so much what we read as how we read. "Pleasure reading is a hungry activity: it gnaws and gulps at its object, as if desirous of swallowing the whole thing in one sitting," she says. "But we need to slow down, and at times even come to a deal stop, if we are to savor all the dimensions of a literary work."

The mystery, at least for me, is how Lesser can "slow down" and yet still read and then reread as many books as she does. And while she may read the occasional Asimov, most of her reading seems to be more of the difficulty level of James, Faulkner, Balzac and Dostoyevsky. What would be challenging, even intimidating reading to most of us, she treats as casual reading.

One of the many interesting thoughts Lesser offers is that there is no such thing as progress in literature. It's not like chemistry or engineering, which advances decade by decade. We may view contemporary literature as superior simply because it is easier to follow and more relevant to our lives today, but that doesn't make it better (or worse) literature. Lesser points out that one of the miracles of literature is that those reading it a century or more after it was written may find things in it the original readers did not. Books change as their readers change.

Like the literature she favors, Lesser's book can be challenging. So just slow down and savor it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Missing girls

Will Thomas lives in Oklahoma, but you'd never guess that reading his Barker & Llewelyn novels, which are set in a London during Victorian times and seem to reflect very well that time and place.
In The Hellfire Conspiracy, the fourth novel in the series published in 2007, Cyrus Barker is hired to locate a 12-year-old girl who has disappeared in the city's East End while her mother had been doing volunteer work for an agency that serves the poor. She is but one of a number of girls who disappear each year in London, mostly to be forced into prostitution. But lately girls have been turning up dead. Soon the body of this girl is found.

For Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, that doesn't mean the case is over. They redouble their efforts to try to save the lives of other girls.

As usual, Thomas sprinkles actual historical persons into his story, which conforms with events that were actually taking place in England at that time. Those with an interest in British history will have fun separating fact from fiction. Most of us won't care but will just enjoy the action. And there is plenty of that.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Deciding what (and what not) to read 3

Life, which in my youth I found unstintingly entertaining, now felt more and more like a Smith & Wesson cocked at my head, so if I had plans to read The Decameron and Finnegans Wake before I checked out for good, I would have to start being a bit more choosy. Logically, this meant that there were great books out there that I already knew I was never going to read. Some, like Arrowsmith and Manhattan Transfer, were books that I was actually looking forward to not reading.
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

Joe Queenan
Movie trailers, intended to tease people into wanting to see the actual film, usually have just the opposite effect on me. Either the trailer tells the whole story and reveals all the best lines or it's so filled with special effects that it's a complete turnoff for someone who prefers stories about real people in real situations to stories about superheroes in comic book situations. Sometimes I find myself saying, "I can't wait to miss that." Unlike Joe Queenan, I have never said that or thought that about books.

Yet I understand Queenan when he says that advancing age changes one's perspective on books still unread. Some become higher priorities because time's running out. Others must be scratched off my mental list of books I hope to read someday. Even if I'm still alive and reading 20 years from now, there are some books, actually a lot of books, I'm just never going to get to.

Looking over my library, I notice many such books. I have two volumes of the letters of C.S. Lewis. I might possibly delve into one of them someday. But two? I have the 1938 edition of The Life of Andrew Jackson by Marquis James. Never going to read it. Nor Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville or The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas or The Age of Reason Begins by Will and Ariel Durant.

Queenan looks forward to not reading Manhattan Transfer, but he has a better chance of reading that book than I have of reading the biography of its author John Dos Passos by Townsend Ludington. Nor am I likely to get very far into the four-volume set of A History of Private Life.

As for fiction, I don't like my chances of ever reading The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, though his Malabar Farm is just a short drive from where I live, or Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I've read most of William Horwood's Duncton Wood trilogy, but then he wrote a second trilogy. I have it, but I don't see myself ever reading it.

I recently tried to read John Updike's Toward the End of Time. It started smartly, then it (or I) turned stupid and I gave up. I own a whole stack of Updike novels. I'm sure most of them will go unread. I like Saul Bellow better, but even so I'm sure I won't get to all of his novels, although I may want to read Henderson the Rain King for a third time before I go.

And so it goes. When I purchased them I was younger and, like Queenan in his youth, felt like all these books, and more, were within my reach. Now I know better.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Deciding what (and what not) to read 2

No one is going to ask us on our deathbeds how many great books we've read, and at that point even we won't care. Reading is not about progressing toward a finish line, anymore than life is.
Wendy Lesser, Why I Read

At the end of Why I Read, Wendy Lesser lists "A Hundred Books to Read for Pleasure." These are books she loves and that she recommends to others. Some are books I've read (Jude the Obscure, Crime and Punishment, Persuasion, The Quiet American). Others are books still on my bucket list (The Mysterious Island, Parade's End). Still others are books I've never even heard of (The Haw Lantern, Effie Briest, The Case of Comrade Tulayev). These are her idea of "great books," but the point she makes is that we each have the right to make our own lists, or to add to hers.

In our high school and college literature classes, we did have required reading. Not anymore. We can read trash, if we want, or we can sample more challenging books like some of those on her list. Nobody says we have to finish them. "There is nothing shameful about giving up on a book in the middle: that is the exercise of taste," she writes. She doesn't say so, but we also have the option to turn on the TV and not read anything.

Each of us has different tastes, in literature as in everything else. For that reason, if we each made our own list of "A Hundred Books to Read for Pleasure," they would all be different. Wendy Lesser, a professional writer and literary critic, loves literature that most of the rest of us would consider too much of a challenge for pleasure reading. Much of her book tells about the joys of reading Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and William Faulkner. At some point in our lives we might want to try something by these writers. We might even like them, as I did Crime and Punishment.  But if Jodi Picoult and John Grisham are more to your taste, then their books can be on your own list.

I get a bit annoyed whenever I see lists of 50 or 100 "books to read before you die." I love lists of recommended books, such as Lesser's, but I rebel at the suggestion that life includes a literary checklist. That seems to be what Lesser is referring to in the lines printed above. Getting passage into heaven is not dependent on reading A Passage to India.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Deciding what (and what not) to read

"Seriously," Carla was saying, "have you read all of these books?"

"All the paperbacks. About half of the hard stuff. For instance, I have yet to read Proust, but I have of course read The Adventurers."
Jincy Willett, The Writing Class

I love that exchange in Jincy Willett's novel The Writing Class. Carla visits the home of Amy Gallup, her creative writing instructor and asks the dreaded question: Have you read all these books. More candid than most of us would be, Amy says she has read all the paperbacks and half of the hardbacks and, of the latter, she has read The Adventurers but nothing by Proust. And I love the phrase "of course." As if, who wouldn't read Harold Robbins before Marcel Proust?

I have never read anything by either of those writers and never expect to, but if The Adventurers and Swann's Way were the only options on my proverbial desert island, I have no doubt that I would read Robbins first, then hope the rescue party found me before I had to start Proust. Most of us most of the time will read a bad book that's fun and easy to follow before tackling a great book that is difficult to understand. It's like playing a game of solitaire before settling down to work at our computer or eating the steak before the asparagus.

It's much the same with movies. I own DVDs of both King Ralph, the silly John Goodman comedy, and Red, the French film by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Red is by far the better film, but I have watched it but once. It takes some effort to follow, and one must read subtitles besides. King Ralph, by contrast, provides effortless entertainment and is always good for a few laughs. I have watched it numerous times.

Most of us, including college writing instructors (and perhaps even literature professors) will pick a thriller, mystery or romance over even a middlebrow serious novel most of the time. My practice of having several books in progress at the same time is my way fighting this tendency I find in myself. At present, for example, I am reading a Will Thomas mystery, The Hellfire Conspiracy, for light reading and Cousin Henry by Anthony Trollope for literary reading, while Jincy Willet's novel, sort of a literary mystery, falls somewhere in between. Of course, I end up reading more of the lighter stuff simply because they make faster reading. I can usually read two chapters in Thomas for every one I read in Trollope. But the point is, I'm still reading Trollope.

I'll have more to say on this subject next time.

Friday, June 30, 2017


For the first time he believed that his own life, however tarnished in his eyes, was what was necessary for the redemption of hers.
Sebastian Faulks, Charlotte Gray

That line near the end of Charlotte Gray (1998) helped bring into focus a Sebastian Faulks novel that had been a bit fuzzy to me from the beginning. Having seen the movie based on the novel I had expected a World War II thriller, as well as a different kind of love story. The novel does have its tense moments, but they don't last long and they always seem secondary. But what are they secondary to? So much of the story seems too much like real life with its apparently directionless plot.

Charlotte Gray is an attractive young woman from Scotland who goes to London in 1942 to help with the war effort. She is the daughter of an officer in Birdsong, the bestselling World War I novel that was the second book in the Faulks trilogy that also includes The Girl at the Lion d'Or. Because she speaks French so well, she is sent to France for what is supposed to be a short mission.

But her lover, an airman named Peter Gregory, has been shot down somewhere in France, and Charlotte decides to stay and try to find him. Meanwhile she becomes involved with a Frenchman who falls in love with her though he doesn't even know her real name and also in the plight of two Jewish boys whose mother has already been taken to a camp in Poland. In the end she can rescue neither Peter nor the boys, though she herself is saved and manages to return to England, as does Peter Gregory with the help of others.

So redemption seems to be what Faulks is writing about. Sometimes we can succeed in saving others. Often we can't. Still we must try. Reunited with Charlotte, Peter realizes his role in her redemption (those are his thoughts in the above quote). And then Charlotte helps her own father find redemption. Father and daughter have been estranged since her girlhood for reasons neither is clear about. Still traumatized by his war experiences, he had said something or did something to his young daughter that, while short of sexual abuse, had much the same impact. Charlotte returns home to see her mother, but it is her father whom she helps bring home to her.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Informal English

English may be an international language, but that doesn't mean the people of one English-speaking country speak quite the same language as those in another English-speaking country, or even that the English spoken in one region is identical to that spoken in another region of that same country. And even in the same region, different groups of people, different generations and so forth use words and phrases that sound strange to others.

Jeffrey Kacirk collects many such regionalisms in his 2005 book Informal English.  Some of them I particularly like.

across lots - to take the shortest route. This reminds me of the time Mrs. Bollinger, our neighbor, complained to my mother when my friend and I went "across lots" and left tracks in the snow of her yard. But it was the shortest route from his house to mine.

all turkey - equally good. White meat or dark? It doesn't matter. It's all turkey.

balditude - baldness. Mark Twain used the word in Huckleberry Finn.

bigging it - exaggerating.

blackwash - to magnify defects. The opposite of whitewash.

bossy in a bowl - beef stew.

Easter before Lent - Kacirk says this was a Creole expression used when a baby was born too soon after the wedding.

ensmall - to condense. If we can enlarge something, why can't we ensmall it?

forgettery - a Nebraska word for a poor memory.

get a wiggle on - hurry.

happifying - making happy.

Methodist feet - A term once used in Newfoundland for someone who can't dance.

newity - a novelty.

prayer-handles - knees. This was once a common term in northern New England.

pult - Some country doctors supposedly once used this word as the singular form of pulse.

scandiculous - a blend of scandalous and ridiculous once common in Montana.

scroobly - untidy, in Nebraska.

seedfolks - ancestors.

squoze - past tense of squeeze, in parts of Missouri. This reminds me that Dizzy Dean used to say slud as the past tense of slide when commenting on baseball games.

teacherage - If the parson lives in a parson, why shouldn't the school teacher live in a teacherage?

Some of these terms, especially begging it, blackwash and scroobly, are good enough that they should have caught on.

Several of the terms Kacirk mentions, including "get a wiggle on," have been familiar to me since childhood. Others include "cuts no ice," favor (as in "he favors his mother"), jerkwater, poor mouth, redd (as in "redd up the kitchen" or tidy it up) and whole cloth (a lie from beginning to end).

Monday, June 26, 2017

All-purpose words

He laid the spent pistol carefully on the whatnot beside Anna's bed.
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

Among the handiest words in the English language are those that can mean almost anything. And we have a lot of them, words like whatchamacallit and thingamajig that we use when we don't know or can't remember the proper word for something. If it's a name we're trying to come up with, we say whatsisname or whatshername. Used often enough, such words can turn any conversation into a guessing game, but at least they avoid awkward pauses while we stammer trying to think of the proper word or name.

Whatnot shelves
Another such word is whatnot, which we often employ in the sense of etcetera or miscellaneous. As the above line from Eleanor Catton's novel The Luminaries illustrates, the word has also been used for a piece of furniture, in this case what we might call a bedside table, one which might hold just about anything, especially when we empty our pockets at the end of the day. I can recall my mother referring to what she called whatnot shelves. They held knickknacks, trinketsdoodads, gewgaws and whatnot, usually pretty little things that didn't belong anywhere else.

These words often have a variety of different spellings. What Americans call whatchamacallits, the British call what-you-may-call'em or, at one time, what-d'ye-call'em.  Thingamajigs can also be called thingumbobs or thingums or thingummies or any other variation.

In Listening to America, Stuart Berg Flexner tells us that the word gadget started as naval slang to refer to "any small mechanical contrivance." The word soon spread to the general population. Flexner mentions other such words, including gilguy, dingbat (before it came to be used to refer to dimwitted people), doohickey and gizmo.

Jeffrey Kacirk includes several such all-purpose words in Informal English, a dictionary of odd words and phrases used, or once used, in various regions of the United States. The Kansas word is doflickety. In Nebraska, he says, they preferred optriculum., while in Maine the favored word was dingclinker.

In Alabama, he writes, when they didn't know the specific name of an ailment they would call it hicapooka or hicapookum.

Kacirk says Union soldiers during the Civil War invented the word skyugle, which could be used as either a noun or a verb to mean just about anything, as in "He had skyugled along the front when rebels skyugled a bullet through his clothes."

In Maine they liked the word with-its to refer to what most of us in America now call sides, or anything from asparagus to zucchini that is served with the main course at a meal.

Without such all-purpose words, most of us would be at a loss whenever we get forgetful or simply don't know the proper terminology.

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 it 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.