Monday, January 30, 2017

Of time and loneliness

We were the only car on the roads we traveled. We were the only inhabitants of the earth and if not for us there would have been no reason for time to exist at all.
Phillip Lewis, The Barrowfields

Loneliness abounds in The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis, and that loneliness results from abandonment. Parents abandon their children. Children abandon their parents. Siblings abandon siblings. Lovers abandon lovers. The people of this southern town even gather to burn the books of William Faulkner, as if trying to abandon their own culture.

Henry Aster, our narrator, tells of growing up in a spooky old house in a small Appalachian town in North Carolina. His father is both a respected lawyer in that town and a writer. He also seems to have memorized virtually every line in every book in his huge personal library, yet he appears to spend most of his time drinking and playing the piano, especially after his mother dies. Then one day, feeling abandoned by his mother, he abandons his own family, disappearing from their lives.

Henry Aster grows up in a close relationship with his younger sister, then abandons both her and his mother when he goes to college and doesn't return for years. In college he meets a young beauty called Story, who herself was abandoned as a baby and has devoted her life to trying to find her true parents. It is she and Henry who are driving down those empty country roads in the passage quoted above. They may be together, yet they remain alone. A reader is left with the impression that eventually one will abandon the other.

Another metaphor Lewis employs in his novel involves the stoppage of time, which he also works into the above lines. Earlier in the story Henry hears his father explain why he writes: "It's the only way short of death to make time stop." The backward town and the old house where the family lives, with their lack of substantial change, both give the impression of stopped time.

Lewis writes beautifully at times, and I wish I would have liked his book better than I did. Yet like that town and that house, his characters don't change much. To read the end of the novel is to read the beginning.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Fiction therapy

Stories are therapeutic. Jesus, the Great Physician, told stories. For decades Reader's Digest has been telling us that laughter is the best medicine, making its case with funny stories. We all read stories, listen to stories, tell stories and watch stories on television and in movies because of how this makes us feel. And psychologists and psychiatrists attempt to help their patients by getting them to tell their stories.

And so we come to The Story Hour, Thrity Umrigar's powerful 2014 novel in which an immigrant woman from India, caught in an unhappy marriage, attempts suicide and is then assigned to a psychologist. Over time, Lakshimi shares her stories in her one-hour weekly sessions with Maggie, a black psychologist who happens to be married to Sudhir, a college professor from India. In time Lakshimi's life and marriage improve, but it turns out that Maggie has her own problems and her own stories. Although she loves her husband, she cannot resist the charms of another man, and her marriage collapses. Can Lakshimi do for Maggie what Maggie did for Lakshimi?

Umrigar's novel is not nearly as simple or simplistic as that summary may suggest. She develops her characters fully, giving them many layers and many stories that reveal how they got where they are.

Yes, reading The Story Hour is therapeutic. It makes you feel better.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Revealing diaries

I figure that when people die and leave a diary, you learn things about them that you could have never understood while they were alive.
Jack Matthews, The Gambler's Nephew

Two diaries, both discovered following the deaths of key characters in The Gambler's Nephew, prove to be vital to the plot of this Jack Matthews novel. In both cases the diaries reveal dimensions of their authors' characters unrealized by those who knew them while they were alive. One man turns out to be better, or at least more introspective, than he appeared while alive; the other is revealed as being even worse than anyone imagined. The novel includes excerpts from both diaries.

A diary is also central to the plot of Graham Moore's The Sherlockian, reviewed here a couple of days ago. The novel actually has two plots, running more than a century apart. In one Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, reveals explosive details about one of his own attempts to solve crimes in the Holmes manner. In the other, that missing diary is discovered, revealing things about Doyle the finders wish had stayed hidden.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
In real life, too, diaries prove revealing, which is why biographers and historians love them. In The Road to Character, David Brooks writes about what Dwight D. Eisenhower's diary revealed about him. He had a terrible temper but learned to use his diary to control it. Rather than express his anger in public, he would confide it to his diary, naming names and giving reasons he would reveal to no one else. That famous Ike smile was often used to hide his anger, a trick he learned from his boxing coach at West Point.

Brooks also tells us that another World War II general, George Marshall, decided against keeping a diary "because he thought the exercise might cause him to focus too much on himself and his own reputation, or on how others might view him in the future." He also declined to write his autobiography. If others wanted to write about him, they would have to do it without his help.

I kept a journal for a few years during my youth, eventually giving up the practice not because I thought it revealed too much about me, should anyone else ever read it, but too little. It seemed like most days I recorded little more than weather reports and baseball scores. I apparently I wasn't able to reveal much about myself even to myself.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The world needs Sherlock

"The world does not need Arthur Conan Doyle. The world needs Sherlock Holmes."
Spoken by Bram Stoker in The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

And so it would seem from the unending stream of books, movies and television shows about Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character who now, as in the 1890s, seems more real than his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. (And since we have mentioned Bram Stoker, we should add that the world apparently needs Dracula, as well.)

Graham Moore's clever 2010 novel The Sherlockian tells not one Sherlock Holmes story, but two in alternating chapters. In one, Doyle decides he has had enough of Holmes and decides to kill him at Reichenbach Falls so he can move on to what to him seems like more important work. Virtually all of the rest of the English-speaking world, including his close friend Bram Stoker, objects. A few years later Doyle, with Stoker as his Watson, attempts to solve a murder case using the same techniques his most famous character employs. Someone is marrying young suffragettes, then killing them, and Scotland Yard is getting nowhere with the case. They don't even suspect the murders are related.

In the second story, a well-known Sherlock Holmes scholar has announced he has found Doyle's missing diary, written during the period before he resumed writing Holmes stories (and during that period in which that other story takes place). The morning before he is scheduled to reveal the contents of that diary at a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars in New York City, his body is found in his hotel room. The diary is missing. The newest Irregular, Harold White, decides he will play Sherlock and solve the mystery, as well as discover the diary. His Watson is a young reporter named Sarah, who follows him to London, he in pursuit of a killer, she in pursuit of a story. Like the first story, this second one, while fiction, has some factual basis

By the end of the novel, these two stories come together, strengthening Stoker's case that the world does, indeed, need Sherlock Holmes.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A study in limitations

Well-chosen one-word titles can sometimes carry a multitude of meanings in that single word. A good case in point is Scott Turow's relatively brief 2006 novel Limitations. At first glance, the title refers to the statute of limitations at the center of the legal case before the Court of Appeals and in which George Mason, as the presiding judge, has the deciding vote. Some college boys had raped an unconscious girl and videotaped their actions. The girl, when she awoke, knew something had happened to her but didn't know what until years later when the videotape surfaced. But after so many years, at least according to the defense attorneys, the young men, now respected citizens, cannot be held accountable. Or can they? Judge Mason must decide, a decision made more difficult by his returning memories of something he himself did during his own college days.

Meanwhile, George's beloved wife is hospitalized with a serious illness, someone is sending him death threats and two young men assault him in a parking garage.

In under 200 pages, Turow makes his readers think not just about the statute of limitations, which could allow rapists to go free, but other kinds of legal limitations, as well. Plus we witness limitations of personality, limitations to life and health, limitations of ability, limitations of courage, limitations of strength, limitations of wisdom, limitations to friendship and on and on.

This may just be a legal thriller of the sort Scott Turow excels at, but amazingly the brevity of the novel did not pose much of a limitation on the author's ability to pack it full of points to ponder.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fascinating stuff

Malcolm Gladwell seems to have a knack for making a lot out of a little. Take, for instance, his book Blink, the thesis of which is: First impressions are usually right. What I said in five words, he stretches out to several hundred pages. Yet they are fascinating pages that don't just state and restate his initial thought but dig deep into the hows and whys of the matter.

In What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, Gladwell holds himself back, giving us shorter reflections on a variety of intriguing questions you may have never thought to ask but, upon reading this book, you are glad somebody did. The book collects 19 articles originally published in The New Yorker.

Among the questions Gladwell asks and then answers are:

Who's the guy in all those Veg-O-Matic and Showtime Rotisserie infomercials?

If there are so many varieties of mustard, why is all ketchup pretty much the same?

Should a charge of plagiarism ruin a person's life?

Is someone always to blame for major disasters like the Challenger explosion?

Why do we equate genius with precocity?

Are smart people overrated?

What do job interviews really tell us?

The answers to these and other questions are almost always surprising and, like Blink, utterly fascinating. In his introduction Gladwell states his belief that anything can be interesting if the writer does his job and makes it interesting. In fact, a reader might wish Gladwell would stretch each of these pieces into a book.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The contribution of collectors

Most bookish people, myself included, accumulate books more than collect them. That is, we acquire those books we most want to read or, at least, most want to have on our shelves. There's not much rhyme or reason behind our libraries. This can be true even of those who spend large sums of money for relatively rare books. If they love To Kill a Mockingbird, they may be willing to spend a great deal to have a first edition of that novel. On their next visit to an antiquarian book store they may pick up a copy of Lord of the Flies because they liked that book in their youth and it happens to be available.

True collectors are those with specific objectives to their collections. They want to own the complete works of William Faulkner, say, or the first editions of Sue Grafton from A to Z. In Used and Rare, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone's memoir about their introduction to the rare book world, they describe themselves as the first type of book buyers, not the second. They bought nice copies of those books they had particularly enjoyed.

Yet in their book they do discuss the specialists, the other kind of buyers of rare books. Or rather they listen as a Boston bookseller explains to them not just why specialists are good for antiquarian book dealers (they are willing to pay high prices for the books they need to fill out their collections), but why they are good for literature itself. Or why they were good for literature, because specialists are not as common as they once were.

"Collectors used to concentrate on one particular author or period or binder ... it became almost scholarly," Peter Stern told them. "The collections had historic value. A private collection, even more than a university library, would be the source for serious research."

Stern went on to say, "They'll collect a specific author's papers, letters, secondary sources, like what people wrote about them, other authors who influenced them, the sources of a person's work. For example, with Steinbeck, the way his upbringing affected books like, say, East of Eden. If we don't get people doing this kind of thing, bibliography will become a lost art."

I confess this had never occurred to me, that book collectors were actually furthering literary study. Yet it makes sense. A devout Billy Joel fan, for example, will want to collect not just every Joel album in every format, but also concert posters, photographs, letters, books and magazine articles about their favorite singer. Their collection might prove useful to anyone wanting to write a biography of Billy Joel.

In the same way, the collection of a reader devoted to a certain writer, especially one who has not already been widely studied, could conceivably be invaluable to a future scholar.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The royal I

"I'm not signing no one-year deal. No. I done proved it. I done showed it, there's not really a guy like me out here ..."
Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants

No, I'm not going to comment on Jason Pierre-Paul's grammar. Rather my interest is in his use of first-person singular pronouns, four times in about two dozen words. This focus on himself came just after his Giants lost an NFL playoff game 38-13 to the Green Bay Packers, a time when a little humility might have been in order. Such boastfulness is common today, especially in the world of sports. It makes one long for more players like Barry Sanders, who after each spectacular touchdown run would simply hand the ball to an official and head back to the Detroit Lions bench.

Barry Sanders
In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks writes about George H.W. Bush during his campaign for the presidency. "If a speechwriter put the word 'I' in one of his speeches, he'd instinctively cross it out. The staff would beg him: You're running for president. You've got to talk about yourself. Eventually they'd cow him into doing so. But the next day he'd get a call from his mother. 'George, you're talking about yourself again,' she'd say. And Bush would revert to form. No more I's in the speeches. No more self-promotion." Bush was to politics what Barry Sanders was to sports. It was about the team, not him.

Frances Perkins
Later Brooks tells about Frances Perkins, a warrior for social justice who served in Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet. "The word 'one' plays a crucial role in her descriptions of her own life," he says. "Sometimes she would use the formulation 'I did this,' but more often her diction was formal and archaic: 'One did this ...'" This may have sounded pompous, even 70 or 80 years ago, but Brooks says it was "simply a way to avoid the first person singular pronoun."

There are other was ways to avoid first person, some of them sounding even more pompous. There is, for example, the "royal we," most familiar in the phrase "we are not amused." Then there are those people, such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who refer to themselves in third person. MacArthur, like most kings and queens, was not known for humility. Even so, third person may have seemed to him like a way to talk about himself while seeming to be talking about somebody else.

For most of us, we are better off following the examples of Barry Sanders and George H.W. Bush, simply letting our actions speak for us or, if we must speak, as a presidential candidate must, sharing the focus with others.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The life of Lee

The United States has a few secular saints, and some of them (Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King) died at the hands of an assassin. Not so Robert E. Lee, who lived a full life. He is revered today as much in northern states as southern states, despite the fact that Lee, after spending most of his life as an officer in the U.S. Army, fought against that army when the Civil War broke out. Yet he is remembered today as more of another George Washington than another Benedict Arnold.

Michael Korda explores this remarkable man in his fine 2014 biography Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee.

Lee, like so many great individuals, was a study in contradictions. He was excited by combat (Korda calls war "his one intoxication"), yet he hated personal confrontation (Korda calls this Lee's Achilles heel). He opposed secession and disliked slavery, but when Virginia seceded, he chose his state over his country. He did not regard blacks as equal to whites, and said so publicly even after the war, yet he often treated blacks as equals. He may have been a strait-laced Southern gentleman, but that didn't stop him from flirting with young, pretty women at every opportunity. As a general, he respected his men and sacrificed for them, yet his treatment of deserters was as harsh as that of any other general.

To some Civil War scholars, especially those of the South, Lee could do no wrong. When a battle was lost, it was always somebody else's fault, usually James Longstreet's. But Korda, while usually praising Lee, also doesn't hesitate to point out his errors, both military and personal. The author, who has written several other military books, including biographies of Grant and Eisenhower, neatly compares and contrasts Lee with other generals down through the centuries, including Napoleon. By reading Clouds of Glory, you know more not just about the Civil War but about military history in general.

Yet Korda, like Lee, is hardly perfect. He tends to repeat himself. Once he says something in a footnote, then repeats the same information in the text on the next page. He also contradicts himself. On the very same page he writes about Lee: "his orders were often unclear" and "his written orders are as detailed and clear as anybody could wish."

Korda writes, near the end of his book, "Lee lost nothing by being portrayed as a fallible human being." True enough. And Clouds of Glory loses nothing by being an imperfect biography of an imperfect man.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Two good questions

"And word count is obviously important. For a work of literary fiction," he said, "you need at least, I'd say, eighty thousand words. Really, it probably needs to be somewhere between ninety and a hundred thousand. One hundred ten thousand is too many, but if the book is really good, you might get away with it."

"I can think of a hundred exceptions," I said. "What the hell does word count have to do with quality? Shouldn't the story dictate the word count?"
Phillip Lewis, The Barrowfields

Twice in the past week I have happened across discussions of word counts in novels, especially serious novels. One of these is the one I've quoted above from The Barrowfields, the soon-to-be-published novel by Phillip Lewis. The speakers are two law students with literary aspirations. One of them thinks "literary fiction" must fall between 80,000 and 100,000 words. The other, our narrator, asks, "Shouldn't the story dictate the word count?" Good question. Both The Old Man and the Sea and War and Peace fall outside the 80,000-to-100,000 limit, yet both qualify as literary fiction. Stories do dictate word count. Yet there is more to be said.

Colin Firth and Jude Law in Genius.
The second discussion of the topic can be found in the 2016 movie Genius, which is about the relationship of wordy novelist Thomas Wolfe with his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins. Wolfe wrote mountains of prose, each word priceless to him, yet Perkins convinced him to cut out enough words, about 60,000 according to estimates, to make Look Homeward, Angel, something the public might actually be willing to read. The novel became a best seller, as did a second huge novel, Of Time and the River, yet Wolfe always resented the cuts he felt Perkins forced on him. Never mind that other publishers had rejected Wolfe's first novel, and only Perkins saw its literary potential.

At a key moment in the film, Perkins, played by Colin Firth, says about book editors, "Are we making books better, or just making them different?" That's another good question, one that editors of all kinds should sometimes ask themselves. Are they really making the work better?  It is the writers, not the editors, who get their names printed on book covers and in bylines on magazine and newspaper articles. How much input by editors is too much? And, for that matter, how much is too little?

No doubt there are Thomas Wolfe fans who, like the man himself, wish his mountains of prose had been left intact so they could savor every word. Others of us may wish thousands more words had been cut out.

For most of this movie, I assumed Thomas Wolfe was the title character. He is even referred to as a genius at one point. By the end, however, I realized the film was really about Maxwell Perkins. He was the genius, or at least as much a genius as Wolfe. And it wasn't just Wolfe that Perkins helped turn into a literary giant. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald also feature prominently in the movie. Perkins was also influential on the careers of such writers as Erskine Caldwell, Alan Paton, James Jones, J.P. Marquand, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Ring Lardner. That's a lot of literary influence by someone who was not himself a writer.

Friday, January 6, 2017

A Helen MacInnes misfire

A few years ago Titan Books, a British publisher, began reissuing the espionage thrillers written by Helen MacInnes between 1941 and 1985. This should prove a blessing to old fans wishing to read books they may have missed or wish to revisit, a new generation of readers who may never have even heard the name Helen MacInnes and those, like me, who are old enough to have read MacInnes while she was still alive but never did.

Unfortunately the first MacInnes I chose to read, I and My True Love (1953) must surely not be one of her better ones. Part love story and part spy story, it fails to give satisfaction as either.

Yet the opening chapter is masterful. Sylvia Pleydell, the unhappy wife of a government man who works with secrets every day but seems just as secretive when he is at home, comes to the Washington train station to meet Kate, a young cousin moving to town to begin work at an art gallery. Also at the station is Lt. Robert Turner, a young Army officer with a crush on the older woman who observes Sylvia's brief meeting with Jan Brovic, whom she had met and loved during the war but who had returned to Czechoslovakia, now a Communist nation. And so we are are introduced to many of the novel's main characters and get a sense of the tension, both romantic and diplomatic, to come. And yet it never really comes.

Both the love story and the spy story seems to be conveyed at a distance, as when Sylvia, in the final chapters, reads newspaper stories about Jan's return to Czechoslovakia and about hints of a scandal in the State Department, while she herself is on a train to California.

Hollywood turned several MacInnes novels into movies, but not this one. It's easy to see why.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Former pitcher gets a save

Someone named Chuck Finley checked 2,361 books out of a Florida library over a nine-month period last year. He didn't read any of them, mainly because he doesn't even exist. "Chuck Finley," named for a former major league baseball player, was the creation of two library employees, who gave their fictional patron a phony address and a phony driver's license number.

This may sound a bit like the Wells Fargo scandal that erupted in 2016 and led to the dismissal of more than 5,000 employees accused of creating fake checking accounts and credit cards to meet quotas and, by charging real customers for the fake accounts, improve the bank's bottom line. In fact, there was a suggestion the librarians created their fake patron in order to increase circulation (which it did by 3.9 percent) and, therefore, library funding (which apparently it did not).

Yet the two librarians had a more altruistic motive. They wanted to save certain books from the discard pile.

All libraries have limited shelf space. To create room for new books, older books must be discarded. Books that are not checked out over a set period of time are among those most likely to be removed from the shelves. The two employees of the East Lake County Library say they wanted to save books that, in their judgment, the library should have available whether they were actually being read or not. One of the books mentioned in the newspaper article I read was Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I agree with them. Cannery Row belongs in their library, never mind how many years it has been since anyone other than Chuck Finley has checked it out.

These librarians may have had a good reason for doing what they did. Even so, they created "a false public record," as the inspector general's report put it. That can't be tolerated. But these strike me as just the kind of people libraries need on their staffs, employees who care about books and particularly good books.

Instead of firing them, perhaps they should be given, after some time off without pay, a new assignment: figuring out a better way to discard old library books while saving the classics.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Wodehouse on Broadway

A century ago, while P.G. Wodehouse was writing three or four novels a year, he also wrote the lyrics for a number of popular Broadway musicals, teaming up with Guy Bolton, who wrote the book, and a variety of composers, including Jerome Kern. In the summer of 2014, I saw a revival of the 1918 hit Oh, Lady, Lady at the Ohio Light Opera at the College of Wooster. That was one of the musicals created by these three, and it was a wonder.

In 1953, Wodehouse and Bolton collaborated one more time for a delightful memoir about their Broadway experiences, Bring on the Girls! The title stems from advice the pair heard early in their careers: to liven the dead parts of any musical, just bring on the girls, namely the girls in the chorus. This was guaranteed to bring both the production and the audience back to life.

No doubt both men pooled their recollections, but the book itself displays the unmistakable prose style of Wodehouse. We find lines like this: "With men of the Guy Bolton type, memories are like mulligtawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is wiser not to stir them." Even when Bolton himself is speaking, he sounds like Wodehouse, as with, "He was looking at me austerely, like a clergyman who has discovered schism in his flock."

There are references in the book to several of the novels Wodehouse was working on at this time and the creation of a new character named Jeeves. At one point we are reminded of those Jeeves and Wooster novels when we read, "Quick on the uptake, like all the other Wodehouses, he (Wodehouse) saw that this new arrival must be the authentic female decorator."

The hilarious stories Wodehouse and Bolton tell also seem like scenes one might find in a Wodehouse novel. There are great tales about quirky producers, oddball actors and merry mixups. Many familiar names crop up in these stories, including Flo Ziegfeld, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, W.C. Fields, Fred Astaire and John Galsworthy.

For all this, the book does have its dull spots. That's when you wish Wodehouse and Bolton would bring on the girls.