Monday, May 22, 2017

One writer's life

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Consumers of books

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The right time for the right book

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reading without rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 12, 2017

Think fast, or not

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Count the carbs, if you can

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 8, 2017

On the run

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Beginning, middle, end

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A life told in book titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

Speaking up for Silent Cal

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

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

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

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