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.