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.