Michael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-0-89870-815-8) has more strikes against it than Babe Ruth on a bad afternoon.
Here is a doorstop of a novel, weighing in at nearly three pounds, more than one thousand pages long. There are redundancies galore; there are clunky passages; there are coincidences, particularly one involving a Russian military operation, that stretch belief to a breaking point. The characters engage in philosophical and theological debates that will annoy the car chase and bang-bang readers. Often the dialogue is didactic and polemical. The main character, Alex Graham, hails from Canada — O’Brien himself is a Maple Leaf man — a country which, should they think of it at all, many Americans would describe as safe, comfortable and boring. Finally, Alex Graham is a believing Catholic, and much of the novel explores that faith, an exploration that will offend — and in some cases, enlighten — those who take their ideas of Catholicism from priestly scandals, the Spanish Inquisition and The DaVinci Code.
Suppose this was your household budget:
• Annual family income………………....$23,400
• Money family spends annually….....$35,900
• New debt added to credit cards……$12,500
• Outstanding credit card balance ..$154,000
• Total cuts to family budget………….......$385
Looks like the budget from hell, right? This household with its skyrocketing debt stands precariously on the brink of bad credit, bankruptcy, and ruin.
Now add 8 zeros to all of the above numbers, and you have the current U.S. federal budget (World Magazine, May 19, 2012).
Or shall we say the current financial situation of the United States. You see, we Americans haven’t seen a real budget, balanced or otherwise, in years. The Republican House under Paul Ryan recently proposed a plan that would balance the budget by 2040. The Senate shot down that plan, but offered nothing in its stead. In fact, the Democratic Senate hasn’t offered a real budget in four years. This spring President Obama sent his own recommended budget to the Congress, where in March the House defeated it 414-0. Last week the Senate followed suit by a vote of 99-0. Congress apparently found a few flaws in the president’s proposals.
Both Congress and the president have drawn up other plans for fixing the deficit. Some of our elected officials have called for raising taxes on the wealthy. This sounds like a good idea because the truly wealthy possess so much more money than the rest of us, and they probably don’t deserve it, and anyway, we need it more than they do. So goes the reasoning of some of our citizenry. But eventually we realize that the amount so raised amounts to only a pittance of the debt we owe and such an increase will result in a shift of capital overseas, leading to even less wealth and fewer jobs here at home. (If we are honest, we might also tell ourselves that some talented people have worked hard for their money and that we are thieves to steal it away).
Others call for making cuts to the budget. Some want to reduce miliatary spending and foreign aid. Why, after all, should the United States give $2 billion to Egypt again this year? Why can’t something be done about our wasteful military? Some want to cut or change social programs. Why do we require a Department of Education for the nation when every state in the union already has such a department?
Here the legislators who wish to cut programs face different obstacles than the tax advocates. They are met on one side by political opponents who decry their lack of compassion for the poor and the elderly, and on the other side by lobbyists who are all for cuts as long as they aren’t aimed at those who employ them. Try extending the age of eligibility for Social Security, and you’ll have the American Association of Retired Persons slicing you into small pieces. Propose reducing military benefits or closing overseas military bases — we have hundreds of them — and the lobbyists will take you apart.
Meanwhile, the rest of us watch, enraged at the failure of politicians to find a cure, cursing their knavery and greed. We blame them for our economic woes, for the loss of our AAA credit rating, for a federal government drunken on dollars and corrupted by power. We regard these leaders as fools, rogues, and thieves, and many of them indeed fit those descriptions.
Yet surely some of the fault lies with us. We vote these people into office; we demand they protect us from the natural ills and woes of life; we want what we want without regard to the cost. We don’t want to pay taxes and certainly don’t want to pay more taxes, yet we want food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, “free” medical care, clean air along with plenty of oil. In 2008, a radio commentator reading children’s letters to candidate-elect Obama best summed up our expectations with this line from a seven-year-old: “President Obama, please make it rain candy.” For decades we have enjoyed that rain of candy. Now the rot of that sugar is destroying us.
Some historians point to Ancient Rome as a warning for us, that crumbling empire with its bread and circuses for the poor, its failed price and wage controls, its unwieldy taxes. But we needn’t stare 1,500 years into the past to see what’s coming. We have only to look across the Atlantic at present-day Greece, Spain, and Italy, all of which are falling apart from the same construct we have erected here: burgeoning social programs, uncontrolled spending, and massive debt. We can look closer to home at California, which while being crushed by enormous debt staggers toward bankruptcy by enacting more government programs.
“Money talks, b***s**t walks,” so the saying goes. We can buy into the lies of some politicians, and we can lie to ourselves, but in the end the figures and the money don’t lie. There’s a bill coming due, and when it arrives, our arguments about taxes and government services won‘t matter. There won’t be enough of us left to tax, wealthy or otherwise, and there will be no more social programs.
It’s time for us to ask every politician, from our mayor to our president, from our senators in Raleigh to those in Washington, what they intend to cut from the budget and how they intend to make government more efficient. If they aren‘t up to the task, then it’s time to elect women and men with long knives, axes, and swing blades, courageous men and women who can chop away at the kudzu of ridiculous regulations, excessive spending, and out-of-control programs. As for the rest of us, we can either pitch tantrums like a three year old when these cuts are made, or we can suck it up and act like grown-ups.
In his Foreword to Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Best Words (ISBN 978-193333882-8, $14.94), Richard Lederer reminds us of Mark Twain’s much-quoted declaration: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
We live in an ocean of words. In addition to our everyday human speech, we listen to the radio, watch television, read books, play with Facebook, write emails and letters. Advertisements both heard and read are ubiquitous. Most of us throw out words with the casual disregard of a man emptying his pockets of loose change.
Yet our diction – our choice of words – often matters more than we realize. The right word can strengthen a friendship, console the sorrowful, inspire the discouraged, give pause to the smug and the self-satisfied. Some of Twain‘s “lightning“ words have even moved the hearts of millions and changed the course of our history: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “I have a dream,” “an evil empire.” The wrong word can break a business deal, a love affair, a marriage. Who has not regretted a word carelessly spoken, a reckless phrase emailed to an acquaintance, a heedless comment whose painful consequences come back to haunt us?
Our words matter.
Which brings us back to The Best Words. Robert Fiske has spent a good part of his life reminding all who would listen to him of the importance of writing and words. He is the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Disagreeable English and The Dimwit’s Dictionary, and the editor of the Vocabula Review, an online journal devoted to fine writing and the usage and peculiarities of the English language. He is a man who loves the play and scope of language.
In this most recent book Fiske collects more than 200 of what another reviewer calls “superlative words.” Chosen both from lists of favorite words sent in by Vocabula readers and by Fiske himself, these words truly are superlative because they are infrequently used yet eminently suitable for conversation and writing. Unlike some collections which offer sesquipedalian entertainment for its own sake – Peter Bowler’s wit in The Superior Person’s Book of Words series leaves readers laughing, but few of us will use words like mammiferous (having breasts) or lilaceous (having to do with slugs) – Fiske and his Vocabula crew have here collected a kit of serviceable tools. Employing his book, we can replace the well-worn enthusiasm with ebullient, sluggish with phlegmatic, ordinary with quotidian. Even the more exotic words found in these pages – hypergelast (one who laughs excessively), quincunx (an arrangement of five objects), coprolalia (the uncontrolled or obsessive use of obscene language) to name but three – seem selected because no other word will do in their place.
Some of Fiske’s entries may also serve as a first-line of defense against suspicion or intrusion. For instance, most of us recognize a misogynist as one who hates women, but it is splendid to learn its opposite, philogynist. This is a most useful word for a man at the beach in the company of a significant other. When she asks, “Must you look at every woman in a bikini?” he has only to reply, “It’s my phylogeny acting up again, dear. I’m not sure there’s a cure.”
The Best Words follows a simple design which benefits all readers. In newspaper-width columns, the reader comes first to the word, then a phonetic guide to its pronunciation, a definition or two, and examples of its usage by noted authors. Included in the back are six quizzes. This is a splendid book for students, particularly those soon to take an SAT, teachers, writers, and all lovers of the English language.
Many books deserve a second look, but few will provide the entertainment and even the wisdom of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Smith, who also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmations, here drops us into the English countryside of the 1930s, where we enter the lives of the Mortmain family: Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator and diarist, her beautiful older sister Rose, her step-mother, the exotic and loving Topaz, and her father, James Mortmain, a brilliant one-novel author suffering from more than a decade of writer’s block. All four scrape by in a falling-down castle leased to them.
Enter two young American men who have just inherited the castle and the nearby manor house. As the American become acquainted with English ways and with the Mortmains themselves, and as romance and love overtake all the characters, Cassandra records their adventures with high humor and intelligence. Cassandra is the perfect narrator here, innocent enough to still find amazement in the actions and words of others, literate enough to think of Shakespeare on a May afternoon, and with enough dry wit to give any reader laughter and pleasure. Through Cassandra Smith gives us a look into an England that may well be disappearing and into an English spirit that will, it should be hoped, endure forever.
If you know a reader among this year’s high school graduates, particularly a young woman, I Capture the Castle is one book whose wisdom and story should capture their attention.
Spring-cleaning remains a ritual in many households. We throw open windows, rid closets, shelves, and drawers of unwanted items — books, papers, video cassettes, sweaters that haven’t seen daylight in 10 years, Aunt Matilda’s time-blighted photographs of zinnias — wash everything from curtains to cars, and finally settle down with the perfume of ammonia and Windex gilding the air.
In my own case, spring-cleaning also includes clearing the left side of my desk of books awaiting review. Here a hillock of volumes, read with varying levels of enjoyment, have gathered dust these last few months, awaiting their turn in this column. Without further ado, I present to you three different books that may deserve your attention.
Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader (ISBN 978-0-8021-1970-4, $24) contains many of the trademarks of Harrison’s other novels: a style that pulls the reader through the story, a hero with many flaws balanced with good intentions, a concern with philosophy, religion, food, liquor, and sex. Detective Sanderson, Harrison’s hero, divorced, frequently drunk, recently retired from the Michigan state police, spends much of his retirement and the novel chasing down a creator of religious cults while at the same time reminiscing about his past. He follows this culprit, the Great Leader, from Michigan to Arizona and then to Nebraska, all the while recollecting his adolescence, his life with his wife, various sexual encounters, and his love of nature and the outdoors.
What Harrison does best here — and his other novels — is to write poetic paragraphs stuffed full of philosophy, poetic diction, and entertaining asides. A random examination of The Great Leader yields paragraphs like this one:
“He hit the radio off button when someone on NPR used the word turd iconic. He used to keep track of these obtuse Orwellian nuggets. A few years ago it was the relentless use of the word closure that raised his ire and then with Iraq the silly term embedded … Pundits reflected his idea that everyone in America gets to make themselves up whole cloth, and also the hideously mistaken idea that talking is thinking.”
Where The Great Leader, Sanderson, and Jim Harrison fall flat on their collective face is in their ideas of sex. Older men — and here I mean men over 55 — do indeed dream of the affections of women, especially younger women, but it is doubtful that younger women cast themselves as frivolously and as frequently at older men as women do at Sanderson. This retired detective has little to recommend him to the younger lovers; he is dull, stuck in the past, aged, lacking in looks and money. Yet women ranging from his teenage neighbor, Mona, to various waitresses all seem to take a shine to him. The novelist’s infatuation with this topic — younger women and their involvement with old guys like Sanderson — borders on the obsessive, so that even the most dilatory reader must wonder whether Harrison is sketching from life or indulging in his own maudlin fantasies.
In Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fanny Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook (ISBN 9781-4013-2322-6, $25.99), Chris Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchens and Cook’s Country, sets out to make a gourmet meal using recipes from what was once America’s most popular cookbook. The problems with such a re-creation are multiple — finding the right ingredients, using the same equipment, deciding whom to invite to the meal — but Kimball’s greatest difficulty lies in the fact that the recipes from Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book too frequently turn out to be second rate, poor cousins to their French counterparts of that age and cousins several times removed from our own culinary specialties. Several times, forced to choose between following Farmer’s mundane recipes or his own good instincts and superior knowledge of food, Kimball finds himself playing variations on Farmer’s work and criticizing her cooking skills.
Far more interesting than the recipes here is Kimball’s investigation into the food and manners of late nineteenth century Boston. From him we learn the intricacies of cooking on a wood stove, the growth of various farmer’s markets in Boston, and the life of a cook in a Victorian household. We discover that the Victorians, unlike modern epicures, disliked the odor of cooking foods and so built their kitchens at the rear of the house; that Boston by 1896 was a shopper’s paradise for cooks, “a vastly better and more convenient place … than Boston today;” that jellies and gelatin dishes played a far greater part in meals of the time than today. Kimball’s historical sense and mastery of details provide an engaging account of Boston social life and entertainment.
For anyone interested in either cooking or the social history of nineteenth century America, Fannie’s Last Supper is a feast in its own right.
Though poetry has lost its shine in the age of twitter and tweet, verse remains the blood and heart of literature. Great verse retains the power to steel our nerves, to open our souls, to sing to us like Eliot’s mermaids. April was National Poetry Month, but it’s never too late to crack open that dusty Norton Anthology or to search out poems old and new on the internet.
On my desk is a copy of A Poem A Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. Most mornings I forget to read from it, but when I do remember to seek out that day’s poem, I am reminded once again of the vigor of the English language and the beauty of carefully selected words and forms. Many writers can walk, and some can run, but the great poets open their arms and invite us to dance.
In The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories (ISBN 978-1-4697-7768-9, $20.95), James T. Joyce and James T. Joyce — that doubling-up is not a misprint — have shared, perhaps inadvertently, the secrets to a fulfilling life. Like a fine symphony, which often consists of four parts, all of them intertwined in some way, bound together by tone and motif, The Guys in the Gang offers four important ingredients for leading a full and worthy life: faith, family, friends, and fun.
Both of these men (they are distinguished in the book by reference to the streets, Ada and Carpenter, where they grew up. James “Ada” Joyce lives in Waynesville.) came of age in Irish-Catholic Chicago in the heady years following World War II. This was the era when the Catholic Church held sway over its parishioners in ways that today seem as strange as fins on cars and rotary dial phones. The nuns directed the parochial schools, the priests commanded the churches, and the monsignors and bishops ruled over them all.
Joyce and Joyce both suffered the usual abuses of parochial school — Brother Sloan, the religion teacher, would “simply flail away at you slapping, punching, and kicking” — and grew up in families in which faith was as familiar as the daily paper. “Ada” Joyce, for example, writes that his father turned off the television every day of Lent and that his mother, a leader in the large parish church, frequently said the rosary on the two-hour drive to her family’s farm. (One of the Mysteries of the Rosary is “The Agony in the Garden,” which Joyce’s friends, who traveled with him on these excursions, later renamed “The Agony in the Car.”)
Family, too, played a role in shaping these two men. Both men came out of strong families. Both men honor this bond by speaking highly of their parents, wives, children, and various relatives.
It is, however, the portraits of their friends and their mutual adventures that distinguishes The Guys in the Gang from similar memoirs. Through high school and into the years immediately following, both men belonged to the same gang of friends, guys who partied hard, worked at all sorts of after-school jobs, and indulged in their spare time in all sorts of pranks, some of them silly, some of them truly dangerous. These accounts make up some of the most humorous portions of the book. At one point, 16-year-old Jim “Ada” Joyce is driving his Dad’s new Olds 88 when one of the gang asked how fast the car could go.
“I put the accelerator to the floor and our heads snapped back. We went past 100 like it wasn’t there; 110 was gone and the max, 120, provided no obstacle.
“The speedometer was a circle with a yellow needle pointing to speed. The needled continued around the circle until it hit zero, completing 360 degrees. Then it went “twang,” popped off the spindle and came to rest at the bottom of the glass. A thin, plastic coated wire now appeared behind the numbers. I immediately slowed down and said, ‘Oh, s**t!’”
There are some great stories about the “gang,” and “Ada” Joyce has the eye for details and irony that will bring a smile to the reader’s face.
Carpenter Joyce, who became a Chicago fireman, reports more somberly on the fate of the neighborhood. Both Joyces grew up in the civil rights era and racial unrest, and Carpenter Joyce tells of the demise of the Saint Sabina parish when integration came to the neighborhood. As in cities across the nation, African-Americans moved into some urban neighborhoods, and whites moved out. Here Joyce gives us a first-hand look at “white flight” and its influence on this particular Chicago parish.
In the second half of their memoir, the Joyce duo gives us a brief record of their adult lives. “Ada” Joyce, who has already recounted his Army and Vietnam experiences in Pucker Factor 10 and his work as a psychoanalyst in Use Eagles If Necessary, focuses here on this work as a businessman, while “Carpenter” Joyce briefly gives an account of his life-long work with the Chicago fire department. Once again their reminiscences provide a good deal of humor while at the same time shining a light on certain aspects of human nature. This last part of the book also contains a number of memorable farewells to friends who have died.
What marks the book overall is its sense of esprit and fun. These are two men who have, by most measures, lived what society considers successful lives. In addition to earning a good living, each man has also faced various ordeals and emerged with a sense of amusement intact. Both have a knack for seeing the humorous side of difficult situations, a sense of the absurd which doubtless helped carry them far in life. It is their sense of fun and their recognition of the ridiculous that has carried them through life and carries the reader through the memoir.
The Guys in the Gang and Other Stories by James T. Joyce. iUniverse, 2012. 276 pages.
Fifteen years ago, when I was the temporary teacher of Latin at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, I was discussing different uses for the dative case when one of my brighter sophomores — he entered the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics the following year — raised his hand and plaintively said, “Mr. Minick, we haven’t really studied grammar since the fourth grade. Could you explain what you mean by an indirect object?”
Few teachers — or students, for that matter — would disagree that grammar and writing take a seat at the back of the academic bus these days. To study more than the basics of grammar — ”A noun is a person, place, or thing” — requires patience from the teacher and demands repetition and memorization from the student while good writing requires a massive amount of work from both. Ask any English or history teacher who still centers a class on writing about the weekends, and you will find a teacher who spends more than a few hours correcting papers.
We live in the age of communication, of email, twitter, and texting, yet as a number of online sites attest, poor communication skills in writing and grammar cost us hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and badly composed sentences result in missed meetings, mangled orders, mistaken shipments, and bad service.
Sometimes our failure to communicate costs more than money. A love letter composed by the semi-literate can ruin a match made in heaven. A badly written police report can bring a murderer’s freedom. Our military leaders and medical personnel are acutely aware that a word misused or a comma misplaced can bring about disaster and death. (This problem is not new. In his last communication to his subordinate, Captain Benteen, Gen. George Armstrong Custer of Little Bighorn fame sent a terse, confusing note which was delivered by a man who barely spoke English. Custer and his men may have ended up massacred because the general didn’t take an extra two minutes to put together a coherent summons).
Here is a simple and classic example of the importance of grammar. “Let’s eat, Grandma” is a straight-shooting sentence. We are hungry and wish to eat, and we want to encourage Grandma to do likewise. If we drop the comma, however, we proclaim “Let’s eat Grandma.” (You few young people who are reading this column on grammar should here be cautioned against dining on your elders. Historically, you and the younger set are regarded as much more tasty. See Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.)
Fortunately, remedies for our grammatical dysfunctions abound. There are scores of grammar guides in print today. In recent years, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation made the best-seller lists in Great Britain and the United States. With her witty stickler’s guide to the use of the apostrophe, the dash, and other marks of punctuation, Truss helped kick off our current interest in language and its usage by making readers more aware of the importance of grammar and the rules of writing. For a more classic, though by no means comprehensive, examination of such issues, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style remains a central authority on usage.
The various editions of Writer’s Inc., employed in many of our schools, offers perhaps the most for the money in terms of grammar and usage. This book is accessible to students from middle school through college and would also make a fine addition to any office or home in which questions of grammar and punctuation recur. The examples used are clear and to the point. In addition, the book includes guides to writing various types of letters and emails, essays and papers, a strong glossary of literary terms, and a dozen other useful topics.
Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (ISBN 978-0-8050-8943-1, $19.99) is the new kid on the language block. Fogarty is the creator the online Grammar Girl, whose Quick and Dirty Tips on grammar have attracted the attention of millions seeking answers on everything from using commas in clauses to the test of when to use a colon. Though designed for students — Aardvark and Squiggly the Snail, Fogarty’s signature characters, appear in most of the examples — Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide should appeal to a wide audience. The index is complete — I tested it by looking up the usage of “anymore,” and found a clear explanation — and the author follows a logical progression in her presentation, going from the basic definitions of the parts of speech to the writing of papers. For a student going into high school or college, for a secretary who runs smack into grammatical thickets, and for anyone interested in a witty, practical approach to our language, Grammar Girl’s Writing Guide should prove a valuable tool.
Stephen Hunter’s Soft Target (978-1-4391-3870-0, $26.99), which continues the Bob Lee Swagger story, this time with progeny Ray Cruz trapped in Minnesota’s America, the Mall with a group of terrorists bent on killing as many Christmas shoppers as it can take with them, lacks some of the punch and depth of the earlier Swagger novels. Parts of the novel — this is becoming a trademark in the suspense genre — don’t even make a whole lot of sense. Why, for example, would a local imam team up with a young psychotic from white suburbia? How could this crazy white nihilist get the devotees of Allah to follow him?
Readers of Hunter’s stories probably won’t care too much about these questions. The mayhem of the fighting and the expertise shown by Hunter in regard to weapons and tactics will doubtless blind many of his fans to the weakness of the story. Soft Target does offer one additional virtue. The weakness of the police chief in the story serves as a reminder that to placate terrorists and to wave the olive branch of appeasement is simply to ask for more terror.
Little Sally was eating lunch with her family when her parents ask her if she learned anything in Sunday School that morning. Sally nodded and smiled. "Teacher says we are to go forth and spread the gossip."
It seems these days that gossip has indeed become our gospel, though that word means specifically "good news," whereas good news in our day really amounts to no news at all. We much prefer the "bad news," the scandals, the foolish antics of our fellow beings, so long as we ourselves are omitted from the roll call.
Although countless authors down through the ages have issued admonitions against gossip and rumor-mongering — the Book of Proverbs, for example, bulges with warnings against those whose "lips talk of mischief" — gossip has not only retained its allure but has in the last century mushroomed from a cottage industry to a skyscraper whose shadow touches us all. Our intense interest in the self, our therapeutic age, and our revelry in revelation have combined with our technology — television and the internet for spreading the secrets of our celebrities, Facebook and Twitter for the rest of us — to create a near-perfect breeding ground for gossip. A host of websites and television shows exist solely to sift through the dirt in other peoples' lives, and so long as we ourselves are not among the unwashed, many of us find such muckraking a splendid source of entertainment.
Often the lives of family, friends and acquaintances provide an equivalent show, and we follow these particular dramas and comedies with the avidity of an opera buff. When we hear that Uncle Fred, a deacon in his church, is spending his money on women half his age or that our model of temperance, Aunt Agnes, has been arrested for driving NASCAR-style after a few too many martinis, we cluck our tongues at their peccadilloes and express our empathy even while we find ourselves secretly delighted to hear this latest bit of juicy news. "How awful," we say, and in the next breath ask: "And then what happened?"
In his newest book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (ISBN 978-0-618-72194-8, $25), Joseph Epstein, one of the best American essayists of this or any other age, turns his discerning eye on gossip. He was attracted to this subject, he tells us, both because gossip can be a "species of truth ... beguiling truth" and because he himself has taken great pleasure in receiving gossip over his long lifetime.
These two-fold explanations for his interest in gossip lead to that fine blend of the personal and the public which is the hallmark of Epstein's writing. In the public sphere, Epstein ranges in his analysis from what he calls "the Great Gossips of the Western World," men like Suetonius, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Truman Capote, and women like Tina Brown and Barbara Walters, to the lesser-known gossip columnists of the last hundred years. One fascinating feature of his examination is the way in which these people achieved their fame from reporting the fame of others, how they "achieved celebrity by interviewing celebrity." His sketch of Barbara Walters, for example, an amusing mini-biography of praise and put-down, seems precisely on the mark. Epstein notes her fierce ambitions and her crassness, writing that "this vulgar streak, asking the questions that are on the mass mind, is her bread and caviar." Epstein ends his look at Walters by writing:
"Give Barbara her due: week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were themselves tasteless enough to answer her. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally."
To these portraits of famous gossips Epstein adds accounts of his own gossiping and the interest he takes in the foibles of his familiars. A university professor, once editor of The American Scholar and board member of the National Council of the National Endowments for the Arts, Epstein confesses that he has taken great pleasure in hearing gossip about the famous and the not-so-famous. In a section at the end of most of the book's chapters, titled "Diary," Epstein shares with us glimpses of his forays into tale-telling and rumors. He recounts a pleasant evening spent with Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; his encounters with Mortimer Adler; his accounts, gathered from others, of the eating habits of Orson Welles and the wit of playwright Lillian Hellman.
One story which Epstein includes has to do with his mother. She was an ebullient woman who, like her husband, "looked out at the world and saw only admirable or less than admirable behavior." Her father died when she was young by his own hand, a fact Epstein learned from his own father when his mother was dying. Not only had his mother never told Epstein about this episode, she had never told her husband either, who had learned of it from her sister. After reflecting on this silence from his mother's point of view, Epstein applauds the nobility of her silence:
"Why rehash it? What was to be gained? Nothing, evidently, that she could see. Reticence about the matter was more dignified, made more sense. And I find I love my mother all the more for her ability to live without the need to drag her sadness out into the open."
Epstein ends Gossip by wondering whether the rest of us have become too caught up in the ways of rumor. He points out gossip's negative effects on our national news and on our view of the world, and wonders whether our penchant for gossip has resulted in a dumbing down of cultural life. He concludes that gossip, which Matt Drudge calls "unedited information," is here to stay and that we will continue to indulge ourselves because we delight in the sordid and the strange.
Yet it is the story of Epstein's mother which sticks in the mind. Epstein is correct: there is a nobility to her silence. We can keep our secrets and the secrets of others. For those of us who aren't celebrities, who don't make a billion dollars a year or act in blockbuster movies, reticence is still an option. No one shoves a microphone at us, no one asks us revealing questions below the bright lights of a television studio, no one forces us to reveal confidences or spread rumors.
We have a choice. And for those who still value privacy, mum's the word.
Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 256 pages.
Twenty minutes a day.
In early January, writing in my book column for this paper, I made a New Year’s resolution to read 20 minutes a day from a bucket-list of books, heavy tomes which I’d laid aside in the corners of my mind to read but which seemed destined to go on collecting dust until I too became dust. After compiling what seemed a formidable list and a simple rule that allowed me to make up any missed sessions by week‘s end, I began reading Jane Austen’s Emma.
The time commitment was a crucial element in my project. Given my schedule, 30 minutes a day of unbroken reading from a classic was a daunting prospect. That daily half an hour would hang from me, I knew, like a convict’s chains. Fifteen minutes a day seemed weak and somehow formulaic, a quarter hour administered daily like medicine. No — 20 minutes a day struck me as a good compromise, a tough, viable, and worthy ambition.
The results? In the past two months, in addition to the magazines and books I read for pleasure, the books I read for review, and the books I read for the classes I teach, I have also read in their entirety Jane Austen’s Emma, Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, and The New Testament’s Book of Acts and Pauline Epistles. Though I usually fit the reading into my schedule — I frequently accomplished my 20-minute stint while riding the elliptical at the local Y — I did miss some days but was diligent about making them up before the week’s end. (This past week was particularly difficult for work-related reasons, which means that I must in the next two days double my sessions).
And what have I learned from my reading? From the books themselves I have gained several insights. From Emma, which was the only book on the list which I had previously read, I learned first what I already knew, that I will never join that company of devotees who elevate Austen to the inner circle of literary gods. I admire her talents from afar, much as I admire certain saints, but am not enticed to devote to her more of my time or study. Yet I did find fascinating the comparison between her age and our own. Separated by less than two centuries, the world of Jane Austen seems as removed from ours as that of Caesar. Continually while I read the book, I would stack her era of leisurely hours, slow news, and careful courtship against our own harried, internet-driven, sex-drenched age, and would find myself envying Austen’s characters their more deliberate days.
From Boethius, the sixth century philosopher and politico who wrote his Consolations while imprisoned and awaiting execution, I studied again the old lesson of what matters in this world. A Christian and a philosopher, Boethius in Consolations engages in a dialogue with Lady Philosophy regarding the virtues, the ladder of wisdom, and the relationship between free will and predestination hooked me. The condemned man writes simply and in that catechetic dialogue practiced by the ancients, and I was able to follow his arguments until nearly the last, when he lost me on his explanation of free will and predestination. (Lady Philosophy kindly let me off the hook when she declared that God, who is outside of time, sees in a different way than humans do).
From Acts and the Pauline Letters, fragments of which I hear frequently at Mass, I came to realize how much a rebel St. Paul was. In Acts he is always just a step ahead of one mob or another, and in his letters he is constantly exhorting his followers to ignore the differences between the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” and to pursue instead the “new way” as laid down by Christ. Paul fully lives up to his reputation for being harsh on matters of sex, and he strikes me as a man with whom a supper shared might not be the most laughter-filled evening of my life, but he is also clearly filled with the love of his new faith and eager to communicate its radical new way to those mired in old prejudices. (I also learned that the Bible remains loaded with a dynamite all its own. When reading it at the gym, I was aware several times of nervous glances from those exercising around me. “Uh oh,“ their faces said. “Another religious fanatic.“ Twice my reading roused brief conversations, not, unfortunately, with lovely women, but with one man who seemed permanently angry with God and with another who was truly as nuts as I undoubtedly appeared to the non-believers around me).
My greatest lesson came not from the books, however, but from the power of 20 minutes. I am a slow learner at times, but I have finally realized the value of a space of time, even 20 minutes, when set under the throne of discipline. Reading 20 minutes a day for two months has allowed me to absorb truths from a 19th century spinster, a sixth century philosopher, and a first century tentmaker. More importantly, my little experiment has shown me the power of applied time. Suddenly many things seem possible — not only for me but for others as well. Want to learn to tango? Twenty minutes a day for a couple of months will bring you onto the dance floor. Aikido? Twenty minutes a day will eventually find you king of the dojo. Cooking? Add twenty minutes to your culinary preparation each evening, and you can break away from those frozen pizzas and dull salads. From flower arranging to piano playing, from memorizing poetry to bumping up your math grades, from hitting three-pointers to deepening your prayer life: 20 minutes a day will do the trick.
And now — back to Dante and a trip like none I’ve ever taken.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius translated by Richard Green. Prentice Hall; 1 edition, 1962. 160 pages.
There are many reasons to love the writing of Ray Bradbury. His early short stories — science fiction “lite,” tales of his midwestern youth, accolades to writers like Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, Twilight Zone accounts of life in mid-twentieth century America — remain in print and still attract teenage readers outside schoolhouse hallways. His jeremiads in these stories against the modern mechanization of the soul remain fresh and lively even 50 years after they first appeared in print. His style, a sort of splashing of words onto paper — has an American writer ever enjoyed such a love affair with the exclamation point? — still entertains. Bradbury has said in numerous interviews that writers shouldn’t write unless it’s “fun,” a refreshing take since so many writers over the last hundred years have spoken of the difficulty and angst of writing, and this sense of fun comes to vivid life in Bradbury’s writing.
In the negative column is the fact that Bradbury’s stories and novels of the last 30 years are weakly plotted self-parodies. Most of these saw print because of the writer’s reputation rather than their worth. Any reader who has followed Bradbury can find the weakness in these more recent stories in their syntax alone: the thin paragraphs, the false excitement in some of the diction, the tired exclamations.
Yet the prose of the younger Bradbury still has a spring-like air about it, and it is this writer that Jonathan R. Eller examines in a new biography Becoming Ray Bradbury (ISBN 978-0-252-03629-3, $34.95). Fittingly published by the University of Illinois — Ray Bradbury spent his early youth in Waukegan, Illinois — this rich, dense account should appeal to a broad spectrum of Bradbury fans. Eller, a professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University and the cofounder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies, spent hundreds of hours interviewing Bradbury’s friends, other writers, his principal biographer, his wife Maggie (now deceased), his daughter Alexandra, and Ray Bradbury himself.
From these sources Eller has given us a fine look into the life, thoughts, and stories from his birth in 1920 to the 1950s. He shows us how the boy from Illinois who came of age in California created himself as a writer, following the advice of a dozen different mentors while reading himself into an education. Bradbury, like Hemingway, is an autodidact; he never had the money to go to a university, but instead worked after high school selling newspapers on a Los Angeles sidewalk while enrolling in that least-expensive of educational institutions: the public library. Eventually, after a period of trial-and-error, Bradbury realized that the richness of his own life — his love of fantasy and mystery, of dinosaurs and space travel, of great writers like Dickens, Shakespeare, Shaw, Hemingway, and Wolfe, his boyhood days in Illinois — was the palette from which he should paint his stories. He wrote daily in those years, building his stories from a variety of techniques like word association and creative mental play.
In describing how Bradbury refused to be categorized as a genre writer — in this case, of the “weird tale” — Eller sums up some of Bradbury’s approaches to work in the middle of Becoming Ray Bradbury. He writes that Bradbury was “… ignoring reductionist genre rules and traditions whenever they interfered with his own intuitive approach to writing. He continued to minimize the art of plotting, for his Muse worked best when the characters seemed to write their own stories. He would continue to use the loose framework of science fiction, or the weird tale, or even the occasional backdrop of noir crime, but he was writing about people rather than about science, or terror, or detection.”
Becoming Ray Bradbury should appeal not only to readers of Bradbury’s work, but to anyone interested in writers and writing. We can see in this book how a young man became a writer and how writing itself, with all its travail and uncertainty, can bring to its creator a great sense of joy.
In How Do You Kill 11 Million People: Why The Truth Matters More Than You Think (ISBN 978-0-8499-4835-0, $14.99), Andy Andrews, author of The Noticer and The Traveler’s Gift, has written what amounts to an essay published in the form of a book. This is a small volume of only 80 pages, and the word count per page runs to less than half of that found in most books.
Despite its brevity, however, How Do You Kill 11 Million People? — the title refers to those murdered by the Nazis, not only the Jews, but the other millions of people thrown into concentration camps for their beliefs — serves as a sobering reminder about the value of truth in our personal and public lives. Reminding us of Hitler’s remark in Mein Kampf, that “The great masses of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one,” Andrews then asks the question: What happens to a society in which truth is absent?
We live now in a society in which truth may not be absent (though a good many people, perhaps a majority, deny its existence), but in which it can be so covered up by information, conflicting points of views, and outright deceptions, that it might as well be absent. Our politicians and many in our “news” media deliberately mislead us, but what is worse, we often allow them to do so. We expect to be deceived, and like the readers of the newspaper Pravda (“The Truth”) in Soviet Russia, we find ourselves having to read between the lines to dig out the real truth behind a government policy or some story on the six o’clock news.
Perhaps the real value to this thin little slip of a book are the questions asked in the Reader’s Guide at the end. These questions and the ease with which the book can be read make it an ideal tool for book clubs, the classroom, and political discussions. To begin to reflect on these questions of what truth means to us, what lies we ourselves have told and why, and what steps might be taken to bring truth to the fore in the public square, is to begin looking at ourselves and our present difficulties in a new light.
Recently I watched several early episodes of “Blue Bloods,” a fine television series centered on a New York family with a tradition of law enforcement. The father is the New York City Police commissioner, his father is a retired policemen, and his children include a detective, an assistant district attorney, a rookie cop, and a policeman killed on duty. The series is justly touted for its realism regarding both police work and family dynamics. Yet in one of these episodes, the detective participates in a raid; he runs alone up a fire escape to enter through the window of an apartment while an entire contingent of fellow officers breaks through the front door. In all the episodes I’ve seen so far, the commissioner, a widower, is dating a television reporter, but still wears what definitely appears to be a wedding band on his left hand.
Questions: why is the detective running up the fire escape without backup? And why does the commissioner’s lover ignore the wedding band?
Hollywood often gives us movies or television shows in which coincidence is not justified, logic is sacrificed for emotion, and plot and character motivation is as flimsy as a doublewide in a tornado. Style trumps story, drama and excitement run roughshod over reason. Sometimes the magic works, and we are tricked against our better judgment into accepting certain premises, but just as often the curtain blows aside and we see the man working the controls. The magic ends, and we are left with a piece of creaky, irritating machinery.
Unfortunately, these same defects appear in some of the novels we may read.
In Carol Goodman’s The Ghost Orchid, set in an artist’s colony in upstate New York, the story grips the reader from the first page. The narrator of this Gothic tale, Ellis Brooks, is at work on her first novel. Goodman has a genuine talent for creating believable female protagonists, and through Ellis we come to know the other members of the colony: the renowned novelist Nat Loomis; the landscape architect David Fox; the eccentric and lovable poet Zalman Bronsky; the brooding biographer Bethesda Graham.
As in her outstanding first novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, Goodman displays a generous talent for creating tension, both among the characters and in the mystic elements — ghosts, mediums, a past-haunted present — surrounding the Bosco estate. The reader becomes caught up in the lives of the artists as they struggle to unravel the mysteries of the estate with its secret rooms, underground tunnels, mysterious sculptures, and living secrets.
About three quarters of the way through the novel, however, Ellis’ ability to “read” the other characters and to summon up the estate’s dark past become tiresome rather than intriguing. Worse, the connections of the other characters to the estate — by genealogical descent, by a past of which they are unaware — finally become too unreal to be viable. Worse still, for a reader skeptical about séances, poltergeists, and other supernatural phenomena, the last few pages of The Ghost Orchid become a tremendous cheat. The characters suddenly turn to cardboard, the plot to air, and the reader leaves the book feeling slightly ridiculous for having devoted several hours of breath and effort to so awful a contraption.
In The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Childs takes us back to 1997 when Reacher is still working as a special investigator in the Army. Sent to Mississippi to look into the murders of young women near an Army base serving as headquarters for secret missions in the Middle East, Reacher falls for the town’s sheriff, ex-Marine Elizabeth Devereux. Between bouts in the bedroom the two of them try to track down the killers. The Affair is vintage Reacher: finely-tuned dialogue, beautiful women who want to take Reacher to the sheets, Reacher’s own eccentricities (even here, while in the Army, he buys his clothing at thrift shops and throws away his old clothes rather than washing them and using them again).
From my reading of earlier Reacher novels, I had already learned that I needed to suspend certain conventional ideas regarding plot. In one novel, for example, Childs has Reacher randomly get off the bus in a small town. Before the novel is finished and the bodies are stacked higher than the bus, Reacher discovers his brother, a special agent, dead in the town’s morgue. To enjoy the novel, then, means that we must overlook the fact that the odds of this occurrence are spectacularly high.
But in The Affair, about midway through the story, I came to the final end of tolerance for Jack Reacher and his creator. Here Reacher has talked with a young black man, the brother of one of the murder victims, and has encouraged him to join the Army. The young man goes to the nearby post to enlist, but is shot dead by a group of vigilantes guarding the property. Reacher tracks these men down, discovers why they have been stationed around the post, then shoots one of them in cold blood and tells the others to haul the body away and never return.
It was on that page that I closed the book and promised myself never again to read one of these novels. Here we have a military policeman murdering a citizen and then casually telling his two buddies to take the body away. There are apparently no consequences for this killing; I didn’t read any farther into the book, but the other Reacher novels still depict our man running around the country single-handedly killing platoons of bad guys and eradicating evil. The sheer numbing stupidity of such a plot twist, and all the other unbelievable situations in this book and others in the series, have finally brought me back to my senses.
The appropriately titled The Affair brought an end to my own affair with these books. Unlike the traditional breakup line, however, I will say in ending our relationship: “It’s not me. It’s you.”
The Affair: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Childs. Delacorte Press , 2011. 416 pages.