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.
Of female writers who appeal the least to the young men in my seminars, Jane Austen surely holds first place. Many of these male students can relate to the work of Annie Dillard or Anne Tyler, and more than a few over the years have taken to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, if only because of Heathcliff and the author’s magnificently wild prose, but none of these young men have evinced, at least publicly, any interest in becoming, as have so many women, members of the Austenite cult. Even I, though I have found on several readings great treasures in Pride and Prejudice, have in the past mostly taught Austen because the book so gratifies my female students.
In his new book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter (ISBN 978-1-59420-288-9, $25.95), William Deresciewicz offers a perspective that may allow men to regard Jane Austen as more than just the queen of “chick-lit.”
When Deresciewicz first introduces himself in this book, he is an immature and arrogant graduate student in literature who is forced to take a course featuring Jane Austen’s Emma, a story which at first seemed to “consist of nothing but chitchat among a group of commonplace characters in a country village.” Bored at first by Emma’s willful attempts to change the lives of those around her, Deresciewicz soon realized that Emma’s cruelty and her contempt for some of her familiars were a mirror image of his own feelings. Moreover, he understood that Austen had written about everyday things and people because “she wanted to show how important they really are.”
Emma led Deresciewicz deeper into Austen territory, first to Pride and Prejudice, and then to the others: Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. He fell so in love with the long-deceased author that he soon decided to include her in his dissertation, and found himself immersed in her life, reading biographies and poring over her correspondence.
Deresiewicz divides A Jane Austen Education into chapters devoted to each of these novels. Skillfully weaving his own stories into his criticism of Austen’s stories, he shows us how her stories and characters affected him, making him a better man. From Emma, for example, he learns how to pay closer attention to the everyday events and people that touch his life, that it truly is the little things in life that count the most. From Pride and Prejudice, and the mistakes in judgment made by Elizabeth Bennett and her revelation regarding those mistakes, Deresiewicz realizes that he himself has often let his own prejudices blind him to reality. “She (Austen) wanted us,” Deresiewicz writes, “to override our emotions, which dwell within us and urge us to do what we want, and replace them with reason — with logic, with evidence, with objectivity — which stands outside us and doesn’t care what we want.”
A Jane Austen Education is also a tale of a young man not only becoming aware of his own flaws, but of learning how to love. Here an older professor helps Deresiewicz grapple with Austen and the lessons to be learned there. From Northanger Abbey the professor quotes Catherine, a central figure in the book: “I have just learnt to love a hyacinth.” The professor points out to Deresiewicz that Catherine had learned to love the hyacinth, and as another character tells her, “Who can tell, the sentiment once raised, but you may in time come to love a rose?…The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.” This, says the professor, is the central theme and lesson of Northanger Abbey.
From Sense and Sensibility Deresiewicz learns perhaps his most important lesson in the art of love, particularly as it relates to women. Austen lived at the beginning of the Romantic period, when feelings trumped reason, yet Austen herself came down firmly on the side of reason in regard to love. The head, according to Austen, trumps the heart — or at least equals it. This is not, on Austen’s part, a cold, calculating reason, but rather, a realization that we should fall in love with a person’s character more deeply than we account their looks, that “falling in love” is all too often temporary while to love someone is permanent. “Austen was not against romance,“ Deresiewicz writes. “She was against romantic mythology.“
The best love, Deresiewicz realizes from his reading of the novels, develops first in friendship, in familiarity, in an evaluation of the character of another, from which there emerges the attraction of real love. “And that was the most momentous revelation of all,” Deresiewicz writes. “Not only does your happiness depend upon your choice of mate, your very self depends upon it — your character, your soul.”
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, And The Things That Really Matter by William Deresciewicz. Penguin Press HC, 2011. 272 pages
The New Year’s resolution typically leads a short and tragic life. Its father is misdeeds, its mother remorse. Once born, the resolution swarms about its maker as irritating as a fruit fly. Often, too, it lives no longer than the common fruit fly, which is to say about two weeks. Its demise usually evokes in its pall-bearer tangled emotions of foolhardy chagrin and wild, celebratory relief.
Growing older does occasionally mean growing wiser, and over the last few years I have abstained from making New Year’s resolutions. For most of my adult life, I had made such pledges — to quit smoking, to drink less, to lose weight, to get into shape, to listen better — and while I eventually achieved some control over these vices, my change in habits never came about as the result of a New Year’s vow.
This year is different. Let me explain why I decided to make a resolution and how I determined to carry it out. But first the resolution:
“Resolved, that I will spend 20 minutes per day for the year 2012 reading the following books: Jane Austen’s Emma; Dante’s The Divine Comedy (the John Ciardi translation); Boethius’s The Consolations of Philosophy; the Oresteia trilogy; the Pauline Letters of the New Testament; G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man; Caulaincourt’s With Napoleon in Russia; Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War; Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I have previously read, but which has long demanded another visit); Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Selected Poetry; Joseph Pearce‘s Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse. Missed reading sessions must be made up within a week’s time.”
For more than a decade, I have vowed to read certain authors and books, writing that I had missed or neglected along the way. In my twenties, after I abandoned my graduate school studies in medieval history, I flung myself into fiction and poetry with the abandon of a man unleashed from prison, going from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, from John Donne to Sylvia Plath, from Scott Fitzgerald to Evelyn Waugh. I read these authors and many more for two reasons: I was genuinely interested in the books, and I wanted to learn to write.
By the time I entered my thirties, most of the books I was reading were newer, and by the time my forties and fifties rolled around, nearly all the books were contemporary. The classics still beckoned, and my life in a classroom has kept me in touch with older works of literature, but generally my reading has aimed, both from choice and necessity, at new works of fiction, history, and biography.
But the minutes tick away, and the old books call to me. The time has come to pay them heed. If asked why I want to have read certain books before growing infirm or dying — what difference will such reading make, really, one may ask — I have no more ready answer than the old-timer who wants to climb Everest or the grandmother who wants to run a marathon. The compulsion comes from inside the heart and defies ready analysis.
Resolutions are effective which come with this axiom: the more specific the goal, the greater chance for success. The man who sets out to “lose weight” fails nine times out of ten. The man who resolves to lose a pound a month between January and September has a fighting chance. I therefore decided to be as exacting as possible in the construction of my own pledge to myself.
Like everyone in today’s mad-rush world, I am busy with commitments. Days often pass in a blur of teaching, writing, caring for a teenager’s wants and needs, and completing the usual necessary household duties. My plan had to take into account the exigencies of my existence while at the same time allowing for some sense of accomplishment. Twenty minutes seemed a good amount of time, an easily remembered number less imposing than half an hour and more worthy than a quarter hour. Twenty minutes a day may seem inconsequential, but it adds up to well over a hundred hours of annual reading, and I am a reasonably fast reader. Self-knowledge led me to include an alternate plan in case, whether by accident or the demands of my schedule, I did miss a session of reading. I wanted a chance to compensate for my failure.
As for the books — I could have chosen any number of other titles. But the books selected here, with the exception of Caulaincourt and Pearce, are ones that I come across again and again in my reading. Some books are included to offset omissions in my education that are just plain embarrassing: to have neglected Dante is, given my interests and education, inexcusable. Some are appropriate to my stage of life; Boethius, for example, wrote The Consolations of Philosophy while under a sentence of death, a circumstance that looms somewhat larger in my life now than it did at age 20. Hopkins I have read in bits and pieces, and wanted a more disciplined approach to his work. I have read several Greek plays, and their stark prose and bare emotions drew me toward the Oresteia. I enjoy military history, hence Thucydides and Caulaincourt. (I also want to learn more about Napoleon and nineteenth century Russia, so the Caulaincourt fits several bills). Anna Karenina appeals to me for reasons of nostalgia; I can vividly remember reading the book and thinking it the best novel I’d ever read. The time seemed ripe to repeat the experiment and see what I think now of poor doomed Anna.
One great difference between this resolution and those made earlier in life is, of course, the fact that I am announcing it in a newspaper. Pressure can shape diamonds or break boulders. We’ll see how it goes.
That time of year has arrived when ritual and custom weave their magical threads into our lives. We sip Uncle George’s eggnog and bourbon, made from a recipe which his Uncle George inherited; we feast on ham at Grandma’s table; we sing carols off-key with the lusty disregard of a drunken sailor. Movie-lovers turn to old seasonal favorites like “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street;” families open presents from beneath the tree, each in their special way; children play with new toys in a tangle of ribbons and wrapping papers while mommy and daddy doze on a sofa.
Readers, too, some of them, may follow some tradition in regard to the season. A father might recite to his little ones Clement Moore‘s “Night Before Christmas,” with its parental prayer that the “children were nestled all snug in their beds.” A celebrant with a strong sentimental streak may find satisfaction in O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” that classic little tale of Della and Jim, of watchchains and combs, and the meaning of sacrifice.
Some readers this season will open Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. (By season, of course, I mean that period from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, the old Twelve Days of Christmas before our Black Fridays, parties, and feasting made so many of the holiday-hung-over happy to toss their dead trees into the street before the New Year). A score of movies and plays about Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Christmas ghosts have embedded this tale so firmly in our blood and nerves that two words alone — ”Bah! Humbug!” — can conjure up entire scenes from a London buried long ago by time and fashion.
Dickens’ tale is so familiar to all of us, in fact, that we can open this novella to any page and place ourselves immediately within the story. There is a great delight in such an arrangement, because there is great delight to be found in Dickens’ words. We all know the story of the stingy man visited by ghosts, but our knowledge has often kept readers from exploring the original story. This is unfortunate, for those who love the English language and have never read A Christmas Carol might not realize the treat they are missing. Here on every page is Dickens at his most delightful, reveling in description, puns, and conversation, the prose bubbling like the story’s steam pudding, the author’s enthusiasm for his tale infecting us with bacilli composed of happiness and joy. His jocularity and passion sweep us along with Scrooge, so that by the time the last ghost has visited the old skinflint we can truly feel Scrooge’s delight on waking in his bed with the opportunity to make amends and expiate his crimes of selfishness and meanness of heart:
“‘I don’t know what to do!’ Scrooge cried, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’”
Another story worth revisiting, older than Scrooge and his ghosts, and familiar to an even wider readership, comes to us from best-selling authors Matthew and Luke. Leaving aside the theology behind their telling (it is best your reviewer in particular leave aside theology, as his knowledge of that subject is approximately equivalent to his knowledge of homemade firecrackers, that is, he may eventually cobble something together, but is quite likely in the process to blow himself to hell and gone), let us instead look to the literary aspects of this story to explain its longevity and appeal.
We begin with a teenage girl who, according to the custom of her time, is espoused to an older man when she mysteriously becomes pregnant and is soon, as one translation puts it, “great with child.” This girl, Mary, accompanies her espoused, a carpenter named Joseph, to the city of Bethlehem, where she delivers her child in a stable and cradles him in a feeding trough for livestock. (Many will later consider this same infant’s flesh to be the food that brings everlasting life). Strange events then occur: angelic beings cavort in the skies over the tiny city, shepherds visit the stable in the night to pay homage to the child, wise men from the East follow a star and bring gifts fit for a king. Others, particularly a woman named Anna and a man named Simeon, proclaim the newborn the savior of their people.
This celebration is short-lived: Joseph receives word via a dream that the local king, fearful of a prophesy that such a child will seize his throne, plans to kill the baby. The family flees to another country before the king orders the murder of Bethlehem’s male infants in hopes that one of the dead will be the baby. Later the cruel king dies a deserved horrible death, and the tiny family returns to its homeland.
Matthew and Luke tell their story in a few pages. Here is no Dickensian excess. The prose is as simple, stark, and succinct as that found in one of Hemingway’s short stories. The authors use few adjectives and employ minimal descriptions of landscape, clothing, style, or manners. Comment on the emotions of the characters is almost non-existent.
Despite the absence of all these conventional literary devices, the story has stayed with us for a long time. Millions of people all around the world have read or heard the story. It stays with us because it possesses all the elements of a great story: love, birth, mystery, murder, shepherds and kings, angels, wise men, fools. It has, as some critics say, the power of story. One guy even called it a part of the “greatest story ever told.”