The evolution of reading

Printed text is like the wheel in some ways.   It’s one of the first basic inventions, one that millions of others benefit from.   Before printed text, reading was reserved for the few who, through luck or wealth, could get their hands on the labor-intensive, hand-printed texts.  After Gutenberg, books became accessible to larger and larger pockets of people and more and more information became available because it was printed.  Knowledge wasn’t lost after a sheepskin or papyrus disintegrated.  Even the internet exists because we were able to amass and share knowledge through printed text.  Reading has allowed us to transmit knowledge for a long time  but, partly because it works so well, we didn’t really monkey around with the basic delivery system for years.  We have now.

As a kid, I heard about audiobooks but only as substitute for blind people who hadn’t mastered Braille.  It was the 1990’s before I used them.   We rented them for long car trips as an alternative to recorded music and conversation.  Don’t ask me why but books about ocean disasters always seemed to accompany us on trips to the beach.  (It’s probably a mistake to listen to A Perfect Storm or Jaws when you’re on the way to the coast; if the weather turns bad or something bumps you in the water, the engrossing narrative will come back to haunt you.)  A lot of recorded books fail because of an untalented reader so don’t judge the book by the voice-over.  On the other hand, there are some magical combinations like those gifted Harry Potter readers, Jim Dale and Stephen Fry (or Mark Linn-Baker reading Chris Buckley’s Little Green Men) . At their best, audio books are like being read-aloud to by someone who knows how to create all the voices.  You can’t speed-read through this medium but the fun is in the trip.

The problem with audio-books is the same problem with paper ones: they can take up so much room!  For the first half-century of my life, preparing for a trip meant packing my clothes and my books, not necessarily in that order.  So, once I caught on to e-books, I was a sold customer.  With the app on my phone and app on my computer(s), I always have access to a library.  And I don’t have to be at a bookstore to pick up the book I’ve been wanting.  When a long-awaited novel appeared in the middle of my vacation, I downloaded the book and read it at top speed on my phone.  Yes, with no more than 35 words on the screen at one time, I wore out my thumb flipping pages but the convenience was worth it.  I’m just sorry the novel wasn’t.

All this leads up to my latest addiction: I’ve fallen in love with Whispersync.  (Full disclosure: I am a customer of Amazon, probably the idiot who first put them in the profit margin.  I know I’ve sponsored a Frankenstein that’s killing the independent bookstores plus some of the chains and I am sorry.  In the meantime, I’m a book addict and they deliver my D. O. C. on command.)   Whispersync marries the best features of the electronic and audio books.   Buy a book with Whispersync and read till your little eyes are sore.  (Or you have to do something that requires your visual attention like drive, or sleep or work.) Then, push the icon at the bottom of the page and the audio-book takes up the tale, right where your eyes stopped reading.  Are you at a point where you can eye-read again?  Push the icon and flip the book back to text, exactly where the audio left off.    How nifty is that?

Now that I see what the options are, I can hardly wait for the next innovation.  If I buy a Shakespearean play, will an app project a holograph performance of the play while my eyes follow along on the text?  (Yes, please, and cast David Tennant while you’re at it!)  Can my traditional cook-books have a pop-up app that shows me exactly how to assemble Boef en Croute?  (I’m going to need some serious help here, find a way to get Ina Garten to virtually interact with me through software so I can finally learn how to cook!)  The possibilities are endless!

Oh, I still love the heft of a traditional book in my hand.  There’s nothing like the shape and feel of a book with lots of lovely pages.  But I realize this form is a good transport system not the first one and not the last.  In the end it’s not the form but the function that matters.  It’s a pathway into that wonderful river of words.

When Survivalism met the ’50’s

Society always finds some lethal “Big Bad” to fear.  It might be a meteorite, or a pandemic, or even industrial pollution but every culture identifies some civilization-killing threat and then worries about how to survive it.  When I was little, adults were obsessed about “the bomb”.  Everything was about  A-bombs, and the H-bombs: who had them, who would get them, and how would we survive if they went off.  The Bomb was the boogeyman of our culture and creative people used it in their work.  One of the earliest post-bomb stories is also one of the nicer ones.  Until you look at it up close, it’s hard not to like Alas, Babylon.

Alas, Babylon is the story of how a small Florida community fares in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.   They’re close enough to see distant mushroom clouds, but distant enough to avoid lethal exposure to radioactivity.  Many people die, from to illness, injury or suicide.  The people who survive have to adapt to a much tougher world and, in a few cases, the disaster gives their lives new meaning.  The author implies that by stripping some things of their  artificial value (for example money reverts to worthless paper) and keeping the intrinsic worth in others (the knowledge in books) allows some obscured values to reappear.  Those are fine sentiments if you can overlook some of the other sensibilities in the narrative.
More than anything, Alas Babylon is a novel of the ’50’s (it was published in 1959) and it shows the mindset of that time.  The author identifies racism as one of the artificial systems that society never needed.  Nevertheless, his black characters remain stock figures (the wise, old, preacher, the heavy-set matriarch, the shiftless male and the good guy who is needlessly killed) who support the protagonist.  None of them are really developed into recognizable, detailed individuals. 

A pervading air of unconscious sexism also pervades the tale.  All of the female characters fill supportive roles, important ones but never roles with decision-making capability.  One female character is classified as “all woman, and that’s what she’s made for” as if a female’s function was limited solely by her gender.  It’s like 1960’s television: for all of the progressive ideas, the white guys still get the cool jobs, the best lines and the final say; no one disputes their command.  These distinctions stands out more with each passing year, reminding the reader that nuclear threats weren’t the only “Big-Bad” in that era.

Even with this, Alas Babylon has a great deal to offer; of all the survivalist tales, it has the most optimistic ending and the realized characters are enjoyable and human.  The story moves along at a reasonable pace and it shows insight along with flashes of humor.  That could be why other works(like On the Beach ) go in and out of print while Alas, Babylon is still an assigned book in schools.  It contains the moral conclusions about nuclear warfare but it suggests a lucky few will survive.  Other books in this genre would give some kids nightmares.  This one should make them think.

My first Role Model

Every kid needs to have role models.  They show us what to do.  Our parents are great but they’re grown-ups with lives we kids can’t fathom.  The same thing goes for teachers.  Kids our own age are too close and smaller kids look up to us.  So, we look for role models among the kids a bit older and cooler than we are.  We follow them around and copy their ways hoping some of their aura will rub off on us.  Of course, my first role model came from a book.  I’m sure my Mom would have preferred I pick a real person or at least a heroine she could understand, like Mary Lennox.  Instead, I found a precocious, formidable loner and claimed her as my ideal.  I didn’t know where my life was going until I met Harriet the Spy.

If your recollection of this eleven-year wonder is limited to the movies, you need to pick up the book.   Harriet is nobody’s darling; she’s a curmudgeon with eyeglass frames and a notebook.  To say she’s focused doesn’t begin to describe her; single-minded and blunt come closer.  Harriet has a single ambition in life, to become a writer.  She knows that writers record what they experience and, since she hasn’t had many experiences, Harriet observes other people and writes down what she sees, in brutally honest detail.  Hence her title, Harriet the Spy.

You wouldn’t expect a kid like that to be Every Parent’s Dream or the Most Popular Girl in Class.  She’s not.  With her spy route and notebook, plus a couple of outsider friends,  and her book quoting nanny, Ole Golly, Harriet doesn’t need to be a Popular Girl.  To her, the world’s complete as it is.  Unfortunately, no universe is static.  Ole Golly leaves just as Harriet’s notebook is discovered and read by the rest of her class.  Once they read what she really thinks of them (“Sport’s like an old woman”; “Carrie Andrews’ mom has the biggest front I ever saw.”) Harriet’s a target in the enemy camp.

Believe it or not, this brilliant book has been challenged due to Harriet’s personality.  She’s an outsider, a loner, a hard-to-please-stick-in-the-mud.  So what?!?  The fact is, most kids feel like an outsider at some point in their lives.  (Those who never did may leave the room.)  Harriet speaks to that loneliness and tells kids they can survive the disasters and make up a fight with real friends, if they can apologize and give it time.  That kind of knowledge is powerful medicine and a lot of kids need to have it. 

Harriet the Spy also points out that the difficult kids also have feelings that can be hurt.  Harriet may have the natural subtly of an ax but she’s not malevolent by nature.  When her classmates turn on her, Harriet goes through hell.  If there’s a central lesson to this wonderful book, it’s to have patience with outsiders and all those who need some extra lessons in tact.

There are very few books that satisfy the adult reader the way they did when the reader was a kid.  Harriet does, at least I think so.  Of course, she still is my Role Model.

A Love Letter to the Hometown

Everyone’s hometown plays a  special role.  It’s a part of each person’s identity, and wherever they go, some fragment of home travels with them, tucked around a corner of their soul. Strangers may see the same place as a paradise or living hell but to to a native son or daughter, this spot is where they started to become the person they are today.  That tie never completely loses its grip and while a lot of us leave our hometowns, some of us eventually go home.  The rest return in their dreams.

That’s the theme of Fannie Flagg’s 2011 novel, I Still Dream of You.  On the surface, it’s a story of  twentieth-century women adapting to twenty-first century demands.  Brenda’s jumped into real estate work and politics with both feet, trying to improve the City of Birmingham and lose weight without losing her Krispy Kremes.  Brenda’s friend Maggie isn’t adjusting as well.  Maggie was raised to be a lady, considerate and kind but  her inbred courtesy is often undercut by other, unprincipled  real-estate agents.  Like her beloved old homes on Red Mountain, Maggie is in danger of being destroyed by opportunists driven by the almighty dollar. The friendship between Brenda and Maggie bring out the best in each other as they protect and develop the good parts of life here, in Birmingham.

The worst of Birmingham made headlines around the world; Maggie never forgets this or glosses over that pain.  Her sadness comes with realizing the Birmingham she knows, the city of trees with gracious streets, and caring, yard-proud neighbors is rarely remembered or cherished.  Maggie will not and cannot deny her past: good and bad, Birmingham is her home.  It’s also Fannie Flagg’s hometown and she writes of life there with unmistakable longing.  In this town, a person can hear the church bells miles away and the Spring sun nurtures both smiles and flowers.  No amount of stress can make the Warrior River run faster and nothing smells better than a box of locally grown peaches.  This is Miss Flagg’s Birmingham, for better or worse; she and the town are bonded forever.

 To learn from the bad times and cherish the good is what memory is all about.  That’s something Maggie learns, along with life’s capacity to surprise you, when you least expect it.  I Still Dream About You is a dream of a hopeful futures and a love song to the places that loved us long ago.

The Rest of the Story

Anyone unaware of The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood must have spent the last twenty years under a rock.  The book came out with it’s trademark blue cover and sweet story of survival, family and redemption and hit the ball out of the publishing park.  Then came the film adaptation and even though it cut some of my favorite bits from the book, it hit another home run, chick movie, older actresses and all.  All of the sudden, everyone was “Ya-Ya” and Girls Raised In The South until I was ready to scream.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book but I knew there was so much the writer left out.  That’s one reason I love Little Alters Everywhere, the story of these characters before they found forgiveness in the first church of Ya-Ya.  Trust me, there’s a lot more to that story.

For example, there’s Shep.  In the sisterhood, he’s Saint Shep, the man who accepts punishment from a wife for not being the man she expected to marry.  He can’t give her the life she thinks she deserves or she needs but he’s her champion when the chips are down.  The worst thing you can say is that he’s not always there for his children.  Little Alters fills in the back spots showing a man hemmed in by fear and asthma.  Growing up with a physically abusive father made Shep afraid he’d repeat the pattern, so he pulls away from his family, unable to give or receive affection. So when the guilt, the conflict and the emotions get too high, Shep runs to his hermit’s cage of a duck blind until he develops the nerve to go home.  Shep’s not a bad man but he lacks the courage needed to stand up and be good.  Little Alters shows the plantation man is far from a saint, just the man still married to Vivi Abbott Walker.

Vivi is still a fragile soul but her sins in the Sisterhood were easier to discount.  Lost love and lousy parents account for part of Vivi’s damage and her worst sins come from a combination of the church, booze and pills.  Vivi can be forgiven for acts she committed when she was non compis mentis.  It’s harder to forgive Vivi’s nighttime visits and her inappropriate touching in the night.  Viviane Abbott Walker may have been a damaged child but she could dole out her own traumas as well.

But for all of the damage, there is sunshine and summers at Spring Creek and a family that loves each other, however imperfectly.  If “Ya-Yas” is a book about forgiveness then “Little Alters” is about learning.  Learning to be careful around some people you love, especially if they still drink.  Learn to listen to your instincts and set boundaries when you look after yourself.  Learn that while people mess up, they’re still trying to to do the best they can.  And learn that if you will look closely, you can find a blessing in the pain. 

Listening to The Voice

If you hang out with writers or writer wannabes for any length of time, you’ll hear them talk about Voice.  They mention the word with awe and respect, like the Voice is Gandhi’s or Caruso’s or God’s (a Voice, according to the clergy and Kevin Smith, that would literally Blow. Your. Mind.) and every writer wants one.  A strong narrative voice.  A recognizable voice.  An exciting voice.  You might think that all these adjectives had made the word-nerds squishy-brained but the fact is Voice is often the hook that pulls a reader into a story.  For example:

 Listen my children and you will hear-
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.

Hear those fourteen words again and suddenly you are a kid again, curled up with some pals by a wing chair  because the storyteller in the center has promised you tales of derring-do. Fourteen words and the narrator’s in charge.   That, my friends, is Voice.

All of this is build-up for a novel I just finished called The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  My mentor, Javacia Harris Bowser (she of Writeous Babe fame) mentioned it as a topic for research but scanning it for data brought to light a fabulous tale graced by that starriest of gifts, a Great Voice.

Ninety percent of the Voice in this book belongs to Flavia de Luce, an eleven-year old chemist with a passion for poisons.  She lives in the kind of drafty English country house once favored by Dodi Smith and Agatha Christie near a small, English village.  Family and the villagers all interact with Flavia but few of them seem to realize they are sharing space with the female version of young Sherlock Holmes.  (Of course, that’s a weapon in our heroine’s arsenal and one she won’t hesitate to use.)  Flavia is intelligent, acerbic, tenacious, and so emotionally detached that she should give most grown-ups pause. However, what our heroine lacks in sweetness, she makes up for in courage and a sense of fair play that extends to everyone except her own sisters.  One of the delights in “Sweetness” is the undeclared war between the de Luce sisters and it carries the ring of truth.  When you are growing up, no one can upset you faster or more than your own brother or sister, probably because they know you so well.  Flavia is the smartest de Luce daughter but Daphne and Ophelia are bigger and they can put their sister in her place.   Whenever they do, it stimulates Flavia’s interest in revenge!

If you liked Agatha Christie novels or I Capture the Castle, if you doted on Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm or loved the arch humor in Jane Austen’s books, (there’s a Voice for you!) try  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  You’ll fall in love with Flavia de Luce or, more accurately, you’ll fall in love with her voice.

The Nature of Obsession

How does an obsession begin?  Usually with something unknown, an experience or event outside our frame of reference with an overwhelming amount of detail.  We want to understand how it happened, to put it into context, but the matters that trigger obsessions usually resist easy categorization.   So, we dig deeper, thinking one more visit, one more review of the facts and we’ll figure out the problem and finally lay it to rest.  Obsessions don’t work like that: they’re spirals into a black hole of nothingness, they’re the itch we cannot scratch and that’s why they’re dangerous.  It’s the rare person who conquers an obsession; most survivors have to stage an escape.
Obsession is the key beneath James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, the novel grounded in the infamous murder of Elizabeth Short, a crime that still shocks almost seven decades after it happened.  Ellroy’s novel focuses on two (fictional) detectives assigned to investigate her murder. In the post-war world of Los Angeles, officers Bleichert and Blanchard both enjoy the minor celebrity perks of being former boxers and members of the L. A. P. D. and both are reasonably happy in their lives until coincidence places them in the neighborhood when Elizabeth’s body was discovered. Although the city  becomes fixated by the case, the investigators are in danger of being consumed; Blanchard, because Elizabeth’s runaway history reminds him of a runaway sister and Bleichart because her rootless life mirrors his own.  The men comb the remnants of Elizabeth’s seedy existence for clues while reporters and politicians manipulate facts for their own gain.  As Blanchard begins to fall apart, Bleichart must unravel a maelstrom of corruption that hides Betty Short’s killer before he falls apart himself. 

The story is told in the bold, electric prose that made James Ellroy famous but his subject stimulates this question: why, of all of the murders in history, is Elizabeth Short’s one of the few that people continue to find so fascinating?  The case is still officially unsolved although you could fill a bookcase with the published tomes identifying different murderers.  Is it her beauty that draws us or her youth?  Lots of pretty girls ran to Hollywood like Elizabeth and learned the bitter difference between movies and movie-making, though few suffered as she did.  Are we drawn in by the lurid details of what was done to her body, is this what fascinates us?  This is certainly part of the part, but another part is Elizabeth herself.  Beyond a few facts we know very little of her, what she cared about, how she felt.  That cipher of a personality leaves us free to imagine what the world looked like for a young woman who liked to dress in black.  The only thing we can be sure of is that her story didn’t end well.
Ellroy’s book helps decipher her story and it helped pave the way for his strong literary career. Nevertheless, Ellroy admits that Short’s murder haunts him still, along with his own mother’s death, ten years later.  I hope he finds periods of peace in his life from time to time.  That’s the most a person can hope for when he lives with an obsession.

When Fans Go Bad: Finders Keepers

Fans are the double-edged sword to creative people, everyone knows that.  Actors, artists and poets makes a living (occasionally a good one) because the fans like and purchase their work, which is great.  Develop a big enough fan base and an artist will encounter those who want to thank him or her personally.  A smaller group than that will mistake their enthusiasm as the basis of a personal relationship.  Gain enough popularity and the artist will face fans that expect to control his/her life and work.  Take this to the extreme and the artist will certainly die. 
Stephen King covered this in his novel, Misery but he gave Annie Wilkes a few bits of leavening humor.  What other professed lover of words would cut herself off from expressions of anger, so her profanity is limited to words like “cock-a-dooty”?  As destructive and strange as Annie is, at times she’s also comical.  That endearing shade of grey is missing from King’s newest novel about toxic fans, Finders Keepers.  It suggests admiration may be the most dangerous response in the world.

At odds are two readers of a twentieth-century novelist.  Both readers are young males when they find their author’s most-lauded works, a series of novels reminiscent of John Updike’s “Rabbit” series. The younger man loves the structure of the books, the style, and the weave of fiction and autobiography that pulls each individual tale.  The elder identifies with the series protagonist in the way Mark David Chapman glommed onto Holden Caulfield and judges the world by his internalized champion’s standards.  Two young men from damaged backgrounds, years apart and unknown to each other, but both obsessed with a writer’s unpublished stories but with a difference:  the elder man wants to keep the stories for himself; the younger man would share them with the world.   The world is safe when the first fan hides the manuscripts until the younger man inadvertently finds them. 
This problem falls into the hands of Bill Hodges, King’s retired detective of Mr. Mercedes.  It falls to Bill and his friends to piece together the disjointed story, find the manuscripts, and rescue their custodian before the murdering maniac can tear them all limb from limb.  If King has improved one aspect of his writing over the years it is pacing and Finders Keepers is a genuine page-turner.
So look out for the book, if you are interested.  And you are especially moved by someone’s work, politely tell them, and then move on.  Don’t expect them to be pals or your Jedi Master.  They are artists with their own lives and work and besides, they’ve learned to be careful of fans.  Among the adoring who just want to shake some creator’s hand, stands the maniac armed with a gun.