A Lesson in the Art of Reading

I learned to read  because of envy.  Some little girl in my pre-kindergarten class walked in one day, waving a Little Golden book like it was a fan. During show-and-tell she read aloud to the class.  The teachers all went nuts.  How smart she was, how sweet she was and wasn’t she wonderful to entertain the other children?  Phooey. A show-off in a pinafore is what she was and I wasn’t interested in being her audience.  I buckled down to understanding the Little Bear books Mom had been reading aloud and soon there were two readers in my Pre-Kindergarten. With a little help from Dr. Seuss, I left Blondie behind in the dust. Since then, I’ve read most things with ease.

The thing is, even a talent for reading won’t make every book easy and some worthwhile works require effort.  I found that out in high school when we were assigned Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and all those Russian characters were confusing me.  That is also where I learned the single greatest reading trick.  When you sit down to read a challenging work, have something close you can write on.

Let me go back to “The Cherry Orchard”

This play may be instantly comprehensible to people who grew up in Russia but it can drive American teenagers crazy.  Almost every character has at least three names and they were usually referred to by at least two of them.  We couldn’t even pronounce the lines, much less make sense of the plot.  So our teacher had us create a page for each character and write everything we learned about them on their particular page. (Always short of notebook paper, I put 3 or 4 on a page).  At any rate, as I learned things about the characters, I added data to the collections of notes, drawing arrows from one entry to another as I memorized the relationships between them.  (Lyubov mother to> Anya is an example).  It was slow going at first, since I was writing down everything, but pretty soon I was writing down my impressions as well (Is Yasha fooling around with Lyubov?  He’d better not, he’s dating Dunyasha!)  and the characters were coming to life.  Fairly soon I could remember all the characters and I didn’t need to rely on the notepad.

That practice served me well a few years ago when J. K. Rowling published The Casual Vacancy.   After her like-able and easy to read Potter series, The Casual Vacancy was an unwelcome surprise to those who secretly expected all of her books to be charming.  Instead there was a huge cast of unpleasant people trying to manipulate each other.  A lot of readers gave up.  Me, I’m stubborn so I got out the old steno pad and started making notes.  By a third of the way through I could see where the author was going  (she has a huge social conscience) and I didn’t need the pad any more.  Now when I can’t keep focused on the text, out comes the  pencil and paper.

A lot of people think reading should be easy, and popular literature follows that mantra, but some really good books require effort. If you want to try something a bit more sophisticated but you’re having trouble keeping up with the characters, break out the pencil and paper.  Give big characters a page of their own where you can write about them, allow extras to share a page.  Write down what you know, and draw arrows or underline until you understand what’s going on.  And if you see my English teacher, Mr. Schultz, tell him the old technique still works.

The Past We Leave Behind

I remember a few things about my first trip to Disneyland.  I loved riding the flying elephants with my Dad and I screamed all the way through the Sleeping Beauty castle, terrified that Maleficent would appear.  I don’t recall much more of that day but memories are like overstuffed closets; if you pull out one or two items, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find underneath.
The hero in The Ocean at the End of the Lane  has similar holes in his memories.  He’s driving down roads he doesn’t remember to a childhood home destroyed long ago.  Some neighbor ladies remember him and, at his request, take him to a duckpond  behind their farmhouse.  He stands by the pond, remembers someone called it “an ocean” and the memories crash in like a wave.

Water’s important in this story, as is memory, and all the things we don’t know.  As a child, our hero knows he was lonely but he doesn’t know what makes loneliness bad.  So, other children play with each other while he stays inside and reads books.  What’s wrong with that?  His parents said they’ve lost their money but what he knows is they’ve rented out his bedroom; he’s not really aware of all the stress this puts on the family.  He knows the new babysitter is evil but his parents and sister can’t see that.  Only the neighbor ladies named Hempstock seem to understand everything.  How old these women really are or  or how they tend our fragile world is another unknown but our hero knows they’re the people he needs when he lets an “Other” into our world.  Only the Hempstocks can save him or the world and they’ll need their duck-pond ocean.
Part of the charm of this book comes from the idea that a child may have a truer vision than an adult.  Any adult worth their junior high science classes know there are very few inland oceans and none the size of a duck pond.  Yet, a seven year old has the imagination to see beyond the facts.  Who has the clearer vision, the adult whose memory has been drilled out and re-stuffed with knowledge or the youngster who sees the magic and potential all life conveys?  Does the adult forget because he’s seen so much or because he blocks out what he lost as a boy? 
Gaiman is one of those amazing authors that writes for multiple age groups and in different formats.   The Ocean at the End of the Lane could be read aloud to children but it’s story for adults, at least adults who like a bend in reality.  Read it and see what memories come out of your closet.

Lessons I’ve learned in Writing No. #1: Forget about Giving Up.

Picasso’s Don Quixote

If there’s a central bit of advice I’ve heard or can give, it’s “Don’t Give Up.”  Don’t give up working, don’t give up trying, and don’t give up on anything if it gnaws at your soul.  If you want to put something new into the world, you have forget giving up.

Successful people know, first hand, how hard it is to succeed.  The process involves a lot of failure and mistakes and they developed the fortitude to keep trying until they got it right. Once, I was disheartened to read F. Scott Fitzgerald rewrote some pages twenty times; now I wonder how he made his prose that good after only nineteen revisions.  To make something of quality takes a kind of tenacity comparable to OCD.  If you want to make something good, get used to the work it involves.  Don’t Give Up.
It takes another type of resilience to find the people interested in publishing your work.  There are all kinds of venues looking for creative people but few of them will be interested in you.  Your precious creation will be too long, too short, too old-fashioned, too avant-garde and mostly not what they’re looking for.   Your ego has to be strong enough to withstand all that rejection but open to honest criticism when it comes your way.  That’s a hard balance to achieve but it’s necessary for you to eventually find the people who will take a chance on your work. They’re out there, keep trying to find them.
The time you use to create is important but it’s not the only part of your life.  Most people have family, a job and friends.  We have responsibilities to our world and to others.  Sometimes the work you do for yourself will feel like a self-invented taskmaster that isolates you from life and love.  Everyone in your social media circle will be doing something with someone, somewhere; and you’ll still be alone, tied to the work.  Under these circumstances, do you wonder why every creative person hasn’t already quit?
Well, they probably have at one time or another.  Quitting is an easy thing to do.  Staying quit is not.  The need to create and communicate is a drive that must be regularly tended or it makes its victim miserable.  Ignoring it or medicating it with sweets leads to self-hate and a lot of extra pounds. 

So, if you’re driven by the urge to create, you have my sympathies.  There’s a treatment, if no cure. The treatment is to continue creating, despite doubt and the certainty of rejection. Commercial success is beyond your control but you can figure out why that sentence won’t work.  Fix it, a word at a time, and then go to the next.   Keep working.  Keep trying.  Keep tilting at windmills. Don’t quit. Never give up.

Love & Death in a New England Summer

There are stories that pass through your brain and leave, unnoticed and unmissed.  Others are  like summer romances that hold you until there’s a change in the weather.  And there are stories you find by chance that stay with you forever.  I’ve been rereading Bag of Bones for fifteen years now and I believe I’ve fallen in love to stay.  That’s good because love is a driving force in this book, along with death and in a New England summer.

Stephen King turned into a writer sometime while my back was turned.  A first, he was a commercial success and a critic’s nightmare come true.  I couldn’t stand his early prose, so I ignored him.  Then one August day I was combing the shelves, craving a good ghost story.  (Ghost stories and haunted houses are DOCs of mine.)  This book was on the shelf and I was desperate enough to try anything, even a book by Stephen King.  It hit like a tidal wave.

Mike and Joanna Noonan have the marriage we lesser mortals crave.  They like and understand each other and she knows when to deflate his ego.  Not that Mike needs much deflating.  He’s one of King’s Everymen, a decent, sensible guy who happens to write for a living.  These two likeable people should have given each other decades of joy and a couple of kids.  Bag of Bones could have been called, “Lives that Should have been.”

Because Joanna Noonan is dead on page one and Mike is left alone.  His ability to write packs up and leaves shortly after her funeral.  Now, Stephen King published thirty-three novels in the quarter century before Bag of Bones but somewhere along the way he learned about writer’s block.  It’s real and it’s hell and he captures that pain on the pages of this book. Without his wife or the ability to work, our hero is a man without focus.

Luckily, he still has a few things left to love, like his summer home “on the TR” and reading.  If anything, Bag of Bones is a book-lovers book.  It cites authors from Melville to McDonald and is tied, through multiple references to Rebecca (one of my all-time, hands-down, favorites)  After four years of grief, Mike returns to the summer home he and his wife loved so well.  That’s when the bad stuff really starts.

One issue pertains to the nice girl down the road and her toddler daughter, Kyra.  Mike gets caught in the cross-fire of a custody battle between the girl and  her terrible father-in-law.  That’s bad but Mike’s bigger problem are the people in his house.  You could say Mike’s not living alone, except he’s the only one in the house that’s alive.  These problems and others keep him on the place and in the bulls-eye of unending curse.  To survive and save someone he loves, Mike must unearth the secrets that holds the TR in its grip and he’ll find out which forces really survive death.

Lyrical in places and perfectly paced, Bag of Bones turned me into a fan.   If you pick it up now, you’ll read it at the height of the summer, the perfect time for this story.  Read it in the woods, or by the lake but don’t read it when you’re alone.  It’s too easy to believe in ghosts when you’re book-deep in a summer’s night.

A Tale of Two Orphans

Everyone, from my college advisor on down, will tell you I love tales with orphan heroes.  You name them: Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Tensy Farlow, the Baudelaire children, I fell in love with each and every one of those books. (Well, I hated the ending of the Baudelaire series, but that’s another story.)  The thing is, there are orphans and then there are orphans and they aren’t really alike.  To explain what I mean, look at one of the most famous kid books to come out of the 19th century: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

You can’t get past the first page without learning Tom’s parental status. Aunt Polly’s first soliloquy says, “he’s my own sister’s boy, poor thing, and I ain’t got the heart to lash him.”  So, Tom is an orphan but he doesn’t really fit the mold.  Orphan heroes are usually vulnerable kids who miss the love and security of a stable home.  They tend to grow up fast because they have to and any tendency toward mischief has been knocked right out of them.  Can you think of anyone less like that than Tom Sawyer?

Tom and his siblings may be orphans but they’ve never lacked a home or love because of the redoubtable Aunt Polly. (Twain describes her as old but I’ll bet Aunt Polly’s not that much past thirty; living with Tom ages a woman).  Because of this secure grounding, Tom’s a king in his own home town.  He struts around, confident of his place in the world, bossing other boys or showing off for Becky Thatcher.   The world is his and he knows it.  Of course, Tom’s chutzpah is another reason to like the brat (His explanation for forcing patent medicine down the cat’s throat is almost as funny as the cat’s reaction) but he doesn’t fit the mold of an orphan does he?

His side-kick, Huck does.  Huckleberry Finn is a pariah among the respectable citizens of Saint Petersburg.  He wears rags and calls no shelter home.  Some nights, he probably goes to sleep hungry.   But Huck Finn is not an orphan, at least not in this book.  Pap, Huck’s father is the town drunk and although he’s abandoned his son, the town assumes a living parent keeps a child from needing aid.

 Huck and Tom complement each other but either one would tell you, Tom’s always the leader.  He’s the one who decides they should search for treasure or what Pirate Names they should have.  Huck is the logistics man, finding and lifting the tools and going along with the game.  In his own novel, Huck shows he’s pretty good at coming up with ideas on his own and he’s even better at executing them but all of Huck’s projects are a means to a practical end.  Unlike Tom, he never starts something, for the “glory” of it.  Huck is a serious boy in a serious world and in his own book, he shows true nobility.  But by then, Huck is really an orphan.

In the end, there is no choice between these two wonderful characters.  But as Mark Twain, himself wrote, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the history of a boy and he ended it before it became the history of a man.  Tom, with the security of his home and family has the limitations and and irresponsibility of a boy and, despite his daring and adventures, a boy is what he remains.  Huck Finn, after years of isolation and freedom finds the structures of civilization hard to abide.  The true orphan is more than half way to becoming completely grown.

Both Sides Now: What We Learn from Go Set A Watchman

Because Harper Lee’s “other” book, To Kill A Mockingbird has been read and loved by so many people over the last half century, the release of her Go Set A Watchman has received the hype and fever of a Harry Potter book release.  In a way, that’s appropriate.  One of the themes in J. K. Rowling’s series is how a person’s perception of  people and events changes as they receive more information.  Go Set a Watchman challenges everyone who thinks they know everything about To Kill a Mockingbird.  If you don’t like surprises, shut this page down now.  There are Spoilers Dead Ahead.

Watchman is the story of young adult reevaluating her past.  Jean Louise is Southern by birth but a New Yorker now by choice.   Like others who start adult life in a new location, she finds visiting home a bit difficult.  Still, she looks forward to spending time with Atticus, the father she’s worshiped all of her life.  Then Jean Louise hears the political opinions of her adored  father and falls into shock.  Atticus sees southern black people as a group without the sophistication and education necessary to handle the privileges of citizenship responsibly.  He fears their full enfranchisement and resents the actions of the Supreme Court rather than of admit that continuing injustice made the rulings necessary.  Jean Louise’s task in Watchman is to reconcile the justice loving father she recalls with the flawed, ill man she’s seeing now.

This reenactment of the Oscar Wilde’s aphorism about children loving their parents, then judging them and occasionally forgiving them has created the biggest brouhaha since Rowling announced Albus Dumbledore was gay.  Outraged devotees and twitter trolls are either denouncing Watchman as an imitation of Miss Lee’s work or announcing their intention to boycott the new publication.  The two novels, placed side by side prompt the question: Will the real Atticus Finch please stand up?

Jean Louise’s heartache in Watchman underscores that these two men are one and the same; she and the times have changed.  The Atticus of Depression-era Mockingbird is a member of the privileged minority with the right to hold office, sit on a jury and vote.  At the time, these activities were reserved for white males. From this powerful position he tried to help a vulnerable black man, and won the esteem of his children.  By the 1950’s, the Civil Rights Movement was picking up speed.  Instead of one black man needing Mr. Finch’s help, a entire population of black people are demanding respect and the power to help themselves.  They don’t accept Atticus as an authority and neither does his daughter.  Fear of a future he cannot control has turned a lawyer-saint to a flawed, resentful man. 

Thus, the father remembered by the six-year old Scout is the same man who argues with his grown daughter, Jean Louis.  Her understanding of him expands as she incorporates this negative information.  This process is always difficult when it shows loved ones have serious flaws but it brings a fuller, subtler knowledge of the person and a test: how do we love and honor people who do and say things that we hate. To continue the relationship, we have to accept that we love imperfect people.

The fact is Watchman is as imperfect as the Atticus Finch. It has the same wry observations, the tendency to describe matters in legal terms as Mockingbird but it lacks the incisive storytelling and pitch-perfect prose.  Mockingbird’s phrases and paragraph are blocked out so anyone reading it aloud knows the exact moment to take each breath. Some of the sentences in Watchman don’t know when to stop, and at times, the plot meanders.  Comparing the books, side by side, is a rare insight into the arts of revision and editing.  Yes, Harper Lee’s editor changed the book completely by getting her to shift the focus.  However the result was a novel, adored for its transcendent beauties.

Still, it must have been difficult for the author, in the intervening years, to remember the story she sacrificed in crafting a classic.  The result was beautiful but it removed the author’s original statement about the real Atticus Finch.  For decades she endure paroxysms of praise for a man she knew to be flawed and, because the original manuscript was missing, she had to keep her mouth shut.  No wonder Miss Lee stipulated Watchman would only be published if no one asked her to rewrite it.  The story she really wanted to tell would be heard, for good or for ill.  And, as good as Mockingbird is, it reduced the story she wanted to write to a near allegory.

Perhaps Mockingbird‘s initial impact occurred because of the simplicity in its story.  In the middle of the 20th century, notions of segregation was so ingrained that people only revised their opinions when faced with an scenario that made the answer inescapable.  This kind of presentation is fine but it robs the key characters of the fallibility of real people. Tom Robinson and Atticus aren’t characters as much as martyr and saint.  The same complaint could be leveled Sidney Portier’s character in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  His John Prentice had to be the perfect prospective son-in-law in order to underscore the point: no one should be included or excluded based solely on the color of their skin.

So, as beautiful as it is, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of childlike simplicity, compared to the messier and uneven Go Set a Watchman.   That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to love the first book.  It just means, to grow up, we need to accept real people aren’t as simple as the characters in fairy tales.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the woman who has shown us both sides of her story and who was brave enough to let us glimpse the incredible work involved in creating a classic tale.  Maybe we’re finally grown up enough to appreciate her gift.

A Novel of Infinite Charm

Some stories are brave as warriors, holding their ideals high toward the sun.  “This is truth.” they say, challanging the status quo, and quiescent crowds.  I love those books.  I also love stories that are beautifully told with graceful sentences and sinuous prose.  I’m a sucker for graceful books.  I love many types of books but these days I rarely find one that captivates me with an idea.  That’s why I’m so enchanted with The Little Paris Bookshop.  It’s a novel of infinite charm.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a book-filled barge that’s steered up and down the Seine by its owner, Monsieur Perdu.  His name for the business is The Literary Apothecary and it’s a good description for the place because Monsieur Perdu prescribes books more than sells them.   He listens to his customers and finds the books that will treat their unfulfilled needs.  For example, the woman adrift in heartbreak doesn’t need Fifty Shades of Grey.  She’s still recovering  from a real relationship with a controlling, damaged man, she doesn’t need a fictional one to make her feel worse.  Instead, Monsieur prescribes a book to be read in small doses, one that creates serenity, especially if it taken in the company of a cat.  The woman recovers, a step at a time and lets go of her emotional pain.   Monsieur can find a book to help everyone except himself.

It’s a charming idea that books can be used as homeopathic cures and one I’m not prepared to throw away.  Not all books but some books have that effect on me.  When I ached with homesickness for my home-town in Kansas, O Pioneers brought me back to the prairie.  I would prescribe The Prince of Tides to those in turmoil from dysfunctional families and Out of Africa to anyone in need of perspective.  The author of The Little Paris Bookshop evidently agrees as the book contains a short list of “emergency reads” listing the complaints they treat and recognized side-effects (For example The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is effective for treating pathological optimism but leaves one with the tendency to wear a robe all day.)

No book can cure every ache as Monsieur Perdu would be the first to attest.   But can a book mend a broken heart?  Perhaps, if it’s the right book at the right time.   In the meantime, if you dream of  summer evenings and shadows or a barge trip down the Seine, go look for The Literary Apothecary and ask for Mr. Perdu.  You’ll find an absorbing trip of perception in a novel of infinite charm.

My gratitude to Blogging for Books for sending me a copy to review.

Glimpsing a Turning Point of History

Americans are fascinated by American history; what we may lack in length of time, we make up for in breadth of incident.  This last weekend commemorated events that created this country but not every turning point can recorded by an arbitrary date .  Sometimes it takes perspective to look back at a group of events and say, “Yes.  At this point we were one type of nation and by here we were another.”  E. L. Doctorow tracked one of those passages in one of his greatest novels, Ragtime.  When the times start changing, we can hear the herald through music.

Ragtime is the story of when the US began really seeing itself as a nation of many.  In the beginning are the upper-middle class Family (they have no names beyond their roles, e. g.Father, Mother, and Mother’s Brother.  By remaining anonymous, these become every family) who want and see little beyond their beckoning home in New Rochelle and Father’s interest in exploring Distant Lands.  The family occasionally interacts with the outside world but that world rarely touches them.  Houdini may make their acquaintance or Mother’s Brother may chase after the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit but nothing really disturbs the serenity or isolation of New Rochelle.
That changes when the abandoned baby of Sara and Coalhouse Walker Jr. is found in Mother’s garden.  Mother makes a decision, independent of Father, to care for this African-American child and his mother, rather than abandon them to the authorities.  Through these two, the family will meet Coalhouse Walker, Jr. a ragtime musician and black man with all the inherent dignity and authority of his white counterparts.  It is Mr. Walker’s requirement that he receive the same respect as every other man that finally brings this Family from the house in New Rochelle into the Family of Man.
Mama’s generosity also builds the bridge between her family and Tateh, the European immigrant and his daughter.  Doctorow initially introduces these as acquaintances of Brother’s obsession, Evelyn Nesbit, showing the never-ending connections in our lives.   Tateh develops from a street peddler in New York to a film director with the future of a Mack Sennett or Hal Roach.  Through these two plots wander the famous and infamous of the Ragtime Era and we see the satisfaction of J.P. Morgan and the up-and-coming Henry Ford contrasted with the radical Emma Goldman and the educator, Booker T Washington.  Each connection weaves back, one way or another to the family.  By the end of this passage, neither the world nor the Family will ever be the same.
Ragtime has been successfully adapted both as film and a stage musical.  If you get the chance to see the musical, pay attention to the opening number and how the three groups initially separate from each other.  There is the Family, clad in Summer White, singing of their world filled with parasols and then the Black performers enter kicking red skirts sky-high.  Finally the immigrants enter, bathed in blue light, and the three groups circle and ricochet around each other,  occasionally meeting but too frightened to mingle.  As the music builds, the drive of the rhythm and events dissolve their boundaries and the entire company sings of the energy that pulls society forward:
Beggar and millionaire
Everyone, everywhere
Moving to the Ragtime!
There we all are, different and alike, all moving toward our futures at the speed of Ragtime.

It’s Hard to Beat a Winner

There’s a reason to read the classics: they’ve proven their worth over time.  There’s a similar reason for reading the award winners: they’re usually pretty good books. That may sound snobbish but since this time on earth is limited, I prefer to read something that’s good.  Of course “good” is more than round characters and a well-paced plot.  To become something special, a story has to hit you where you live, make you turn over old memories and see something new in the world.  It’s not just entertainment; it’s soul-reviving.  Well, I  hunted through the Newbery finalists and boy, did I find a good book!

One Came Home is the third novel of Amy Timberlake, a writer who knows something of sisters and small towns.  It’s a mystery involving two sisters, Agatha and Georgina.  Agatha is the older one, adventuresome and pretty.  Georgie is the practical one, good with figures and strong-minded.  Agatha disappears and then the remains of a red-haired woman are found wrapped in Agatha’s best party dress, which leads to this great opening statement:

“It was the day of my sister’s first funeral and I knew it wasn’t her last – which is why I left.  That’s the long and the short of it.”

Georgie reminds me of Mattie Ross, that bold, uncompromising, heroine in True Grit.  Both girls blend stubborn minds with self-confidence; no adult can shake their sense of self.  But there’s a difference: Mattie will commit to a course and never re-think a decision while Georgie knows doubt and introspection. This is because Georgie has an older sister who has taught her more than one opinion that matters.

Agatha broadened Georgie’s vision, pointing out that not everyone wants the same goals and that life is something to be cherished, even among the wild animals.  Georgie is a sharpshooter who brings down birds for sport but it is her older sister who points out the beauty of flocking pigeons.  When everyone else believes her sister has died, Georgie resists, not because of the evidence as much as a denial of the loss.  Just as she couldn’t accept Agatha’s need for a different life, Georgie won’t accept Agatha’s death so she sets out to find her sister,  armed with a rifle, a book and a mule.  What follows has humor and terror and pain; it’s a journey that teaches Georgie about life.

It’s an adventure story, a thriller, a coming of age tale and a novel based around fact.  What ever else you can say about One Came Home, you must admit: it’s a winner.  It’s worth reading again and again.