Books for the Mid-Winter Doldrums

February is a hard month to love.  Say all you want about the plucky groundhog, and rhapsodize on the romance of Cupid;  remember the Chinese New Year, American Presidents and throw in a good word for Leap Year but the truth doesn’t change: February in the Northern Hemisphere is a difficult month to love.  The Holiday Season disappeared ages ago and the pastel head of Spring is nowhere near to being seen on the horizon.  We may be looking at wind or rain next month but right now the weatherman’s two favorite words   are “freezing” and “snow” and the outside world almost seems drained of color.  In February, it’s hard to avoid getting depressed.   To keep the wraiths of February Depression at bay, may I suggest picking up a few books?  In their own ways, each of the following stories helps me through these days of relentless cold.  I hope they can help you too.

If the rest of the world had to describe Jamaica in three words or less, their list would be: Poverty, Music, and Hot.  Politics, Drugs and Religion make the next list but they seem to have grown out of a civilization where life is harsher even if the edges look like Paradise.  Marlon James mixes fiction and fact to remember the 1976 Smile concert in Kingston and plot to shorten Bob Marley’s all-too-brief life.  The Jamaica of this novel is not the island paradise tourists dream about: it’s as corrupt and violent as Grahame Greene’s Haiti in The Comedians but it’s alive, steaming with a Pot-au-feu of voices that overlap and contradict each other in a patois that you’ll hear coming off the page as you wipe the sweat from your face.  Critics have been falling over each other to praise this one since it came out  eighteen months ago and now there’s talk of an adaptation but there’s no reason to wait for a movie.  Get the book and pay attention.  There are dozens of people, living and dead, who have stories to tell and they’re talking.  Pick up the book and you’ll be mesmerized, transported and hearing the Wailers, while you sit in a cold, silent February room.  This may seem like a harsh alternative but you won’t be cold reading  ABH7K.  This book is hot.

If you can’t escape the cold, you need to find the good things in it and one of the best is the National Hunt racing season in England. Dick Francis competed as a championship steeplechase jockey before he became an author of popular mysteries and Bolt benefits from his background in British winter Hunt races.  You can feel the biting cold of the weather before the starting tapes go up and ignore it (like everyone else) when the excitement of the race begins.  Like a lot of good Dick Francis stories, it hinges on an individual’s response when the world piles on pressure: an old man is being bullied into a business decision, a engaged couple’s relationship is under stress because one of them holds a dangerous job.  While this is a second book in a series, (The first in the series is Break In) Bolt is easy enough to read as a stand-alone.  As a pep-talk about withstanding the stress and cold of a difficult season, Bolt is hard to beat.

Two things I should admit up front: I love the prose style of William Styron and I’m susceptible to Depression.  Not little depressions either.  More than once my life came apart at the seams and I needed professional and pharmaceutical help to return to Everyday World.  It hasn’t happened lately and I keep a weather eye out for the triggers now because I don’t want to go back there again.  Depression is a long tumble down a funnel of despair until you pray not to recover (you don’t believe you can) but to hit bottom so at least you won’t fall any further.  
Styron experienced this  and, faults and all, still managed to come out the other side.  Not without scars, but alive and that’s more than so many others.  Here he talks of his journey through this disorder of an unending February, the triggers  and the unrecognized clues that appeared in his fiction. Styron’s sentences beg to be read aloud and the content is as good as the style but this book has something extra; here is a novelist, without the disguise of fiction, writing so future sufferers will know they are not alone.  This book is a boon for any who don’t see a way out of February,

Three books to help you through the month.  Hang in there, kiddo and eventually we’ll read ourselves into Spring.

When True Genius Requires a Little Explanation

Some books are a hit for a day; some dominate the bestseller lists for a season.  One or two books can be considered touchstones for the decade but very few make it to true classic status.  But there is a work of fiction that seems like it never leaves the public consciousness.  In 150 years it has never been out of print, but it’s been adapted into almost two dozen films, five comic books, countless plays and electronic media and it’s probably the most quoted work of fiction in literature.  People either love it or hate it but everyone who reads knows there’s something special about Alice and her Adventures In Wonderland.  They linger in the mind.

The joke of it is, this book has been loved and read for so long that a lot of the material Lewis Carroll referred to in this classic (and its sequel, Through The Looking Glass,) is no longer available to the regular reader.  We follow the serious-minded Alice through her nonsensical adventures and admire the imagination and poetry in the story so much we accept it without thoroughly understanding it.  So, I suggest you take the journey one more time and re-read Lewis Carroll’s stories again… but read them through The Annotated Alice to gain new insights into the stories.  As a matter of fact, it could be argued that if you haven’t read the “Annotated Alice”, you haven’t really read Alice at all.

Anyone with a fancy for the Victorian Age or a memory for those innumerable adaptations can tell you something of Alice.  She’s the sensible, English child that falls down a rabbit-hole and into a world where animals argue,  nursery rhymes come to life and sentient armies of chess pieces and playing cards go to war with one another.  Unfortunately, (or not) sense doesn’t stand a chance in such a whimsical universe and Alice’s reliable memory for poetry often goes astray.  But did you know that Alice’s recited poems were clever parodies of then well-known verses?  Since the original and Carroll’s satire have entered public domain, I can present both of them here:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!
How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.
“How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
“How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!”

Carroll doesn’t just imitate someone else’s poem here; he subverts and satirizes it.  Instead of saluting the industrious insect with her “tidy” habits (anyone who remembers that honey is the product of bee spit will take issue with adjectives like “tidy) Carroll praises the lazy, malevolent crocodile that lies in the mud and snaps any unwary fish that swim into his open mouth.  By dropping the sugared “morals” that permeated children’s stories at the time and upsetting the expectations, Carroll did more that write a story that would entertain children; he wrote one of the first children’s stories that didn’t condescend to its audience.  Annotated Alice’s source material helps us understand the quantum leap Carroll made in children’s literature when he wrote down these tales.

The footnotes in The Annotated Alice are necessary and as engrossing as those created by David Foster Wallace. (a writer whose footnotes any tangent-minded reader could happily dwell in) and can be read separately if you are familiar with the original text.  Here is where you will find the origins of the Cheshire Cat and why Alice had reason to doubt the taste of Looking-Glass Milk.  But the greatest “extra” is the re-printing of “The Wasp in a Wig” a chapter originally written for (and then removed from) The Looking Glass.  For Alice-fans, this is a boon worthy of the White Knight.

Lewis Carroll wasn’t always a happy man, nor will his memory ever be untainted by controversy.  (Any unmarried man more comfortable with female children than adults will be viewed with a skeptic’s eye.)  But he did respect the minds of children when he came up with these famous tales and he may have been the first writer to do so.  For this, he deserves respect and his stories deserve understanding.  So, pick up The Annotated Alice and look up some of your favorite references.  Or follow the Red King’s directive:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

A Series for A Long, Cold, Winter

The Winter creates strong readers.  While Spring and Summer weather go well with “light” stories that demand little focus, winter blizzards are perfect for stories that hold the reader’s attention.  When the drifts are piling up outside and the thermometer plummets, I want a story with structure and design, one that commands my attention through the long, dark days.  For the like-minded readers who have already read their way through Dickens and committed Austen to memory, I would like to make a suggestion.  Stuff a copy of The Forsyte Saga into your pack of cold-weather emergency supplies.  You’ll have a something good to read until June.

The Forstyes are an English clan who define themselves through their upper-middle class status and an uncomfortable status that is.  They’ve accumulated enough money to be preoccupied by it to but they lack the antecedents and Savior Faire needed for social success so every move of the first generation is ruled by two questions: 1) Will I profit (monetarily) from this action and 2) will this comport with propriety?  If either answer is “No”, some Forsyte will veto the idea.  When Jolyon Forsyte and his children start basing their decisions on happiness instead of social mores or money, shock threatens to destabilize the family structure.  Before they can recover, the Forsytes meet Irene.

The watchful, possessive Soames Forsyte,
as played by Damien Lewis

Part of what drives The Forsyte Saga are the contradictions inherent in two central characters, Soames Forsyte and his first wife, Irene Heron.  Soames is the quintessential Forsyte.  Driven, judgmental and self-centered, he is “The Man of Property” in the first book’s title.  For Soames to see himself as a success, one property he must acquire is a wife and he likes the look of young Irene Heron.  She’s accomplished, she’s beautiful and if she’s not rich, that means she’ll stay dependent on him.  Yet, the harder he pursues Irene, the more reluctant she becomes.  And every polite refusal she gives makes him want her all the more.

Gina McKee as the enigmatic Irene

Others are drawn to Irene because she is an enigma, a woman so passive we only see her through the eyes of other characters.  To Soames, she’s a maddening cipher, the one goal that continually escapes he grasp.  To the conventional Forsytes, she’s the creator of scandal.  Soames is an honorable, effective provider so why won’t the woman settle down and be happy?  To the bohemian side of the family, Irene is a victim to be cherished and rescued from the inexorable Soames.  Without ever meaning to, Irene splits the family so completely that subsequent generations don’t meet unless by accident. The results of those meetings can be predicted by anyone familiar with Romeo and Juliet and each meeting threatens to unearth the old, buried scandals.  It is a tribute to the author’s skill that after four Forsyte generations, we still want to know what happens to them and we end up pitying Soames instead of hating him.

John Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize for Literature based, in part, on his Forsyte Saga and it’s been adapted for film multiple times.  However, nothing has the flavor of the books themselves.  They are easy to find but written for an audience with more time for reading than most people allow themselves today.  There are dozens of characters to keep up with and a narrative style that encourages readers to relax instead of rush through the pages.  “Everything in Life is here in the story” the author seems to imply, “enjoy yourself, don’t rush for the end.

Authors aren’t encouraged to write like this anymore; publishers and agents are searching for page-turners with first lines that grab you.  But Winter is something you can’t hurry through and you’ll need a book that can hold its own with the season.  So, before the next low pressure trough aligns itself aligns with a cyclone of snow, prepare to wait it out in style.  Lay in the firewood, locate the longjohns and as the first flakes start falling, open your copy of The Forsyte Saga.  Few books can make you so glad to be a victim of inclement weather.

A Woman’s Life in Letters

Letters used to be gifts, rare and wonderful things.  They came, hand-addressed, through the mail and you were supposed to answer them promptly.  (I know because I rarely did.)  A good letter might remind you of the writer through the distinctive handwriting or the stationary he/she chose but the the act of writing letter was most important: it meant the reader was meant so much to the writer that he/she was invited into a direct channel of the writer’s thoughts and feelings.  From personal letters, we went to electronic mail which was quicker and easier as long as you knew how to type and you could, if necessary, address it to many people at once.  After than came social media sites with ever-shortening messages to wider and wider groups of people and now we communicate by emojis, sharing news and opinions so quickly, we’re back to communicating through pictures.  That’s progress and I’m thrilled because I’ve managed to reconnect with friends I’ve owed letters to for decades but there’s something missing in our e-correspondence that was present in in the old-fashioned letters.  My mother, aunts and grandmothers could mark the stages of their lives with their correspondence. That’s what Lee Smith must have been thinking of when she wrote Fair and Tender Ladies.

Here is the tale of Ivy Rowe, in her voice and captured in a lifetime of letters.  The early ones are the greetings of an precocious and engaging child from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to a world she’s already longing to see.  Life is hard for those who live on the Blue Ridge at the beginning of the twentieth century but Ivy sees the beauty in the land and the people as clearly as the hard-scrabble existence that takes so much of their happiness.  You can trace the changing fortunes of the Appalachian folk through Ivy’s letters.  They descend from the “hollers” and mountain cabins to the river towns of Virginia and then to the coal mines with their promise of greater income and danger for the men who tear the ore from the mountain.  Ivy sees first-hand the wealth of a mine owner’s mansion and the poverty of devastated families of the miners killed in an explosion.  Ivy returns to the Blue Ridge mountains to face the good and bad parts of being grown, of making mistakes and getting old.  She watches electricity and the modern world make their way to the mountains and how they change the rhythm of isolated lives. She even learns to accept some of the values her parents had and then lost. All of this is recounted in hundreds of letters to strangers and friends, loving family and long-lost relatives.  While Ivy’s early dreams of being a writer and seeing the world can only be fulfilled by her daughter, Ivy points the way with her clear-eyed appraisal of life and her never-ending letters

Ivy speculates that, in the end, the collection of recorded letters don’t matter to the writer or to the recipient as much as the act of writing them does.  I’m not sure if I agree since this book (among many others) would not exist if written letters weren’t kept.  But she is right about one thing: the act of writing is what makes the document meaningful.  It is the act that says,”I open my mind and soul to you so you know the real, inner me.  Here, I will do my best to capture and transcribe the truth.” That act, whether it’s done with parchment, paper or pixels is a generous, difficult one and one of the things that distinguishes our species.  We communicate through words and the words, once we release them, expand the universe with our ideas.  Our time here is short but when we leave, the words remain.

The Reading Format Grudge Match: Paper v. Screen

It’s funny how often SF writers predicted the future.  Verne imagined exploring space and the ocean floor, Bradbury predicted earbuds and my favorite, Robert Heinlein foresaw the Cold War, the Internet and helped invent water-beds.  Still the development Heinlein predicted that I enjoy the most was in his novel Time Enough for Love.  In that book, Heinlein not only foresaw the development of the e-reader, he predicted the difference between the traditional “paper” book fans and the screen readers.  However, I doubt if he realized how silly that battle would get.

According to that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, e-readers actually started in the 1930’s, long before the computer age (or I) was born and Project Gutenberg started digitizing texts 40 years later. Of course, the hardware wasn’t really available to the public then to make the data easily accessible but once personal computers and access to the internet became a common household item, the times began a changing.  People began reading books on screens.  Then eight years ago, Amazon upended everything by coming out with the Kindle, first as a standalone e-reading pad and later as a software app that allowed the user to keep and use an entire library on any computer: from the CPU at home, to the hand-held smart phone.  The format grudge match was on.
Now I’ll admit that reading off screens can give the dedicated reader a monumental case of eye-strain.  The night I realized the entire Anne of Green Gables series was available on Gutenberg’s website, I strained my eyes racing through all the books in one night.  Of course, I am a card-carrying weirdo. Strained eyes and a headache weren’t going to stop me from making sure Anne ended up with Gilbert Blythe.  Since then, screen texts have become a lot easier to read.  So what’s the fuss?
Part of it, some friends insist, is the gestalt of the book reading experience.  No e-reader, they say, can compare to feeling the size and weight of a book and turning the printed pages; in a way they have a point.  For devotees to the act of reading, no delight is quite like lifting a hefty book that you’ve been wanting to read.  But when I’m lost in a story, I lose focus on minor details like the number of pages left in the book (or where I am).  I read until the tale is done or the book falls from my hand as I drop off to sleep (and I can hold the light e-reader in my hand longer than a heavy, traditional book).   Let’s put it this way: if you’re reading the books of Marcel Proust, an e-reader could save you from straining your wrist.  But if you insist on reading in the tub, paper is the only reasonable candidate. No e-reader I know has learned to survive a dip in the bath.
A real area of concern is comprehension: the e-reader has limited worth as a tool if screen reading results in lower comprehension.  As a teacher, my sis worries about that kind of thing and she sent this article that suggests that “deep reading”, reading that involves contemplation as well as visual auditing, falls off when people read off of screens instead of paper.  However the studies in the article didn’t list any hard data to support their worry – just the notice that people are more dis-tractable when they’re reading off the screen. Since most e-reading is done from the same machine that handles the users phone calls, text messages and social media, it may not be the act of screen reading that creates the distraction but the inputs a user gets while using the machine.  And the question of comprehension is still in debate.  In 2012, a Norwegian study suggested the format made a difference in reading comprehension.  Last year, a French study came to the opposite conclusion.  
So does the format change how we experience or incorporate knowledge from reading?  I don’t know.  I wish we could settle the question but I hope the medium is not the message.  To me, a great story is a great story and I don’t care if I read those words from a page, a screen or painted on the sky by a plane.  The story is what matters, the prose and the characters, the narrative, themes and thought.  Without that we are arguing about the frame of an artwork; the masterpiece inside would be gone.
Or so says the card-carrying weirdo.