Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens

Of the few classics I've read over the years, not all deserved the label. So I didn’t automatically expect Oliver Twist to be great. In fact, I’m reminded of that scene in Candide by Voltaire when a guy explains that most of the great celebrated masterpieces are merely models of mediocrity.

This time, however, I struck gold. Oliver Twist is both a classic and a masterpiece. Keep in mind that the book was written 170 years ago, so the grammar is pretty formal by today’s standards. However, the style, if not the vocabulary, grows on you, and you’re soon caught up in a riveting story chock-full of chases and abductions, villains and pick-pockets, deception and murder. Being transported to a time and a place of disease and dishonest toil may not be your idea of time well spent, but if you enjoy irony, sarcasm, and drama, overcoming terrible odds amid squalor and criminality, you’ll love this book.

Dickens criticizes early 19th century English society’s assertion that bad people are just born that way and shows how rather a combination of society and social policy are at least partly to blame. The novel’s only flaw is that this thesis doesn’t apply to everyone. For example, while we’re led to consider Nancy ultimately a victim of her environment rather than a willing accomplice, some criminals like Sikes and Monks and Fagin are seen almost as a source of evil rather than a product of it. Then there’s Oliver, who defies the paradigm altogether, since despite being born impoverished and the victim of injustice, he manages to remain almost saintly. Even while his peers and contemporaries assimilate, Oliver stays unchanged. Not particularly realistic, but forgivable in lieu of other great things this story has going for it. After all, no novel is perfect, even a classic. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, from the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory, By John Steinbeck

The King Arthur cycle has always held a special place in my heart. Those gallant knights in shining armor, their code of chivalry, and their everlasting conquests, recall an age unspoiled by our more modern concerns. I, for one, savor a time when a knight’s word was his oath and when the chaste surpassed puberty. Give me banners flapping in the wind, animal horns sounding over the rolling green, and warriors charging into battle – their tragic ends remembered long after their dragons have been slain and their kingdoms lay in ruins. 

Everyone is familiar with the tale and the primary characters involved. Reviewing the plot isn’t important here anyway. What matters is Steinbeck’s ability to draw you into an ancient world, make you believe in events both dubious and extraordinary, allowing you to see beyond the words to the pristine pastures, the mysterious forests. But more important still are the convincing relationships – a knight’s steadfast devotion to his king, the sorrow of unrequited love, the treachery of dukes and witches.       

And such stories can be ideal instruments of insight. After all, moral tales – or stories of instruction – don’t have to be ponderous or dogmatic. Consider this sample exchange between king and enchanter, when, after a particularly bad day for Arthur (learning he’d been tricked into sleeping with his half-sister and later bested by a knight who broke his blade), he mourns to his mentor:

“You must be proud to serve me, Merlin, a defeated king, a great and worthy knight who does not even have a sword, disarmed, wounded, helpless. What is a knight without a sword? A nothing – even less than a nothing.”

“It is a child speaking,” said Merlin, “not a king and not a knight, but a hurt and angry child, or you would know, my lord, that there is more to a king than a crown, and far more to a knight than a sword. You were a knight when you grappled Pellinore unarmed.”

          “And he defeated me.”

“You were a knight,” said Merlin. “Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some are made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory¼

At the back of the book are letters Steinbeck wrote to his agent and others as he grappled with the material. In one such letter, he remarks: “¼the Arthurian cycle¼is a mixture of profundity and childish nonsense”. And “I tell these old stories, but they are not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.”

If this isn’t a genius defining his magic, magicians beware; magic is dead. In another letter: “Kings, Gods, and Heroes – Maybe their day is over, but I can’t believe it.” 

Neither can I.

***

Other works in the Arthurian vein

Stephen R. Lawhead has written at least six books involving the Arthurian Legend, also known as the Pendragon Cycle. I’ve read only the second book: Merlin. Richard Monoco wrote a King Arthur trilogy. I’ve read only the first two: Parsival, or a Knight's Tale and The Grail War.

If you enjoy poetry, you’ll love Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson. Personally, I have yet to fully appreciate poetry. Its inarticulate nature bugs me: if prose could be compared to the smooth flow of film, verse is a slideshow. Still, this was very good.    

The only series I’d really recommend, and recommend heartily, is Mary Stewart’s Merlin TrilogyThe Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. I’ve yet to find its equal. Told in first person from Merlin’s perspective. Stewart is a master storyteller. Exceptionally well written and engaging. 

Character Sketches with Paul

Paul publishes a monthly newsletter railing against successful business. He distributes these colorful works of rage to his friends. In it, he accuses CEOs of every conceivable ill – from the plight of our fragile environment to the homeless on our streets. According to Paul, it’s not media or society or government, but rather evil greedy men like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who are entirely to blame for the decline of Western Civilization. Rather than single out indiscretions or scandals, Paul’s newsletter paints a broad brush that essentially indicts every capitalist ever to walk the earth. As far as Paul is concerned (at least according to his newsletter), these evil business tycoons are going to Hell.

Unlike his other friends, I was introduced to his newsletter first. So my impressions were shaped entirely by his prose, not his handshake or his eyes.

All his articles are in upper case, the literary form of shouting, and every sentence is punctuated by at least six exclamation points. One can almost see the spittle as he stabs at his keyboard, and I quote: “LAST YEAR ALONE THIS JACKASS MADE $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$…”  An additional 29 dollar signs and 14 exclamation points follow.

Apparently, Paul’s literary indignation is simply too great to contain, and I’m a little nervous about meeting him. Friends assure me that he is nothing like his newsletter in person, but I still expect a mean, angry debater. No lively discussion on capitalism versus liberalism, polyester versus cotton blend. Au contraire! I expect Paul to be packing.

Yet when I finally meet Paul, I feel as if I’m meeting the broken version of Paul – the Paul whose printer has been beaten with a baseball bat by an angry republican. No more newsletter. Paul approaches us with his head down, his chin on his chest, pale and frail and with a handshake as limp as a dead frog. He slouches at about five feet tall and looks as if he has just received news that his copy of The Communist Manifesto was stolen. The most timid man I’ve ever met. It takes me 20 minutes from the point we’re introduced to accept the fact that this calm, quiet person is the author of so much hen pecking fury.

His wife Doris, a short and plump blob of a woman, suffers from schizophrenia and paranoia. Over the years, her refusal to take her medication has forced Paul to call her psychiatrist. This in turn inevitably leads to State imposed sleepovers at a local psychiatric ward. Their relationship, while tragic from my vantage point, makes for high jinx in public settings those few times he brings her out of hiding.

“Don’t call me crazy, Paul,” his wife warns. “I’m not crazy!”

“Honey, no one’s calling you crazy.” Paul reaches for her hand and bumps the restaurant menu with his forearm. “Just tell the waitress what you want.”

“Tell her to stop staring at me first! Look at her! She’s staring at me and I want her to stop.” Doris clenches her fists. “Look! Quit staring at me.”

The thought that his wife might really be the author of the newsletter, rather than Paul, crosses my mind. She certainly seems capable of the rage. Her face is a scowl. The waitress takes a step back, her eyes bugging. Paul sighs heavily, rises from his chair like a defeated man, and tells us all he and his wife have to leave.

I’m never quite sure whether I’m cursed or blessed to share the company of freaks. On the one hand, these are not the sort I can confide in or learn from. However, their amusing, dysfunctional nature makes for exquisite writing material. The only challenge is stifling my laughter so that I don’t hurt their feelings.

Paul generally doesn’t bring his wife along to social get-togethers. On poker nights, especially, and I can only imagine she staying home staring out her windows with her fingers poised over her cell to dial 911. The image of an acorn dropping from a tree and striking her rain gutter, causing her to leap in fright, knocking over their coffee table and upsetting the Cheshire, makes me grin.

However, I could be wrong. Maybe when she isn’t curled up pensively starting at her toes in a rubber room, she’s at home watching Oprah or Real Desperate Housewives, shelling almonds and petting the cat.

After pizza, cards, and a game on TV, Paul says his goodbyes and drives home.

He returns ten minutes later, slouching in the doorway with those puppy eyes.

“What’s up, Paul? Everything okay?”

Paul’s mouth curls to one side, the equivalent of a shrug. “Yeah, just wondered if I could hang out for a while.”

“Sure, Paul. Anything wrong?”

“Nah,” he assures us. “It’s just Doris. She locked herself in the house again.”

That’s when we laugh. “No one locks herself in a house, Paul. She’s locked you out. Did you guys fight before you came over here this afternoon?”

Paul promises us that, no, she just ‘gets this way’ sometimes. I can’t help but think that while he’d been playing cards with us, she’d stumbled on his newsletter, and after counting the 267 exclamation points, she’d decided to lock the windows and dead bolt the doors.

I don’t know him well enough to ask. Gratefully, someone else asks him for me. “Why do you put up with her, Paul?”

Paul doesn’t hesitate. “I don’t wanna be alone. Don’t wanna live alone.”

I’m not qualified to say whether waking up in the morning with someone else in my bed – even if she’s crazy – is better than waking up alone. But I think I prefer solitude and sanity over matrimony and madness. In fairness, John is the proverbial kettle whistling on the stove, though I prefer to think the whistle emanates from a train barreling down the tracks. To offset his pent-up frustrations with being married to crazy, John composes his newsletter. In a sense it’s his cry for help. At the very least, it’s his punching bag. In short, John just needs to get laid.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Stephen King’s Bag of Bones

When I first began this blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t post negative book reviews. But what if you're inspired by the storyteller, captivated by the characters, the development of the plot – the pace, the attention to detail – what if you love all those things but just hate the story itself? Should you abstain from saying so? Probably. Still, there are so many things to celebrate about this book. I’m torn.

I tend to prefer prose so well crafted that they inspire me to call a friend and say, “Listen to this.” Granted, those kinds of books are few and far between, but I like to set high standards for others. Not for me, you understand. Just for others. Yet I didn’t find many lines I wanted to quote from Bag of Bones. Although this one I liked:

“Humor is almost always anger with its makeup on …”

In his novel, Welcome to Fred, Brad Whittington’s character Mark Cloud, now an adult, reflects on when, during his adolescence, his family moved from “metropolitan America” to the culturally stark backwoods of East, Texas:

“They dipped snuff, spitting streams like some ambulatory species of archerfish. …They split logs and infinitives, chopped wood and prepositional phrases, dangled fish bait and participles – all with equal skill.”

Another writer I love is Rick Riordan, best known for his young adult series Percy Jackson and the Olympians. However, I particularly enjoy his adult crime novels involving Tres Navarre. From his opening lines in The Widower’s Two-Step:

“The guy standing in front of my park bench looked like he stepped out of a Fleetwood Mac album cover, circa 1976. He had that Lindsey Buckingham funhouse-mirror kind of body – unnaturally tall, bulbous in the wrong places. He had the ‘Fro and the beard and the loose-fitting black martial arts pajamas that just screamed mod.”

The only other novels I’ve read by King are Misery and FirestarterDifferent Seasons was a book of short stories. As always, I admire the ease with which King weaves his yarn; I’m just rarely enthused about the finished shawl. I have no beef with King’s style per se. I guess I just don’t care much for the horror genre. The only non-fiction thing I've read by King was On Writing, a memoir of the craft, more autobiographical than instructional, but still very good.

I almost regard King's fiction as one might regard those Transformers movies. Sure, they’re fun to watch. The special effects are amazing. The actors are beautiful. But come on: it’s about oversized toys.

I acknowledge King’s appealing pedestrian tone, his everyman approach, the accessible prose. And I don’t slight him for it in the least. Mark Twain, one of my absolute favorite dead authors, once wrote: “My books are water. Those of the great geniuses are wine – everybody drinks water.”  

It’s also worth noting that I cried several times throughout this novel. Course I tend to cry at Disney films as well, chopping onions, listening to Don Henley, and much more, not all of which are inherently sad. But that’s for another post about what a sensitive man I am.  

All that aside, I realize I’m probably being too hard on King. It’s not his fault I’m not crazy about horror fiction. Not his fault I’m a prude and prefer to read highfalutin prose. A story’s primary function is to effect you emotionally. King certainly achieves this. And isn’t that why we watch movies and read novels – to be moved, to laugh, cry, cringe, rejoice? If we gain some insight, enlightenment, or wisdom along the way, it’s probably the wine.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November 2011 Books

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene.
Leaven of Malice, Robertson Davies.
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris.
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien.
The Confidential Agent, Graham Greene. 
The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene.

Someone once wrote that a critic tends to project his views on the novels he reads, that a review is more about what the critic thinks rather than what the writer intends. This may be true up to a point, but my reviews aren't about a writer's intent. I don't pretend my impressions are objective. In fact I'm as subjective as they come regarding novels. I've been known to latch on to certain authors from time to time and devour everything I could get my hands on, as if that writer and I had a soul connection or something. Or in cases where, say, I just felt the writer could do no wrong. But inevitably I’d read something by that writer that would render him or her human again, and they’d fall from the top of my Books To Read Right Now list to take a number and sit in the waiting room with the rest of the literary mortals I hoped to eventually get round to reading.

I didn’t intend to read everything I had by Graham Greene this month. It just happened that way. I’d read This Gun for Hire about eight years ago, and the comments I’d jotted down on my Book List doc were positive but vague. A friend had recommended Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and once I finally got around to reading it this month, I decided to check out a couple other Greene novels I had lying round.

Greene is one of those writers you find yourself trusting explicitly. Many times I thought, “If this were a movie, I’d turn the channel. But the style and the telling inspire such authority, I can’t put it down.” There are times when his story goes in a direction I don’t approve of, but I don’t mind because I know I’m in good hands, that no matter how sad or strange the story gets, I’ll finish in some way enlightened. I hope I’m not giving the impression that Greene is deep or rough or boring to read. He’s not. His style is easy going and smooth, and the pace is just right. His penetrating insight about our ideas on good and sacrifice and love are refreshing, and even if you disagree with him or the character he attributes these thoughts to, he doesn’t bang you over the head with this perspective. His characters are never mere devices to move a plot forward, either; they’re multi-layered, complicated, sometimes quirky, personalities.

Greene adheres to what I think are the three primary ingredients for a well told story:

1)     action (motion, what happens visually)
2)     observation (description, narrative, props)
3)     psychology (motivation, inner thoughts and feelings of characters, particularly protagonists).   

I don’t remember coming across that recipe in any book I’ve read about writing methods, but we’ve all seen it in use at some point. And I’m sure it’s been said before elsewhere. If not, you read it here first.

I recommend you give Greene a shot. Of those I read this month, I recommend The Confidential Agent the most. For a lighter, certainly wittier, read you can’t go wrong with Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies. See What’s Bred in the Bone.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"What's Bred in the Bone" by Robertson Davies

My friend Brad gave this book to me, and I should’ve read it immediately. Instead it stood at the back of the line for a year while I read books inferior to it. Which is strange, since everything Brad has ever handed me to read has been exceptional. You’d think I would’ve learned by now. But then, I’ve always enjoyed saving dessert until last. 

And what a sumptuous read this was. 

This isn’t a synopsis of the story. I generally don’t read for plot anyway. I put less stock in it than I probably should. For one thing, I’d rather celebrate good style and a solid command of the language. Besides, the obligatory blurb on the back cover or inner jacket often serves only to frighten the bookworm away. 

Still, many read entirely for plot or genre. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. But consider: Brad and some friends and I once sat in a club together. One friend said, “What if people could talk only when quoting from a book?” I thought I was being clever when I replied, “I bet people would read more.”  But Brad topped it, saying, “And talk less.”

Imagine reading a book bursting with lines you desperately wished to utter at parties. Such as these: 

“Banking is like religion: you have to accept certain rather dicey things simply on faith, and then everything else follows in marvelous logic.” Or “Science is the theology of our time, and like the old theology, it’s a muddle of conflicting assertions.”

Oh, yeah. It’s an intriguing story. But to me that’s negligible compared to the rich language and absorbing conversations that move the story forward.  Consider:

“It’s wonderful to talk to you, my dearest, because you think medievally. You have a personification or a symbol for everything. You don’t talk about ethics: you talk about saints and their protective spheres and their influences. You don’t use lettuce-juice words like ‘extra-terrestrial’; you talk frankly about Heaven and Hell. You don’t blether about neuroses; you just say demons.”

The entire book – besides telling a wonderful story about Frankie and his life before birth and shortly after death (oops! was that a spoiler?) – is full of insight and potent adages like these: “Immoderate compassion will ruin you quicker than brandy.”

Besides maxims, however, Davies is a superb narrator. Consider this scene, but more importantly the way it’s told:

“There was a pond in a field across from Carlyle Rural, and in spring it was full of frogs. The game was to catch a frog, stick a straw up its cloaca, and blow it up to enormous size. As the frog swelled, there was a delightful apprehension that it might burst. There was an even more splendid hope that the boy who was blowing might, if enough funny things were said to him, stop blowing for a moment and suck and then – why, he might even die, which would richly crown the fun.”

Here’s a minor character that shows up only once in the entire novel and yet watch how well he’s introduced: “Dr. McOdrum was very important, but he worked in a mercilessly overheated, windowless little kennel in the basement of the big hospital, and was himself so pale and stooped and overburdened in appearance that he was a poor advertisement for his profession.”

I leave you with this amusing, but by no means best, episode from Davies’s book.  An exchange between the teacher and his pupil:

“‘Catholicism has begotten much great art; Protestantism none at all –not a single painting. But Catholicism has fostered art in the very teeth of Christianity. The kingdom of Christ, if it ever comes, will contain no art; Christ never showed the least concern with it. His church has inspired much but not by anything the Master said. Who then was the inspirer? The much-maligned Devil, one supposes. It is he who understands and ministers to man’s carnal and intellectual self, and art is carnal and intellectual.”

“You work under the wing of the Devil, do you?”

“I must, if I am to work at all. Christ would have had no time for a man like me. Have you noticed how, in the Gospels, He keeps so resolutely clear of anybody who might be suspected of having any brains? Good-hearted simpletons and women who were little better than slaves were His followers. No wonder Catholicism had to take a resolute stand in order to include people of intellect and artists; Protestantism has tried to reverse the process. You know what I would like, Corniche?”

“A new revelation?”

“Yes, that might come of it. I should like a conference to which Christ would bring all His saints and the Devil would bring all his scholars and artists, and let them have it out.”

“Who would judge the result?”

“That’s the sticker. Not God, certainly, as the father of both leaders.’”

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Character Sketches with Gary

Gary lives in a condemned house on the outskirts of the city, and apart from the occasional meter reader and postal worker, he has few visitors. Well, I mean apart from the animals. But unlike the civil servant, the animals have access to the inside of the house, and they come and go as they please – cats, dogs, rats, an armadillo – an array of at least 37 flee-ridden, tick-infested creatures, most of which aren’t domesticated. Since they aren’t bound by leashes, collars, or potty training, it goes without saying that it isn’t safe if you forgot to bring your snow boots.

His yard looks like a mine field after the mines have gone off. Or rather like what a college fraternity on a treasure hunt might look like, assuming all the students had foregone shovels in favor of dynamite. There are so many two to three feet deep craters in his yard that you couldn’t get from one side to the other without a land rover.

The only reason the city hasn’t evicted Gary yet is probably because they feel sorry for him. Gary’s heavy cocaine and meth use years ago – not to mention his frequent partying with potheads today – probably hasn’t helped his Tourette’s and other associative tics. And yet Gary is the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. He greets everyone with a welcoming, if not curious “How you doin’? He pronounces the word ‘you’ in a sing-song fashion. It’s as if he wants to differentiate you from an imaginary acquaintance standing next to you.

He knows every astrological sign in the night sky, its corresponding days on the calendar, and the four elements to which it belongs. If this entitled one to at least theater ticket discounts I might care more. As it is, it’s just an impressive pick up line. What’s shocking is that it almost works. I have no doubt in another life – a life in which he bathes regularly and brushes his teeth more than once a week – he would be quite the ladies man. And once you get past his inability to fit the right holes to their corresponding shirt buttons, his knowledge of civil war history is astounding as well.

He’s a great chess player too, but if the game looks like it’s going in your favor, he’ll dig his feet in because he hates to lose. I’ve never understood good chess players. I mean they memorize openings – a sequence of moves and variations on those moves should their opponent decide to counter it. This forces them to be a kind of prophet of spatial relationships. Not only must a good chess player plan several moves ahead, but they must also see this future on the board despite what the present board arrangement staring back at them at any given turn happens to be. So why’s it so hard for them to keep their shoelaces tied? At any rate, if you plan to beat Gary at a game of chess, either bring a chess clock timer or pack a suitcase.

Gary is at least two hours late to everything. After a few years of him not showing up for lunch and then getting a call around four that afternoon about a friend he was visiting, we started telling him to meet us at the restaurant for lunch at Of course he knew we didn’t intend to eat lunch that early, but at least he showed up round the time we were waiting for the check. The conversations afterwards are the reason we remain his friends.

“But Gary. You’ve known since yesterday that we were gonna eat today at . We asked you to make your way here to the house by ten. It’s like a five minute drive from where you live. Now it’s four in the afternoon.”

“Well, yeah, but I got a phone call. My brother called me from Wisconsin.”

“On your cell phone, Gary, and your brother calls you twice a week. You make it sound like that’s some rare thing you couldn’t avoid. You still could’ve called us to let us know.”

“Well, yeah. I guess. I guess. I mean I guess.” This is where the nervous tic comes in. He’ll reach up and tap his left temple, again and again, like he’s applying rouge.

“But I couldn’t just hang up, hang up, hang up on him. That would be rude.”

“Yeah, Gary. It’s not rude to make your friends wait for four hours.”

“Well, I mean I said I’m sorry. Sorry, I’m sorry. It’s really not my fault, ya know?”

“It never is, is it, Gary?”

“I got pulled over by a cop, a cop. I got a ticket. In fact, fact, it’s more yall’s fault.”

“Our fault.”

“Well, yeah. I mean, I was speeding, was speeding, so I could get here in time, you know. And I knew you guys, ha! You guys were gonna be upset if, upset if –”

“Hold on. Let me get this straight. You blame us? You speed here to cut two minutes off a four hour old engagement? And when you get pulled over, it’s our fault?”

“Well, yeah. Yeah. I mean … I guess so.”

The only thing you can depend on Gary for is entertainment. But you’ll have to wait.

The Writer in Denial is a Happy Writer

There is no such thing as writer’s block. Nothing is stopping you from writing. A writer simply writes. Or a writer writes simply. Or simply a writer … oh, nevermind. Point is you shouldn’t write only when you think you have something to say. You’ll discover things to say while writing. At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I write this.  

When I first began writing (which was last Tuesday morning), I often found myself staring at a blank screen. Ideas in my head like whether it was time to shower, why I haven’t trimmed my toenails since last Valentine’s, and where I put my cell phone nagged me. True. But I also had story ideas. My problem was that blank screen. It was my enemy. I had to attack it with some great and memorable lines.

Once I realized this was silly and that I’d never get anything written if I was waiting for the Famous Quote Fairy to knock me over the head, I began with a simple keystroke – a period. More like a dot really since it didn’t follow a word. But soon that dot turned into an ellipses and this ellipses took shape to form what looked like a perforated line. Just don’t email that to anyone. A friend thought I’d had an aneurism and called me in a panic. Not recommended.

But when I sat down to write today, all I knew was that I wanted to assure people that the writing pool is safe, that the water is fine, that they should step in, get themselves wet. Pee if you want to. No one will know unless you say some … ah, that felt good.