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.

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...