Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Perfect Stranger, by Danielle Steel (1981)

I've never been in love, but I'm not the least bit averse to the idea. Not for myself, of course. At 51, that flat-bottomed skiff has set sail. But I've seen couples clearly in love and it warms my heart. Romantic love is a rare and precious thing and I wish those who've found it all the joy and blessings I can muster. I'm also not averse to reading romance fiction. Some of it, such as McCullough's The Ladies of Missalonghi, is not only a good story but well written.

Having heard so much about the famous romance author Danielle Steel, I decided to seek out her work at my local used book store. When I saw this novel for a nickel in the bargain bin, my heart grabbed a jump rope and skipped all the way down the block, singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady, figuratively of course.

Granted, I've read only a handful of romance novels so far, but Penny Jordan's Marriage Without Love is decent, A Perfect Choice by Laura Parker, which I read years ago, is certainly serviceable, and, as I say, McCullough's Ladies is a treat.

Steel's story itself is not deplorable. In fact, I'm sure it would make for a decent television feature on the Lifetime channel, if it hasn't been made into one already. But the writing is amateurish. For one, everything is described in excess, sometimes with amusing results. The following lines, while repetitive, are from different scenes.
... the rivers of tears pouring silently down her face.
Alex looked as though an earthquake had struck him, right between the eyes.
'What is it, Raphraella?' His voice was so gentle that it brought tears to her eyes.
... as two steady rivers of tears flowed into the pillow ...
... her eyes still pouring tears down her face.
Equally disappointing is paragraph structure. While it's true I favor avoiding the 'he said, she said' attribution when it's obvious who's speaking (some fine writers achieve this by grouping what is said in the same paragraph with what that person is doing or thinking), Steel's method, in contrast, is a mess. She not only avoids using the 'he said, she said' attribution, she combines one character's actions and reactions with another character's lines. This made for some confusing conversations. I'll spare you examples.

Some of the writing was simply strange or counterintuitive.
... they clung together that way for what seemed a very long time.
To whom precisely did this clinging seem 'a very long time'? This couple loves one another. Therefore, shouldn't any length of time spent together seem all too brief? It's a time honored tradition for we mortals to regret how soon good times end, regardless their duration. Conversely, a short interval that feels long is normally reserved for moments of displeasure or discomfort. 'The few days Margaret was away felt to John like a lifetime.' Or 'They tortured Bob for only eight minutes, but to Bob it felt like hours.'

Here the protagonist Raphaella is taking a walk along the grounds of her parent's estate. Her surroundings include palm trees and flower gardens and fountains and even bird-shaped hedges. “... but Raphaella saw none of it as she walked along thinking of Alex [italics mine]. All she could think of was the letter Kay had sent her father and that she would not give in to his [her father’s] threats.”

Raphaella's father is not Alex; Kay is not Alex. If 'all [Raphaella] could think of' is the letter Kay sent to her father and that she wouldn't give in to her father's threats, why are we first told she was 'thinking of Alex'?

At one point Raphaella's mother tells her: “'But to play with people who … want more from you, who have hopes for something you can't give, is a cruelty, Raphaella. More than that it's irresponsible.'”

Is Raphaella's mother suggesting that irresponsibility is worse than cruelty? Shouldn't this be the other way round? I'm reminded of an ad for a Law & Order episode in which the plot was summarized as follows: 'A convicted murderer is suspected of racism.' As if his racist views are at least as important as his having committed murder.

Steel reminds me of a school girl scribbling in her dream journal. Everything is written gushingly. The tone is sophomoric, not to mention vague and hyperbolic. I can imagine Steel substituting the dots over her lower case i's for balloon hearts. To constantly claim this was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen or that she'd never felt as wonderful in all her life as she did at that very moment or that this was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for her was not only tedious but unnecessary. And woe to the reader who makes a drinking game out of Steel's frequent uses of the modifiers really and very.

Tragically, despite her popularity, Steel simply can't properly convey what better writers can. A novel shouldn't be a summary of a couple in love but potentially a series of memorable moments for the reader, a romance experienced vicariously, a chance to evoke in the reader the feelings Steel claims her characters are experiencing. But the following excerpt serves as a troubling example of what to expect:
They sat there for a while, talking, looking into the fire, talking about themselves, about each other, about what had happened to them, and what they had felt, and then suddenly they were talking about other things, about people, about things that had amused them, about funny moments, as though for six months they had stored it all.
Setting aside the indistinct redundancies, the above paragraph reads more like a general suggestion about a scene rather than an actual account or instance, where an immediate scene would be far more effective. A moment of warm exchanges, some mild humor perhaps, a recurring habit one of them recognizes and teases the other one about, etc. Even a bit of dialogue, if handled well, could better define the particulars of their affection for one another, which in turn would help the reader sympathize with the couple. Instead, we're subjected to a rather spongy summary of unnamed things, unidentified people, and alleged amusements. The reader is outside looking in, and, I might add, the view is through a rather opaque plate of glass.

I realize that vivid, evocative, descriptive writing is more challenging than bland, imprecise drivel, but it isn't as if I'm bemoaning one’s genetics. Good writing can be taught; precision with language can be acquired. And these skills, unlike popularity or earnings, separate the pro from the amateur. I know I shouldn't be disappointed great writers remain obscure while hacks laugh all the way to the bank, but I can't help it. Puppy love makes me cringe. Conversely, when it comes to good writing, I'm a love sick fool. Two out of five stars. R

Thursday, December 22, 2016

marriage without love, Penny Jordan (1981)

This is probably only the second Harlequin Romance I've read, and I'm reminded of a behind the scenes special about the writers of the hit TV show 24 who took pride in the criticism leveled against a nighttime soap they wrote decades before called Knott's Landing. They quoted the critic as having written, “Dumb but never dull.” That sums up this novel.

Enter Briony, a bitter but beautiful young secretary dumped by a reporter named Kieron, who, we’re given to understand through a series of flashbacks, had briefly dated and slept with Briony in order to acquire a scoop from her about Briony’s roommate's brother (a wanted criminal in hiding). Kieron then left Briony, presumably without calling, leaving a note or a forwarding address. When his story hits the paper, Briony is indignant. Understandably, she’s convinced Kieron merely used her. Briony’s roommate’s brother is arrested; furious, Briony’s roommate kicks her out of the apartment.

Unbeknownst to Kieron, one of their illicit nights together produced a son, Nicky. Three years later, Kieron returns when he's offered the position of boss at a newspaper where Briony works. Once there, Kieron treats Briony horribly. He’s overbearing and cruel. Briony in turn feels trapped. Unsuccessful finding employment elsewhere, she resolves to remain at the newspaper and make the best of it. But Kieron relentlessly insinuates himself into her life until he discovers that she produced a child and that the boy is his son.

Kieron demands Briony marry him for the sake of the child. Briony, hating Kieron for bailing on her after he got his scoop, seeks alternative measures. (I don't know where the court's sympathies were in Great Britain for single mothers in 1981, but Briony is convinced that if she challenges Kieron in court, Kieron would win custody of her son and that she might never see her boy again.) And so reluctantly but convinced she's out of options, Briony marries Kieron who, as far as the reader is concerned, is a despicable excuse for a man.

Up to this point in the story, I was incredulous as to whether women care for this sort of romance. Granted, the man is tall, dark and handsome, and he's certainly got an inexhaustible supply of testosterone, but his cruel and threatening approach toward Briony is contemptible and sometimes shocking. He occasionally manhandles her in ways best described as battery. Granted, this was published in 1981, when male chauvinism in the workplace got a pass or at least didn't face the same consequences it presumably does today. And, admittedly, one of the reasons I kept reading this supposed romance was to determine whether this is really, deep down, what women enjoy reading. Briony herself appears both repelled and aroused by Kieron's behavior toward her. I've got to assume some readers are either not as bothered by his behavior as I am or that they believe his well-chiseled features trump charm.

But can a man, despite his physical attributes, actually appeal to a woman when he demonstrates such a dangerous temper? A few years ago, I would've said no, but I've since met such a woman, and apart from causing me to lose faith in the fairer sex, it's conditioned me to find the relationship between Briony and Kieron, sadly, more credible. I guess, naively, I never thought such women read.

At any rate, my fascination kept me turning the pages. I had to find out whether this miserable relationship would find resolution or whether the story would end with Briony despondent, if not, strangely, concurrently aroused by her husband and his brutish ways.

Toward the end of the story we learn via Kieron's godmother that Kieron hadn't exactly bailed on Briony three years ago after all. Instead, Kieron had been abruptly required to fly to Angola to cover some violent outbreak there, leaving Briony a note she never got but Kieron assumed she had. (Briony, confronted with this revelation, considers the note to have been intercepted by her roommate out of revenge for the information Briony unwittingly provided Kieron about her roommate's fugitive brother). In addition to the note, Kieron had mailed Briony a letter she never received. Shortly thereafter Kieron had been captured by that country's aggressors, nearly died, lost the will to live (since he assumed Briony had ignored his letter), and ultimately, when accepting the post as boss at the paper she worked for three years later, was shocked to discover not only that Briony worked there but that she wanted nothing to do with him. For the purposes of plot, this secret was never discussed at any point throughout the novel until the penultimate scene so that the reader could, presumably, enjoy the reconciliation sex.

Prior to this revelation, however, watching these two figuratively go at each other's throats, I couldn't stop turning the pages. Serviceable writing, indignant characters, cheeky dialogue, sex scenes that today would qualify as rape, and sexual tension that, while I suspect was meant to be provocative, actually stunned me. If that's not an endorsement for a novel, despite my better judgement, I don't know what qualifies. Three out of five stars. R

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Cat Who Saw Stars, Lilian Jackson Braun (1998)

This marks the tenth The Cat Who … novel I've read, and because the quality of these tales generally varies from great to garbage, I've decided to call it quits with the series. The problem is I never know whether I'll be treated to a well written who dun it or an utter dud. One novel might deliver on a classic murder mystery with the added bonus of a quirky moonlighting detective and his enigmatic cats. The standard fare from Braun. These follow a well-established and welcome formula: someone dies; foul play is suspected; and whether prodded by an inexplicable bristling sensation along his mustache or by the prescient behavior of his Siamese cat Koko, our beloved sleuth Qwilleran sets to work on solving the case. This develops into well plotted scenes, intriguing suspects, and a satisfying finish.

The next novel, however, might read like a journal adaptation by an octogenarian chronicling her fervor for food, fashion, felines, and fellowship. The problem with the latter is that said novels offer little to no tension, suspense, or mystery. Whatever murder occurs near the beginning of such a book is treated as either an afterthought or a nuisance for the characters involved, all of whom would clearly prefer to discuss their cats, attend the local theatre, frequent their favorite restaurant, browse the local antique shop, and plan the next charity benefit.

Saw Stars is another one of those. Braun is a good prose writer; I just wish she'd fulfilled her role more consistently, not as an aging senior citizen fictionalizing her own social life and its rather drab subject matter. How many stars the cat saw in this novel was never addressed. Which is fine. Unfortunately, for this review, I count only two. Rated G

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Why Do We Say It? The Stories Behind the Words, Expressions and Clichés We Use, Castle Books (1985)

Being a lover of words, I've often wondered about the origins of certain terms and expressions I've heard throughout my life, and for years I'd sought out books that expounded on them. Bon mots, adages, idioms, that sort of stuff has intrigued me for as long as I can recall. This book is the closest I've come to that kind of thing.

In this book, we find quite a few curious, sometimes amusing, tales about how some of these words and sayings allegedly came about. Some expressions, such as 'Learn By Heart' (or as I've often heard it said, 'I know it by heart'), as well as 'Learn by Rote' date back to antiquity. Others, such as 'quiz,' and 'Flash in the Pan,' are only a few hundred years old. Some terms and expressions are corruptions of their original, such as 'Nuts in May,' which was initially 'knots in May' as in 'sprigs of flowers,' which do come out in May. A few I knew: Carry Coals to Newcastle, Doubting Thomas, Drink Like a Fish, Baker's Dozen, C.O.D., Gordian Knot, Supercilious. Others I didn't know: Uncle Sam, Two Bits, Upbraid, Lavender, Honeymoon. Others I'd never heard before: In the Swim, Heater Piece, Fit in the Arm, Badge of Poverty.

Having served in the U.S. Navy, I participated in a silly ceremony out at sea when our fleet crossed the equator. The ceremony involved a series of games and mock trials on deck and the expression Davy Jones' Locker was repeated ad nauseam. In this book, we find that Jones is merely a corruption of Jonah's, the character in The Bible who was thrown into the sea. And Davy is a corruption of the West Indian Black person's name for a ghost or spirit, which is a duffy. So the phrase means “the locker of the spirit of Jonah.”

Although both fun and educational, this book isn't formatted as well as I'd like. Every explanation is preceded by both the word or phrase and then a question, which also incorporates that word or phrase. Only then do we reach the explanation, which, again, usually includes the word or phrase. Here's a random sample:
Tip. What is the reason we call a gratuity a “tip”?
Years ago in English inns and taverns it was customary for the patrons to drop a coin for the benefit of waiters into a box placed on the walls. On the box was a little sign which said: “To insure promptness.” Later just the initials of the phrase were put on the box – T.I.P.
Introducing the explanation simply with “Tip as a gratuity” might be a decent compromise, which could then be followed by, “Years ago ...” and so on. Here's another:
Stool Pigeon. Where did the “stool pigeon” get that name?
Don't ask us; just tell us. I realize the purpose of first listing the word or expression is to aid in the alphabetization of the entries. But in the above cases, as well as in hundreds of others, the questions that follow aren't necessary. That might seem like a small thing, but hundreds of entries each followed by a redundant eight to fifteen word question means thousands of superfluous words throughout the course of the book. Reminds me of the redundancy found at a spelling bee.

The word is tip.”

Tip? Could I have the definition please?”

Tip. Noun. The end of something. A sum of money given as a gratuity. Verb. To topple over. To strike softly. To hit the ball with the side of the bat so that it bounces off. Tip.”

Tip? Could I have the word in a sentence please?”

I gave the fool a tip on a horse. He decided to tip the horse over. The horse landed on the tip of its nose. Tip.”

Tip. May I have the origin please?”

You've tipped my hand, kid. Your time has elapsed. Here's a tip. Study harder for next year's spelling bee.” 

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Ladies of Missalonghi, Colleen McCullough (1987)

McCullough is the author of The Thorn Birds, which became a TV special many years ago. I think I was a teen at the time. I didn't watch it. I haven't read the novel yet, either. Ladies is quite good. Twenty pages shy of 200 and centered round a protagonist who desires above all else to get married, this qualifies as a romance, a genre to which I've only recently devoted more of my reading time. But the fine writing, endearing characters, tasteful love scenes, and absorbing happenings kept me turning the pages. For one, the writing is exquisite; the characters are often witty, and I found myself laughing out loud in a few spots. The twist at the end was both strange and unexpected, but because it was treated so well, I not only bought into it, I found it moving, too. I plan to read more from her. Five out of five stars. PG-13

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Silas Marner, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans Cross), Afterward by Walter Allen (1861)

Early in the story, Silas Marner, a poor weaver accused of a crime he didn't commit, is ostracized by his fellow church friends and decides to move away from his home town to establish himself elsewhere. 

Having lost his faith in both God and humanity, he sustains himself for years by weaving and selling his goods in his new, adopted country, all the while saving most of his earnings until accumulating a hefty hoard.

Silas’ new neighbors consider him a misanthrope. And for good reason. His sole purpose is to accumulate wealth from his weaving and, apart from occasionally interacting with the patrons who commissioned his services, he keeps to himself. His accumulated wealth is his everything. Nightly he extracts his earnings from bags he stashes in a cubbyhole in his house and eagerly counts the coins.

Until one night when he steps outside and his house is robbed. Silas is devastated. That same night, however, minutes later in fact, he confronts an orphan child of two on all fours at the threshold of his cottage door. Her presence, over time, inspires him to find a reason to not only live but to live well, by giving rather than hoarding.

It's a touching story of greed, betrayal, dissolution, love, and sacrifice. The writing is exquisite. Every page has at least one passage worth reading out loud to a reader friend. Highly recommended. Five out of five stars. Rated G

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy, 2nd Edition, Jay Stevenson, Ph.D

A good summary of the history of philosophy, the key philosophers, when they lived, and their ideas. Ironically, this is my only complaint. The word guide is in the title of the book. Yet this is not a guide to philosophy but rather a summary of the history of philosophy. The book chronicles the contributions of philosophers; it doesn’t explore the philosophical ideas themselves. Which is fine. I still enjoyed it. Just somewhat misleading. Four out of five stars.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Cat Who Went into the Closet, Lilian Jackson Braun (1993)

A good read. Once again, Qwilleran, the quirky newspaperman with the endearing, bristling mustache who moonlights as a sleuth and feeds his two Siamese cats Koko and Yum Yum nothing but people food (sometimes gourmet at that), finds himself embroiled in a murder. With a vested interest in what appears to be a suicide but, according to Koko's behavior, is more likely foul play, Qwilleran is again on the prowl. If you enjoy high society soirees, fund raisers, witty repartee, and a solid crime to solve, this mystery is right up your boulevard. Despite the previous two disappointing novels … Had 60 Whiskers and … Talked Turkey, in my eyes, given the quality of … Went into the Closet, Braun is redeemed. Four out of five stars. G

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Cat Who Talked Turkey, Lilian Jackson Braun (2004)

Not so great. Like The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, this story is less about solving a crime and more about social events, meals, and conversation. If that's what you're into, great. The protagonist Qwilleran is a likable enough guy. He was quirkier in the earlier novels though and hence more engaging. Of the eight or nine novels I've read by Braun so far, the stories were best categorized as crime fiction. They focused principally on solving a case, catching a murderer. It should be noted that this novel, as well as … Had 60 Whiskers, were both written late in her writing career. I suspect she received lots of fan mail raving about how much readers love her tales of cats and decided to concentrate more on the felines. This is unfortunate if true. This story is centered around said cats with a murderer thrown in which, incidentally, our protagonist doesn't pursue. Three out of five stars. G

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Personal Injuries, Scott Turow (1999)


After watching the movie Presumed Innocent back in the late 80's, I went hunting for the novel of the same title. I found The Burden of Proof (1990) instead. Archiving my comments, I decided they bore repeating: “Amid the shallow slurs of modern paperback novels, Turow's style stands apart. He’s one of the few modern writers I've come across who can tell a suspenseful story in a substantive way.”

After reading Personal Injuries, I stand by my initial impression. Sifting through the bargain bin at my local used bookstore, I grabbed this one and a dozen other paperbacks for a nickel each. One is Turow's Reversible Errors, which I look forward to reading sometime soon. Turow is thorough, detailed, and engrossing. Personal Injuries is just as good if not better than Burden of Proof. The author's sense of what's essential to plot and setting are quite good. The cast of characters is memorable and at times moving. Five out of five stars. PG-13 

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers, Lilian Jackson Braun (2007)

Not my favorite Braun novel. In fact probably my least favorite. Very little in the way of plot. The story is essentially a series of high society social events and phone conversations. Disappointing, frankly. Rather short too. I initially thought this might've been an unfinished novel never intended for publication. Wikipedia says otherwise. Not giving up on Braun just yet, though. All things considered, she’s a fine prose writer. I enjoy her style. Many of her novels are superb. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. Two out of five stars. Rated G

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare, edited by Jane Bachman (1995)

A play that becomes a play within a play. Though ambitious, this really wasn't my cup of tea. That being said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the characters are wonderful and that their lines are sometimes exquisite.

However, establishing an intriguing plot in Act I, scene 1 that gets hijacked in Scene 2 by a separate cast of characters, who in turn are manipulated by forces outside the play they're rehearsing (while giving rise to a reflection only such a structure can affect), complicates things unnecessarily. Especially when you consider introducing a geas into the story. A geas, an archaic trope popular in ancient fairy tales, essentially serves as a manipulating factor, rendering a given character bound to desires beyond his or her own personality or control, making him or her a marionette at the mercy of, say, a potion or a psychosis.

Today we're most likely to call this trope a cheat. In this play, the geas allows the audience to consider the nature of romantic love in ways it might not have thought of it before. After all, could it not be argued that the very nature of romantic love renders our wills irrelevant? To be sure, despite our best rationalizations, romantic love forces us, arguably, into situations under which we otherwise would never have submitted ourselves. In that sense, this trope, if interpreted metaphorically at least, has much to say about our irrational state when in love, or at least as it pertains to the young.

Consider Romeo and Juliet. Despite their feuding families, despite what reason and good sense would dictate, they fall for each other not because they share an interest in primitive medicine or Plato. In fact, they seem to have nothing whatsoever in common apart from their youth and their eloquent speech, the latter of which hardly makes them unique in a Shakespearean play. Yet their romantic love fates them to live out a tragedy. For this reason, I can't deny that A Midsummer Night's Dream serves an artistic function. I just wished this had been achieved without resorting to such a convoluted play. Still recommended. Three out of five stars. Rated G

Friday, November 18, 2016

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, Dover Thrift Editions (1993)

Despite the many film adaptations, none of which I’ve seen, I knew little more about this classic, tragic love story than the names of the principle characters involved. As a fan of the diction, I suspected I'd enjoy it. So why did it take me this long to finally get around to reading it? Another one of life’s great mysteries. You might think such high expectations would set me up for disappointment. Instead, I found the hype entirely justified. Without narrative, without exploration of character beyond what mere dialogue reveals, roughly 500 years later, the story still resonates. The language still evokes. Five out of five stars. PG-13

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Othello, William Shakespeare


Another free Public Domain Book from Amazon.com. Apart from King Lear and Macbeth, both of which I read and thoroughly enjoyed decades ago, the only other work I'd read by this master playwright was his Sonnets, and that was only last year. I should point out that I didn't find that collection particularly captivating.

Othello, on the other hand, is stellar. Obviously, plays are meant to be performed on a stage, but that mere dialogue on a page, without the benefits of narrative or exposition, can evoke feelings in the reader says a good deal about Shakespeare's genius. A few choice, popularized lines from the play:
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
To mourn a mischief that is past and gone,
Is the next way to draw new mischief on.
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee.
Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving.

My favorite monologue is from the character Desdemona when, early in the story, her father, Brabantio, discovers her recent elopement to Othello, a Moor. Her father disapproves the union and asks her to whom she most owes her obedience:
My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty,—
I am hitherto your daughter: but here's my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show'd
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord.

Although no commentary is provided in this Public Domain version, the play is surprisingly easy to follow. The mode of speech might be rough going for the novice, but when a subtle shiver runs down your spine over the majestic monologues in Virgil's Aeneid, if you go goey over the wondrous locution attributed to the cast of Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare's diction is a pleasure to read rather than a hindrance. Plus, Kindle's built-in dictionary supplied definitions for at least half of the archaic words I didn't know. Five out of five stars. PG-13 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, Lilian Jackson Braun (2001)

Well written narrative that leads nowhere. Like many, though not all, of Braun's novels, conflict is an afterthought. Most of the cast gets along, which is ideal in real life but boring as hell in fiction. Again, we're treated to social events, pleasant conversations, meals, and, of course, more catfits and other feline antics. But without an obstacle to overcome, good narrative doesn't make for good fiction. I've enjoyed some of Braun's novels very much, but I'm growing more dissatisfied with her subsequent stuff. She's a good prose writer. Her debut novel was stellar. In fact, I initially thought I'd discovered a reincarnation of Wodehouse. No such luck. Three out of five stars. PG

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Teen Scene, Your New Super-Hip Now Guide To Everything, 1001 Groovy Hints & Tips, By the editors of New Ideas for Teens (1970)

Just about the only things I remember about my teens are acne and alienation. Oh, and (shamefully) lots of television. But when our grandmother passed away in 2005 and left her house to my brother Jeff who didn't want the responsibility and who then passed it along to me, I eventually got around to cleaning and found this book in a closet in one of the bedrooms. Apart from my grandmother's name written on the cover in black marker were sketches of girls in bell bottoms and boys with hair cut above the ears. Curious as to what passed for cool and hip in 1970, I decided to read it.

Based on the long title, I expected to find some sage advice for teens about etiquette and fashion. Turns out the book isn't geared toward teens in general but rather female teens in particular. And the advice ranges from tips about looking pretty for your boyfriend to hosting inexpensive parties. I don't know whether my grandmother ever read it. By 1970, she was already an adult, a grandmother, and my mother was well into her twenties. I would've been five. This is all assuming the book was purchased hot off the press.

Some of the advice is sound, though probably no longer applicable:
Wind your watch when you wake up, not when you go to bed. Your wake up time is more regular than your beddy-bye, and that's better for your time-piece.
Sprinkling your favorite scent of talcum powder on your sheets just before climbing into bed will cool off even the hottest, stickiest nights. Smells pretty and luxurious, too.
The somewhat dated attitudes about gender roles, or, as less forgiving lefties might describe them, the stereotypical bigotry and chauvinism, made me grin, particularly the dating and relationship advice.
Most boys hate sarcasm in a girl. You may be a quick wit with your girl friends, but cool it when he's around.
If you've got a car, a scooter or a bike, play damsel in distress and ask his advice on some mechanical thingamajig.
Know enough about sports to keep up a conversation with boys, but don't know more than they do.
Then there's the outright strange counsel:
Carry a toothbrush in your mini-bag. No, not for your teeth – for your hair! It takes up less space than a regular hairbrush and does a great job.
If your straight-as-sticks bangs start going frizzy from perspiration, try smoothing cornstarch on your forehead before going out.
Here's some advice on how to live on a dime, a coin which probably went a lot further back then:
When your father's or big brother's shirts are too worn for them to wear, use them as aprons, painting smocks, etc. Nothing makes a girl look more helplessly feminine than an over-sized man's shirt. Dye them groovy colors.
Buy strings of beads in the same shape and pattern but in different colors for a pretty, made-to-order look.
But my favorite advice of all resides in the last chapter entitled “Last-Minute Mindbenders, Last Chance for Groovy Tips and Tricks,” probably because it's so bizarre:
To dream of the man you'll marry: On a Friday night invite one or more of your closest friends to bake a 'Dumb Cake.' It should be made of flour, water, eggs and salt, and is so named because complete and absolute silence must be maintained during the entire making! When the cake is done, divide it equally among you, and walk backwards to bed, eating the cake. During the night – providing no word has been spoken from beginning to end – you will see your future husband's face in a dream.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Children of Odin, The Book of Northern Myths, by Padraic Colum

If you follow my blog, you know I have a predilection for myths, legends, and ancient stories involving heroes and their various virtues and vices. This has been a passion of mine for decades. It might have to do with the primal elements involved in such tales – the pristine condition of the earth, its inherent beauty untainted by electric lines and smoke stacks, the clarity of good versus evil often in the form of archetypes, as well as the courage displayed in the face of overwhelming odds without the amenities of technology or modern conveniences to aid the good guys and gals in their struggle. Then there's the bonus of the mystical, the miraculous, the supernatural, and, most importantly, the wisdom and lessons learned we often don't find in the modern novel.

This Public Domain Book, which I downloaded for free from Amazon.com, quenches many of those thirsts. The author Colum, a poet and a playwright, was awarded the Regina Medal in 1961 for his “distinguished contribution in children's literature.”

First published in 1920 and later reissued in 1962, this book contains the Norse Sagas, a collection of the Scandinavian myths. Stories of the gods of Asgard – Odin, the All-Father; Thor and his mighty hammer Miolnir; Loki, the trickster; Iduna and her shining apples of immortality; Sif's golden hair; Prometheus, the jar (or box, depending on which version of the tale you prefer) of plagues Pandora uncorked (though this is really a Greek myth, not a Scandinavian one), as well as the stories of the Giants, the Valkyries, and heroes such as Sigard and others. Their mighty deeds, their crimes, greed, deceits, courage, cruelty, etc. comprise a cycle of cautionary tales, full of grandiose events.

As with many world myths, a ritualistic pattern abounds; the number three appears frequently: three temptations, three trials, three days, three choices, three attempts, and so on. We likewise find this recurring series of numbers in Greek mythology as well as in The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, not to mention the stories of Gilgamesh. Curiously, the numbers three, five, seven, and nine pervade many world myths and ancient stories. I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis who wrote, and I'm paraphrasing here of course, that world religions and myths don't conflict with one another but rather allude to a single Author preparing us for what would ultimately become the greatest story ever told, namely the story of Jesus of the New Testament.

In fact, early in the cycle, the reader is told that the Gods won't endure forever. A foreboding about their demise is made clear long before we immerse ourselves in their tales of grandeur and might. For that reason, the stories assume a precious, fleeting, transitory tone. These Gods and their concerns will pass away. What's more, and this is the more interesting element, allusions to a heaven beyond the Norse Gods recurs. This heaven is never described, apart from saying that it's some thing or some place “that Surtur's flames would not reach.” And the reader can't help but come away with an impression of the transcendent, something set apart and superior to the often frivolous, petty squabbling these lesser gods fall prey to. Bulfinch puts it this way. “Odin is frequently called Alfdaur (All-father), but this name is sometimes used in a way that shows that the Scandinavians had an idea of a deity superior to Odin, uncreated and eternal.” Again, C.S. Lewis alluded to something similar in his Narnia Chronicles. I think it was Prince Caspian in which Aslan tells the Pevensie children that their dealings with him in Narnia will make it easier for them to recognize Him in their own world.

The format is reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, in which one story introduces another. In this case, one great tale links dozens of smaller ones. As an aside, reading these stories and coming across some of the place names and personalities, I couldn't help but notice what was bound to have influenced J.R.R. Tolkien and his books The Simarillion and The Lord of the Rings. The Norse Vidar vs. Tolkien's Valar, Asgard vs. Isengard, the Dwarves and their covetous preoccupation with treasure, the capricious elves. Even the name Gimli appears in the Norse saga, though only as a thing “that was untouched by Surtur's fire.” (Surtur is a giant with a flaming sword who would aid the other Giants in ultimately toppling the Gods and their abode in Asgard.)

While this collection of extraordinary characters doing sensational things is lots of fun to read, fairy-talesque happenings abound, many of which defy not only logic but logistics. Still, these are wonderful tellings both young and old can enjoy. Four out of five stars. PG

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Anatomy of Story, 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, John Truby (2008)

I read this book late last year for the first time, but like Ivanhoe, this too, only for different reasons, deserves repeated reads. Truby is not a particularly gifted writer or anything. Very little is quotable or well stated as such. But the instructions are invaluable. I won't give away his secret recipe. Instead, I'll summarize this way. Truby outlines the elements and techniques inherent in great storytelling by pointing to the universal themes classics and otherwise successful novels, television shows, and films adhere to. He breaks these elements down into sections – premise, character, plot, dialogue, moral argument, symbolism – and forces the writer to evaluate what kind of story s/he wants to tell, how to maintain theme, how to evoke emotions in the reader through scenes, how to design convincing characters and so on.

Before reading this book, I'd done what I imagine lots of writers still do – redraft a manuscript until a story begins to take shape. Whereas now I apply Truby's instruction: first asking myself what the protagonist is all about and how his ultimate goal relates to his nature, his motivation, his desires versus his need versus his weakness, how the cast of characters play off these traits, how allies and opponents affect the results, how ultimately the character, not the plot, must dictate what happens next, and then outlining the entire story before beginning a first draft.

Even if you're not a writer, this book will change the way you view storytelling. You'll never watch another tv show or movie or read another novel without gauging its merits based on Truby's insight, which, by the way, bares some similarities to the hero cycle made famous by Joseph Campbell and later Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. At least I can't read novels anymore without the templates this book espouses in mind. For what it's worth, this has improved my storytelling efforts a hundred fold. Four out of five stars.

The Children of Húrin, J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Like The Simarillion, this was an unfinished work J.R.R.'s son Christopher completed. Unlike The Simarillion, this is a legitimate novel. Tolkien evidently attempted several iterations of the story. So Christopher had several partial manuscripts (some going as far back as 1916) at his disposal. In one iteration, the master approached the story as a lay (or long poem). While it's impossible to know precisely where the master's prose end and his son's begin, the result is a riveting tale with a clear protagonist, though damned, and reads deliciously well. I was surprised to discover it follows the hero cycle faithfully, though it strays often in its results: Túrin heeds nearly no one and consequently digs a deeper hole for himself as the story progresses. I'm reminded of a Game of Thrones fan who wrote that, to its detriment, The Lord of the Rings (probably the movie versions) lacked the betrayals, gore, and perversions Thrones offered. That critic might want to read Children. The prose and pacing is certainly superior to Thrones, and the other issues, like the incest, are rendered in ways that minimize the dreaded gag-reflex such a subject tends to trigger. Lean prose, fast paced scenes, exquisitely well written, but dark and tragic. Included are additional maps of Middle-earth, genealogies, and other notes. Five out of five stars. R

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Gathering of Hope, by Helen Hayes

Like the few aforementioned books above, this is another I found hiding in a box in a closet in my garage. I'm not a fan of inspirational books. Sure, I've had my share of dark moods. But words of inspiration have always struck me as sappy. After flipping through this little book, however, and discovering poems and sayings by writers Robert Frost, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Emerson, St. Augustine, Byron, Whitman, and Keats, as well as the Psalms, I couldn't resist reading it.

Hayes suffered the loss of both her daughter and later her husband. She knows grief and includes the writings of classic poets and poems that helped her through these spells of despondency. Not a bad collection. My favorite quote is probably Stevenson: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” My favorite excerpt is Hecuba's lines from “The Trojan Women” by Euripides, which is too long to include here. It's very moving. Three out of five stars. G

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, by Harry Shaw (1975)

Ever since I became an avid reader and consequently fell in love with words, I've been trying to master the language much like a musician might memorize chords, scales, arpeggios, and other musical phrases. Beyond its more visceral rewards, I believe such a pursuit is worthy of my time and energy. Partly for this reason, I abhor sloppy writing as a substitute for clear, lucid prose.

I should mention that both in conversation and on social media (Facebook, Twitter), I'm that guy who frequently corrects people when they abuse our otherwise wondrous language. Probably why I'm so damn popular. (Incidentally, Shaw correctly identifies the preceding statement as irony, not sarcasm, which is more derisive irony, something along the lines of “What a great friend you turned out to be!”)

Because I love the English language and am grief stricken when it's abused or treated with indifference, while reading this treasure I was pumping my fist in the air and affirming this and that entry with a “Thank you, Shaw!” and a “In your face, illiterates!” Not really, but at this point you can probably imagine me as the type.

Beyond the most commonly misused words such as then and than; there, their, and they're; less and fewer, effect and affect; exercise and exorcise; stationary and stationery; incisive and decisive; allusion, illusion, elusion, and delusion, Shaw distinguishes between exceedingly and excessively; effective, efficient, and effectual; urban and urbane; lie, lay, and lain; wake, awake, awaken, awoke, awoken; felicitous, fortuitous, and fortunate; meticulous, scrupulous; ingenious, ingenuous, and naive; inhuman, unhuman; precedence, precedent; and decent distinctions between (not among) myth, fable, and legend.

I've long since given up correcting people who all too often opt for the word literally when they mean to say figuratively or practically or virtually, or, better yet, veritably. I no longer waste my time pointing out to the alleged educated the difference between evidence and proof. And I've become inured to a certain family member who unerringly errs with pronouns: “Between you and I ...” etc. However, I, too, was given a valuable education regarding other words I've misused. Egoism and egotism; dissemble and dissassemble; prescribe and proscribe. And for those who struggle with who, whom, whoever, and whomever, Shaw offers the easiest method I've found for understanding which pronoun to apply.

Some differences between the entries are minor or vary only in degree (refute and deny); some are interchangeable within certain contexts (relatively and comparatively); some appear similar but are antonyms (enervating and invigorating); and some entries are mildly amusing:

corespondent, correspondent. These words differ in spelling, meaning, and pronunciation. It is usually safer to be a correspondent (KOR i spon dent), one who writes letters, than a corespondent (KO ri SPON dent), one charged with adultery in a divorce proceeding.

With the exception of the above example and a few others, Shaw begins an entry by listing the similarities between the words in question, whether the words share a Latin, Greek, or Gaelic derivation, highlighting where they differ and in what way, frequently including the words in examples (phrases, sentences), and finally, occasionally providing synonyms for each. This book is a valuable resource. One I'll probably keep and refer to often. Four out of five stars. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Cat Who Talked To Ghosts, Lilian Jackson Braun (1990)

This novel offers what every good mystery should – fine writing, engaging characters, an unsolved murder, and a sleuth driven to determine what happened. All of Braun's novels deserve this recipe. Unfortunately, not all of her books provide it. Braun clearly knows how to apply tension, intrigue, and suspense. For that reason, I can't understand why so many of her books often lack these winning elements. It's as if she's merely stumbling on these devices blindly. Which I refuse to believe. Yet in some cases the contrast appears too great to be otherwise. 

Some of her novels convince you this is a mystery writer to follow. Others make you wonder whether this is the same author. I mean, how do you go from a well-plotted novel with engaging, intriguing characters, tension, an unfolding of events and clues and sleuth-work to a satisfying finale in one novel, such as this one or her novel The Cat Who Saw Red (which is also excellent) and then on to the next novel that chronicles (stress free), irrelevant conversations, summaries of menus and luncheons, soirees, benefits, charities, and just about anything else that would serve a personal diary, as her novel The Cat Who Smelled a Rat does? I acknowledge that not everything a given author writes can be a masterpiece. But with Braun, the difference between the two, the contrast from a keeper to a throw away, is staggering. 

Still, ...Talked to Ghosts is good. Four out of five stars. PG 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott (1820)

I've read this novel twice now for two reasons. One, it's a classic that demands repeated reads, and two, my first manuscript was influenced by this period, as is my sequel-in-progress. So I wanted to immerse myself in the cast's diction again. 

Most writers of fantasy fiction set their stories in a period that mirrors our own middle ages. Yet despite their adherence to its form of government (monarchies), its mode of transportation (horse, mule, wagon, carriage), its architectural structures (castles, towers, temples), its tools of war (sword, spear, bow), and its dress (tunics, robes, bodices, armor), when it comes to dialogue, these same writers tend to assign their characters the contemporary colloquialisms of today. This has always struck me as lazy. Granted, creating dialogue that approaches the lexicon of a begone era is a challenge. But ever since reading the gracefully worded dialogue in Donaldson's Covenant Chronicles, Ben-Hur, Don Quixote, The Iliad, as well as Ivanhoe, I've been enamored with that lofty, archaic speech and have wanted to reproduce something similar, what I refer to as the pseudo-authentic, namely not the diction people of such a period spoke (since we can't know for certain), but certainly something we as readers come to expect from knights and courtiers of a similar age. I'm convinced that contemporary writers of this genre who dismiss this important element do their characters and their setting a disservice. Five out of five stars. PG-13

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Adventures of Pinocchio, by C. Collodi (the non de plume for Carlo Lorenzini) translated from the Italian by Carol Della Chiesa (1883)

From what I remember of the Walt Disney animated film Pinocchio, this original version is comparable to how the Brothers Grimm might treat the material. It's a dark fable, a fable because of its cautionary lessons and its supernatural elements, including talking animals. Pinocchio is a mischievous urchin fast approaching that of a reprobate. Not until he faces potential death (which he does in nearly every chapter) does he appear mildly remorseful, and that remorse is short lived as yet another temptation appears which, again, distracts him from the sagacity of his elders.

Despite the darker tone, this story is still amusing and fun. I caught myself smiling throughout and even chuckling quite a few times. An intermittent, interactive quality abounds. We've all probably experienced those stories in which the author stops his narrative to flatter us, calling us his “gentle reader” or his “dear reader.” Something along the lines of “As it happened, dear reader, Sally sold those sea shells to the stentorian steer for seven silver smackaroos” or some such. But I've never read anything quite like this. One can see the crowd of children gathered round the animated adult, their small hands clenched, eyes wide, mouths agape, as she reads aloud and gesticulates.
Everyone, at one time or another, has found some surprise awaiting him. Of the kind which Pinocchio had on that eventful morning of his life, there are but few. What was it? I will tell you, my dear little readers. On awakening, Pinocchio put his hand up to his head, and there he found –

Guess!

He found that, during the night, his ears had grown at least ten full inches!

I couldn't help but grin at these delightful moments. At the same time, the tale could double as a sermon to wayward boys, since Pinocchio is constantly warned against sloth and disobedience and, sure enough, encounters trouble whenever he chooses vices over virtues. Then, while either dying of starvation or imprisoned, wallowing in despair and self-rebuke, he's reminded of his selfishness by some tradesman or talking animal, cautioning him of the hazards of ignoring the creeds of those who themselves have learned the hard way the lessons they seek to impress upon him. A cautionary, but adventuresome, tale, to be sure, full of both high jinks and endearment. Four out of five stars. Rated G

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Past Forgetting, My Love Affair With Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kay Summersby Morgan (1975)

Like The Groucho Letters in my previous post, this was another hardback amid a hidden stack of books in a box in the closet of my garage. I decided to read it not in anticipation of the sensationalism – the idea of a love story between Eisenhower and his mistress – but rather because I expected to learn something of that period: the war, the decision makers involved, maybe even a few facts I hadn't come across in the history books. I wasn't disappointed.

As the publishing date makes explicit, Summersby wrote this decades after the facts. Eisenhower had since died; Summersby herself  partly to quail the rekindled media gossip at the time and partly because she'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live  decided to set the record straight as to what really happened.

Chronicling her experiences during the second world war as an officers' driver, she doesn't even begin discussing her love affair until midway into the book. Even then she treats the illicit encounters tastefully by avoiding details. She writes briefly about some of the more secret operations too – Torch (the invasion of North Africa), Overlord, and, of course, D-Day. Not all of her war experiences happened safely away from the front lines either. She and Eisenhower's staff were often forced to race to an underground bunker to avoid German shelling. Though her style and approach is dramatic at times, she's unassuming and quite modest about her accounts as a potential casualty during these bombing raids.

She began driving for the fairly unknown two star General Eisenhower roughly three years before the war would end. During that time, he would be promoted from two stars to three, to four, to eventually the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and ultimately, of course, the President of the United States.

She also provides some intriguing accounts of some of the brass and celebrities she encountered and regularly worked with. Her personal accounts of some of the icons of that era are particularly telling, icons such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Patton, Churchill, and of course Eisenhower. Eisenhower, a chain smoking workaholic, loved the troops and made it a point to interact with the lowest ranking soldier frequently. Roosevelt was capricious but kind and personable. Patton, quite chivalrous regarding the fairer sex, spoke in a high pitched womanly voice and was socially unpredictable; once, when giving a tour to a couple of friends, he abruptly fell to his knees and prayed out loud for a number of people, after which he rose, unabashed, and resumed the tour. But my favorite character of the cast is easily Churchill, whom I've admired for years, at least ever since I discovered some of his famous quotes and other writings. Turns out he was quite a slob at the dinner table.

He would slurp his soup, spill things, pick up food with his fingers. He would pick his nose while he listened to the rare person who managed to get a word in edgewise and would quite uninhibitedly unzip his siren suit to scratch his crotch. I remember once at dinner he interrupted himself in mid-anecdote, banged his fist on the table and demanded, “What happened, General [Eisenhower]? Did you run out of claret?” Mickey [Eisenhower's batman of sorts] rushed to fill his glass. At that moment the P.M., engrossed in his story again, made a sweeping gesture and knocked the glass to the floor. He paid no attention to what he had done. … Mr. Churchhill, you really had to acknowledge it, was adorable – but his manners were horrifying. The truth was that it did not matter. He was absolutely brilliant, and all these possibly purposeful gaucheries seemed trivial when he started talking. He had the most fabulous command of the English language. I could have listened to him forever.


The book contains nearly 40 black and white photos of the characters involved and a few of the events. Worth reading if you're curious about the European theater at that period in history. Four out of five stars. Rated R

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 ...