Wednesday, November 30, 2016

It's like reading a novel in short takes

I looked up Paula Whyman's collection of linked short stories, You May See a Stranger, because she was featured in a Poets & Writers magazine article, "5 Over 50." These short sketches introduce five authors older than fifty who published their first book in the past year. The implied message: You're not too old to be published. That's good news for some of us.

While the book was published in 2016, it appears the individual stories were written and published over a period of time. Eight of the ten were originally published in eight different literary magazines, but there is no indication of when. Some of us would like to know, although it would not change the pleasure that You May See a Stranger offers.

And the book does offer a variety of pleasures. All of the stories have the same protagonist, Miranda Weber, and they cover incidents in Miranda's life from adolescence to middle age. Miranda tells her own story in eight of the ten stories (the other two are told in the third person), and she is funny, sometimes self-destructive, and human, all too human.

Another pleasure is Whyman's use of language and ability to convey information. Here is the third paragraph of the title story:

"Pogo has wads of cash in his pockets. I have a small square of paper in my purse. It's proof of something that I don't quite believe. When the doctor said it, I thought of an incubator and chicks, my body as a holding area, warm, but like everything else, temporary. Pogo will eventually show everyone the case. I don't plan to show anyone the paper. This is Pogo's big night, no mine. One big night at a time seems like a good philosophy."

What do you think the paper shows? And who do you think is the father? And how do you think Miranda will deal with Pogo's big night?

Many of the pleasures are in Whyman's observations: "Entering the restaurant was like entering a Middle Eastern version of Brigadoon. We sat on cushions on the floor among tasseled pillows that were embedded with rows of thumbnail-size mirrors. You didn't recline on them so much as gaze at your broken self."

And while it's tempting to pull one plum paragraph after another out of this collection, I'll stop with one more. Miranda has just admitted a fence salesman into the house so he can write up an estimate. (This story takes place during the time when a sniper was killing random pedestrians in Washington, D.C., so there's an undercurrent of anxiety running through it.) Miranda excuses a pile of blankets in the living room as, "Kids, making forts!" Then she asks herself, "Why say anything? I always feel that I owe an explanation. Why? Once I begin to explain, the other party decides that in fact I do need to explain—and by "other party" I mean "husband"—and that my explanation is insufficient. And then we argue. This happens all the time. That's just what marriage is, at least what it is now, after ten years, a constant stream of insufficient explaining. . ."

The book rewards the reader for the language, for the detail, for the characterizations and for the way the stories resonate with one another. Each story can stand alone, but reading the sequence through is like reading a novel in short bursts—although few novels are as rewarding as You May See a Stranger.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Why Michael Connelly is so great (again)

Harry Bosch is back and he's still detecting in The Wrong Side of Goodbye.

Bosch, as mystery lovers know, is the Los Angeles-based police detective created by Michael Connelly. I've written about Connelly in the past and what I admire about his novels, so in this review I may repeat myself. Very well. I repeat myself.

First, Connelly is able to stay within the point of view of Bosch throughout the book. We readers see and hear what Harry sees and hears. We don't jump into the heads, or points of view, of other characters, most notably the villain's.

Connelly convinces me that the places he describes are as he describes them. The streets are real, the neighborhoods look as he says, the public buildings are just as he writes.

In the course of an investigation, Bosch by necessity meets and works with a couple dozen other characters. Connelly is able somehow (magically?) to make each of those characters individual. I am tempted to re-read the book with a highlighter to try to spot the sentences, the dialogue, the actions that bring all those characters alive on the page.

Finally, the mechanics of the investigation seem to me to be exactly right. Some leads work, some are dead ends or brick walls. Bosch is able to bring memory and experience to what he learns and thereby to put new information into a context. For example, as a Vietnam vet himself, Bosch is able to understand what civilian clothes in a dead Vietnam vet's effects implies.

This last point is important to me because I believe that a Connelly novel actually teaches me something about the world and the way real people live in it. This is what a police detective is able to do, is not able to do, and is able to do but, if he does it, will have consequences.

I haven't said anything about The Wrong Side of Goodbye, so here it is: Bosch, having been removed from the LAPD for cause (and the action in an earlier novel), is working as an unpaid investigator for a small, independent police department that has been hit with budget cutbacks and has a pile of cold cases that need work. Bosch is glad to have a badge and something to do and is working on serial rape case.

But the book's inciting incident is a $10,000 invitation to visit a reclusive, elderly billionaire who wants Bosch to discover whether he has an heir. The money is to induce Bosch to visit the estate and hear the man's story. Bosch takes the challenge.

So, The Wrong Side of Goodbye tells two stories simultaneously, the rape investigation and the hunt for a possible heir. I suspect a less skillful writer, in an effort to be clever, would at the book's end reveal how the one investigation connects with the other. Connelly doesn't do that. The only connection between the stories is Bosch, so the reader gets two intriguing stories for the price of one in another exceptionally satisfying mystery.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What's grit and how can you get some?

"Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success," says a blurb on the front cover of my copy of Grit, "but Duckworth is the one who found it."

Angela Duckworth, PhD., is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow and a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, her first book, is a deservedly best seller. I suspect it has done well because the text includes Duckworth's research, her interviews with interesting and gritty people, with personal stories from her life. And it's easy to read.

Basically,  to be successful you need a combination of passion and perseverance—that is, grit. You can be talented. You can be intelligent. You can be charming, well-educated, and ambitious. But without grit, your ability to push on, your success will be limited.

Why? Because, based on Duckworth's research, talented and intelligent people without grit tend to give up when things get tough. They drop out of West Point. They quit practicing. They lose interest. They get bored. They decide they can't do it so they quit. In contrast, mature paragons of grit have four psychological assets:

1. They have interest. "Every gritty person I've studied can point to aspects of their work they enjoy less than others, and most have to put up with at least one or two chores they don't enjoy at all. Nevertheless they are captivated by the endeavor as a whole."

2. They practice. They work, and work, and work on their weaknesses to become better, more skillful, more proficient.

3. They have purpose. They are convinced that their work matters. They believe that their work is "personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others."

4. They have hope. "Hope," she writes, "is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance."

Once she explains what grit is and why it matters, Duckworth writes about ways readers can improve their own Grit score on a brief quiz she includes and ways parents and teachers can grow grittiness in offspring and students. And while I believe almost anyone—even the gritty—can read the book with profit (one reason it's a best seller), I was particularly interested in her John Irving (The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, etc.) example.

Irving earned C— in high school English. He needed to stay in high school an extra year to have enough credits to graduate. His SAT verbal score was 475 out of 800. His teachers thought he was both "lazy" and "stupid." Because reading and writing did not come easily, "I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention," he wrote. "I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural became almost second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn't come overnight."

Irving said, "One reason I have confidence in writing the kind of novels I write is that I have confidence in my stamina to go over something again and again no matter how difficult it it. Rewriting is what I do best as a writer. I spend more time revising a novel or a screenplay than I take to write the first draft."

In commenting on his inability to read and write as fluently as others, Irving believes, "It's become an advantage. In writing a novel, it doesn't hurt anybody to have to go slowly. It doesn't hurt anyone as a writer to have to go over something again and again." Words to live by.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Strong opinions from an American original

Edward Abbey published nine novels and a dozen books of nonfiction during his life, 1927-1989. He was born in western Pennsylvania, moved west when he was 17 and fell in love with the desert country. He was an MP in the US Army stationed in Italy, went to college in New Mexico and Edinburgh, and lived the rest of his life in Arizona and Utah. He worked as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument in the late 1950s and the journals he kept of that time became Desert Solitaire. Perhaps his best-known novel is The Monkey Wrench Gang.

A friend of Abbey's, David Peterson, collected and edited Abbey's correspondence and published Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast. It's a book that should appeal to anyone interested in Abbey and anyone interested in writing.

Abbey had strong opinions and was willing to share them. From the first letter in the book, writing to his family in November 1949: "The radio is on and I'm hearing a song called 'Mule Train' for about the seventh time this evening. Quite a fad, this pseudo-Western culture. First 'Riders in the Sky' and now this . . ."

I found his opinions about other writers interesting. He did not care for John Updike ("his books are essentially trivial"), J.D. Salinger ("that juvenile neurotic!"), Saul Bellow ("promoting an occult theosophical doctrine known as Steinerism"). For a sense of authors he did like (or respected), he listed books by B. Traven, Thomas Mann, Knute Hamsun, Haldor Laxness, Sartre, Kazantzakis, Mariano Azuela among the greatest modern novels. Indeed, I intend to use his lists of 27 great modern novels, 80 contemporary favorites, and 20-plus greatest books of all time (so far) for my own reading suggestions.

"What is the true subject, or point, or premise, of literary art?" Abby asked in a letter to Annie Dillard. "The novel is the book of life, said Lawrence, and I agree. The novelist must be granted his premises, said Henry James, and I agree with that too. And this above all, says Thoreau, over and over again, give me the truth, the truth however cruel rather than comforting fabrication." Postcards from Ed is studded with thought-provoking passages like this, a letter I would guess of a couple thousand words. (I can imagine what Abbey would think of Twitter.)

He was a working writer, and I was stopped by this letter to his editor about his penultimate novel: "I've read The Fool's Progress, all 901 pages, straight through from beginning to end, and this is what I think. Almost every page requires some re-writing. There are entire scenes and passages in the book that should be re-written word for word or discarded. The early love scenes between Lightcap and Honeydew Mellon are embarrassingly bad—sappy, foolish, silly . . .  There is . . . too much hasty careless self-indulgent writing throughout the book . . . " Ouch.

But the letter makes me want to read The Fool's Progress. Was Abbey (and his editor) able to clean it up? Or was he misguided, and did the changes make it worse? Without a comparison between the manuscript and the printed book, we'll never know.

I do know however that Abbey was, as they say, an American original, and Postcards from Ed has given me a wealth of ideas and leads to follow.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

But What if Chuck Klosterman Is On To Something?

Chuck Klosterman had an interesting idea for a book: What of the things we believe are true today turn out to be wrong? His example is Aristotle's theory of gravity: A rock falls to the earth because it wants to return home. People—or at least those people who cared about
This is not a misprint; this is the cover.
such things and were familiar with Aristotle, an itsy bitsy fraction of humanity—accepted that theory for almost two thousand years. If such a crackbrained (to us) idea can last that long, what current accepted truths will seem equally foolish in a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years? It was a good enough book idea that he sold an editor on it and Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, has now published his book: But What If We're Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.

Klosterman is a writer, not an academic. After college, he was a reporter on the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, worked for five years on Spin magazine, and for three years wrote "The Ethicist" column for the New York Times Magazine. He's published two novels and six books of non-fiction. He bases his new book on his research and interviews with authorities like Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, movie director Richard Linklater, Zed Adams, an assistant professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and more. 

And because he is someone who has to earn a living as a writer, the book is lively and engaging. Even when he writes himself into a corner. In his chapter meditating on the future of television he asks, "Am I arguing that future generations will watch Roseanne and recognize its genius? Am I arguing that they should watch it, for reasons our current generation can't fully appreciate? Am I arguing that future generations might watch it and (almost coincidentally) have a better understanding of our contemporary reality, even if they don't realize it?" [Italics in the original.]

His answer to these questions: "I don't know."

He continues: "I really don't. It's possible this debate doesn't even belong in this book, or that it should be its own book. It's a phenomenon with no willful intent and no discernible result. I'm not satisfied with what my conclusion says about the nature of realism. But I know this matters. I know there is something critical here we're underestimating, and it has to do with television's ability to make the present tense exist forever, in a way no other medium ever has. . . ." [Italics in the original.]

Klosterman grants that we cannot know the future if only because we cannot know of a reality-changing discovery before it's discovered and therefore we cannot know its effects. He laces his text with examples of forecasts that either misjudged the timing (the 1948 prediction that it would take science 200 years to solve the problems of landing and returning from the moon) or missed a key development entirely (no one in 1980 imagined that the cost of a sixty-minute phone call from Michigan to Texas would ever cost less than mailing a physical letter the same distance). Given the unknown unknowns, Klosterman does not make his own predictions other than to forecast that the future reality will be different from today's.

What he does do is write about books, popular music (i.e., "rock'"), the multiverse (i.e., an infinite number of universes exist), Phantom Time (i.e., all information we have about the distant past is unreal), television, sports (i.e., the NFL has passed its peak), politics, and more. I found it a fascinating trip, much of which I disagreed with or regarded as pointless. Yes, it is possible to speculate about other universes, but why bother? We can by definition know nothing about them. The speculation tells us more about the mental state of the speculator than about another universe. And personally I don't find that aimless inquiry interesting.

At the same time, I thought But What If We're Wrong on the whole stimulating. Klosterman reminds us that everything we know is provisional. Virtually any certainty we hold today may be overturned tomorrow. The pencil I knock from my desk may not, next time, fall to the floor but float. Unlikely, and I plan to live as if gravity remains in force, as if I will die, as if a body in motion tends to remain in motion, as if the sun will come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar. And yet, and yet. What if I'm wrong?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Why is someone killing British officers' wives?

The Last Kashmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly is her first mystery, and as such is a very creditable effort. It is set in India in 1922 and the protagonist is WWI veteran Joe
Sandilands, a Scotland Yard detective on temporary duty in Calcutta. The young wife of a British officer stationed at Panikhat, a military post fifty miles from Calcutta, has apparently committed suicide. The Governor of Bengal's niece, whose husband is also stationed at Panikhat, who was friends with the dead woman, and who has no confidence in the investigative abilities of the local British cop, prevails upon her uncle to assign Joe to look into the death.

Joe, with the invaluable help of an Indian police sergeant, establishes almost immediately that the wife's death was not a suicide. (But you knew that before I told you, right?) Not only was it not a suicide, but over the last ten years five other station officer's wives have died, all in the month of March—there was a time out during WWI—all in a way that was ruled as an accident at the time, each in a way that the victim most dreaded. I.e., the woman who had a phobia about water drowned; the woman who was terrified by snakes was bitten by a cobra.

So we have a diabolical serial killer on the loose. Who is it? And why these particular women?

We follow Joe as he uncovers clue after clue. Because he is bangers-and-mash British, he learns about India and its customs together with the reader. He is even able to have a brief sexual liaison with the governor's lovely niece. And, of course, he solves the mystery.

If this sounds like the sort of thing that appeals to you—an exotic setting, a complex puzzle, an interesting detective—stop reading right now and go look up the book. Because from now on, I'm giving you my uncertainties about it.

Because Cleverly set the book in 1922 and, according to the jacket copy, spent her working life in  Cambridge and Suffolk, she is writing from the outside. That is, the book is based on extensive and, I'm convinced, careful research. But it does not have, cannot have, the easy air of authority that an author writing about her own time and inside her own experience can bring to the text. My complaint is not that the author does not know India (what do I know about India? not much), but that there is a thinness to the book because it is based on research.

Also, I personally have trouble accepting serial killers who are clever enough to get away with one murder after another until finally the right detective comes along to put all the pieces together. Cleverly tries to give her killer a background that will explain (justify?) the person's actions, but I am afraid that at the end, I was unsatisfied.

Finally, she took an interesting risk to write entirely from a man's point of view and while I had no trouble with Joe while I was reading The Last Kashmiri Rose, when I thought about the book later, I was not satisfied. I was not convinced that Joe would have had the kind of sexual relationship with the niece that Cleverly depicts. This may be an entirely personal idiosyncrasy and failing, so feel free to discount it.

Still, as I said in my first sentence, this is a very creditable debut mystery, and I expect that with time, Cleverly's stories became richer and more engaging.