Book ‘Em: Just Enough Information.

readthisThe beauty of short stories is they can be just as enjoyable as any novel but they don’t take nearly as long to read. And short stories can get away with things we’d never settle for in a novel, especially when it comes to endings. The best short stories leave us wanting more, and yet it would ruin them if they gave us more. Take, for example, A. Manette Ansay’s story Smoke, from her collection Read This And Tell Me What It Says. In it an old woman is haunted by her dead husband. She is only protected by her cats. Her cats provide little protection, but it’s enough.

He wakes her just before dawn. She sees the smudge of his shadow in the corner across from her bed. The cats cluster in the doorway, but none of them will come in.

The cats protect her by their presence, and because he hated cats she believes they’ll protect her. I won’t say how it ends, but it is ambiguous. It ends the way only a short story can. If this were a novel there’d have to be more: the woman is crazy, and her family has to deal with her, or her husband’s ghost is real, possibly even the first wave of the dead coming back to haunt the living. It could go a million different directions, but, in the end, it doesn’t need to.

Ansay’s characters are also often tormented, but not necessarily tormented in big ways, ways that would fill a novel. Mary Ann, the narrator of the title story is a compulsive thief because it calms her. She says, “I was nervous and awkward most of the time, but when I stole I was smooth as cream.” This is not the story’s central problem, though: it’s her complicated relationship with her father and family, who expect her to get an education, and her friends. Making it a short story gives Ansay a chance to let a character in a larger drama tell just her story.

Sometimes, too, a short story is a way to tell a story that just can’t be made into a novel. Ansay told me her story Neighbor was inspired by a real neighbor, someone who bugged her.

A writing teacher I once had said that writing a novel is easy. All you have to do is write one page a day for a year and you’ll have a novel. While writing a short story may take at least that long, the short story can be so much harder because each time a writer has to start over from scratch.


Word Of The Week: January 30th, 2010.

lettereSeveral years ago I read an article in Discover magazine about the end of the universe. It was a pretty spooky description of what the end might be like–even though it’s trillions of years in the future. I think the current theory is that all matter in the universe is currently drifting apart–there won’t be a final “big crunch”. It’ll be a whimper rather than a bang. In the end there will be dwarf stars with hot cores but icy skins, dark and separated by immense distances. Eventually protons will break down and matter will cease to exist. It will dissolve into the background radiation which will, in turn, dissipate.

When I think about that I think about the elements that compose matter. Carl Sagan said, “We are all star stuff.” It’s astounding to think that almost every element originated in the heart of a star, that almost everything from helium up to uranium (and even some of the bigger elements) begins with the fusion of two hydrogen atoms, then the fusion of helium atoms, then lithium, and so on. A friend of mine once suggested that the number of elements might be infinite. And yet it seems like nothing–not even the universe itself–really is infinite. There are limits to everything. Matter isn’t infinitely divisible, nor is its existence infinite.

Anyway, because I’m a wordy kind of guy, I can’t help wondering about the origins of the word element, although it’s unknowable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “the etymology and primary meaning are uncertain”. There are limits to what’s knowable as well.

On that cheerful note here’s a great rundown of the elements from Tom Lehrer–although you may notice that his song’s actually out of date. There are a few elements he doesn’t mention that are known to Harvard, and everyone else. What we can know may be finite, but we haven’t yet reached the end.

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The End Of The Laughter.

nine-storiesIn a way J.D. Salinger has really been dead for a long time. I don’t mean to sound callous, but his silence was a kind of death. He shut himself off from the world so completely, apparently never realizing that his reclusiveness would just make him even more famous. Every once in a while I’d hear rumors of a “new” Salinger novel, although, at this point, it would be like Chinese Democracy. Fans of Catcher In The Rye have been kept waiting so long that I think any new novel would be a disappointment.

For some reason Catcher In The Rye was one of those books I was never assigned to read in school. I did read it, but more out of a sense of obligation than desire. At the end of it I felt let down. I asked myself, what just happened? And then I asked, do I even care? I wasn’t that sure that I did. I didn’t understand why some people could be so hopelessly in love with a book that, even though it sounds like heresy, just didn’t move me.

And then I read Nine Stories, and, reading one of them, The Laughing Man, I understood. It’s a short story but it was denser, deeper, and more profound than most novels I’d read—including Catcher In The Rye. It’s a story about the loss of childhood innocence which, I think, might be the most profound event in all our lives. What really makes it, though, is the story within the story—the story a group of boys are told about a hero called The Laughing Man. And it’s the story that they’re told that really destroys their innocence. That’s what got me: that a story could have so much power.

If you’ve read the story, or if you go and read it now (you can find it online here), maybe you’ll feel the same way and maybe you won’t. If you don’t I hope there is something—a story, a painting, a piece of music—that affects you that deeply. Never being touched by something like that would be a kind of death.

Hail and farewell, Mr. Salinger.


Goodbye, Beaver.

beaverIt’s apocryphal, but supposedly Albert Einstein once said that the two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity. I’m sure harnessing the power of hydrogen will bring about some great advances but if we could ever harness the power of stupidity our potential would be limitless.

Coming right on the heels of the dictionary ban, a venerable old publication called The Beaver will be changing its name to Canada’s History. The reason is that the journal’s former name gets blocked by web and e-mail filters, particularly at schools. First I’d like to say that this illustrates one of the major problems with filters. It’s published by Canada’s National History Society, and there’s nothing salacious about it. Second, while many of us have made jokes about, for instance, Mrs. Cleaver saying, “Ward, don’t you think you were a bit hard on the Beaver last night?” we’re mature enough that we can pick up a magazine about Canadian history without making jokes about its title.

As a librarian I see a lot of scholarly publications with dull, descriptive names, like European Constitutional Law Review or Journal of the International Phonetic Association . A magazine with a title like The Beaver stands out in libraries, not because it’s funny, but because it’s distinctive. The new title, Canada’s History, says what the magazine’s about, but it doesn’t exactly grab you by the pelt, does it? The title even has an interesting history: it was originally published by The Hudson Bay Company, which was founded in 1666, and which made most of its money selling beaver pelts. Fur may be dead, but do we have to kill off the history too?

And as a librarian I can tell you how nightmarish title changes can be to deal with. The publishers of The Beaver are being nice and putting some small print on the cover of Canada’s History to tell us it’s changed its name. Some publishers aren’t so nice, so some magazine no one’s ever heard of may show up in a library and get passed around before getting tossed. We may get two or three issues before someone figures out it’s something we actually subscribed to under a different name. And sometimes publishers will cycle through a series of names. The Royal Geographical Society of London published The Geographical Magazine from May 1935 to November 1988, then changed the name to Geographical from December 1988 to April 1995), then changed it to Geographical Magazine from May 1995 to May 1997, then changed it again to The Royal Geographical Society Magazine in June 1997, before going back to Geographical with the July 1997 issue.

As far as I know Geographical hasn’t been blocked by any filters, but maybe they can do something about that by changing their name to something like The Gamecock.

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Next They’ll Take “Gullible” Out Of The Dictionary.

feldmanRemember when you were in elementary school and you’d look up dirty words in the dictionary? Sometimes they weren’t there, but when they were it was pretty thrilling. And then, presumably, you grew up. If you have kids of your own you might wonder if they also look up dirty words in the dictionary, but, compared to all the other things they could be exposed to, it probably seems harmless enough. That is, of course, unless you’re a parent who’s decided to complain that the school your child attends has a copy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (10th edition), which has a definition for oral sex.

I admit this does raise the issue of “age appropriateness”, but is it really necessary for the Menifee Union School District of California to convene a committee to go through the dictionary and determine what age school students it should be available to? The fact that all copies of the dictionary have been pulled from school shelves seems like an extraordinary overreaction on the part of the school board, especially since this is in response to a complaint by only one parent.

School administrators do have to walk a fine line between censorship and access to information, and I know it’s not easy, especially when you have students of different ages in the same school, but should the dictionary be put under lock and key? That might just lead to an underground market, with kids hanging around outside bookstores and giving adults money to buy them a dictionary. It’s not easy for dictionary editors either, and I’m sure the decision to include a definition for oral sex wasn’t easy, but this is just going to make it harder–er, I mean more difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. Should they also remove the term for a female dog? Should they remove synonyms for donkey or rooster, or the word semprini?

I know it’s not easy, but at a certain point adults have to grow up and realize that we can’t completely sanitize the world and prevent children from hearing things that we don’t want them to hear. If school officials had been this skittish when I was a kid my friend Richard Hertz would have been expelled.


Book ‘Em: Feeling Odd.

oddfrostgiantsWinter can’t last forever. At least I keep telling myself that while I’m walking around wrapped in wool from head to toe. Actually the temperature’s been up and down lately, but reading Neal Gaiman‘s young adult book Odd And The Frost Giants has been a nice way to enjoy winter. The story is a tribute to Norse mythology in which Odin, Thor, and Loki are driven out of Asgard. They’re saved by the unlikely hero, a young boy named Odd. And even though it’s written for young adults I realized it’s theme is one that cuts across the spectrum of Gaiman’s work, from The Wolves In The Walls and Coraline to American Gods. The true nature of the world, Gaiman seems to say, is completely the opposite of what we perceive. The most powerful beings–whether gods or parents–depend on what are normally thought of as the weakest, most ineffectual individuals, whether ex-cons or children. And I also had to mention American Gods specifically because, here, Odin isn’t the gentle, avuncular Mr. Wednesday he is in the other book. In Odd he’s a quiet, stand-offish eagle and it’s really Loki, my favorite Norse god, who gets most of the spotlight. Gaiman even playfully hints at how Loki produced Odin’s horse Sleipnir. He doesn’t actually tell the story directly, but enough details are provided that even Odd guesses how it happened.

I do have one serious problem with this book: it’s much too short. And, while Dave McKean has done some excellent illustrations for other Gaiman books, the illustrations for Odd done by Brett Helquist (who also illustrated Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events) are perfect for this story. The author’s biography at the end–written, by the way, by someone who claims they’re being held hostage and forced to write author bios all day long–says that there are other stories about Odd that Gaiman would like to tell. Maybe something for summer.


Word Of The Week: January 23rd, 2010.

letterdEarlier this week I read an article about how scientists think oceans of diamond, with great diamond icebergs floating in them, may be found on Uranus and Neptune. What I wonder about is what liquid diamond looks like exactly. I think of diamonds as crystals, and the Oxford English Dictionary backs me up with its definition:

A very hard and brilliant precious stone, consisting of pure carbon crystallized in regular octahedrons and allied forms (in the native state usually with convex surfaces), and either colourless or variously tinted. It is the most brilliant and valuable of precious stones, and the hardest substance known.

How do you melt that? And since diamonds consist of pure carbon, wouldn’t a melted diamond just be a mass of black liquid? I know we have liquid crystals in everything from digital watches to flat-screen monitors, but I never thought of actual crystals being melted to form liquid crystals (and originally I even thought “liquid crystal” just might be something advertisers came up with that sounded cool). It’s fascinating to think that diamond can melt–although it takes a combination of incredible heat and pressure to make it happen.

I really have no idea what liquid diamond would look like, but I do think it would be amazing to see. Neptune has always struck me as an exceptionally beautiful planet anyway, although all the gas giants are amazing. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, astronaut-turned-space child Dave Bowman finds weird creatures living in Jupiter’s atmosphere. And yet giant oceans of liquid diamond really sound weirder than anything Clarke imagined.


Because We All Love Happy Endings.

careaboutcharacters

When I saw this book, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? by Blakely Vermeule, arrive at the library the other day, I immediately thought of several answers without even opening it. You can probably come up with some of your own, and please feel free to share. Here are just a few I thought of:

  • Because we’ve all had a friend who tried to play matchmaker.
  • Because Falstaff is just like our favorite uncle–but without the smell.
  • Because we’d like to think that, if we ever found ourselves in King Arthur’s court, we’d invent the telephone, gun powder, soap, bicycles, and electric fences and earn the title The Boss.
  • Because we all know people we’d like to seal up behind a brick wall.
  • Because tilting at windmills actually sounds pretty fun.
  • Because living four hundred years and traveling all around the world while working on a poem about an oak tree would be really cool.
  • Because keeping a picture of ourselves in the attic would be cheaper than plastic surgery.
  • Because we’d all like to be able to turn into a bat.
  • Because everybody, at some point, has woken up to find they’ve been turned into a giant cockroach.
  • Because we all, at some point, will depend on the kindness of strangers.
  • Because literary characters will never die, betray us, borrow money and then “forget” to pay it back, call us up at 3am because they need to be bailed out, eat the last slice of pizza, or make us sit through a horrible movie with them.

That last one may be a reason why we care about literary characters, but will also be a reason why literary characters will never be as good as real friends. Yes, that’s a sappy, sentimental ending, but admit it: you know it’s true.


Win $250 Worth Of Books…Or A Pickle.

puddlysPowell’s Books is one of my favorite sites–an independent bookstore that’s online, but, if I ever visit Portland, Oregon, it’s going to be one of the first places I visit (right after the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, or maybe the zoo). And now Powell’s is offering a chance to win a $250 gift card–or one of four $50 gift cards. They’re offering the 2010 Puddly Awards, and you’d better hurry up and get your entry in. They’re due January 31st, 2010.

All you have to do is comment on a book you read in the past decade and you’re automatically entered. I wasn’t sure whether this meant a book published in the last decade, so I contacted Powell’s and got this answer:

You can vote for any book, written from any year. The book you choose does not have to be written within the last decade.

Technically you can also enter here without commenting on a book but, come on, if you can remember a book you read in the last ten years you know you can come up with something to say about it. And your comment just might help some obscure but fantastic book win the coveted golden galoshes.

And if you’re not interested in books you could always enter this other contest and win a pickle.

By the way, I won’t be entering. I work in a library, and I have enough books as it is. Besides I write a lot of book reviews, so I figure it’s only fair to step aside and let somebody else have a chance. Feel free to crib from any of mine, although, if you do, you could buy me a book.


Book ‘Em: Hey Kids! Try This At Home!

50thingsYou may have heard of the “slow parenting” movement, which, I think, is a response to micromanaging parents who schedule “play dates” for their children and put them into every extracurricular activity from piano practice to soccer to underwater basket weaving. Although I’m not a parent myself I suspect the micromanaging parent is largely a myth–like the babysitter who cooks the baby in the microwave it’s a hilarious story and is something we all think could happen, but has probably been exaggerated. As for “slow parenting”, as I understand it it’s all about trying to find that perfect balance between letting kids learn and explore on their own and being there to catch them when they fall. I think the proper term for that is parenting.

Obviously there are a huge number of books about parenting, but here’s a great one you can share with your kids: Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do).

If you’re afraid of letting your kids do some of these things, there is a Why section in the back that’s very concise and helpful. For #42, “Break the Recipe Rule Book”, for instance, the explanation is,

Baking is a science that tolerates a lot of mistakes. Making up your own recipe is a great way to get comfortable in the kitchen. A spectacular disaster or serendipitous success will only encourage more experiments.

Some of the explanations aren’t quite so clear-cut, though. Here’s the one for what is my favorite thing in the entire book, #36, “Poison Your Friends”:

Choosing who among your friends to trick forces us to think about what friendship is and what it means. Dealing with the aftermath of the breach of trust may require sincerity, thoughtfulness, and patience.

There are also some very serious, very important lessons to be learned from poisoning your friends, and reading this kids may understand that there are very broad implications to any actions. Parents can teach responsibility, but teaching anything is more effective if it’s given a practical implication. This also teaches a lesson in empathy, in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Of course the downside of all this is that it almost takes the fun out of something like poisoning your friends.

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