Reading, thinking, and the state of things

Andy Borowitz from the New Yorker Magazine posted a few days ago something like “It has been hilarious, but can we have a real President now?”  That is how I’m feeling these days as I’m bombarded with constant misspeaking, mismanagement, and simply ignorance.  Some days I wonder if anyone in the administration ever learned any history, geography or simple arithmetic.  As a defensive measure for my own psyche, I am mostly using social media to catch up on personal things posted by friends and have drastically cut the political stuff I post on Facebook and Twitter.  My sanity demands more selectivity.

Charles Blow, in an April 17 New York Times column, expressed much better how I feel.

His failures so far, I suppose, should bring resisters like me some modicum of joy, but I must confess that they don’t. Or, more precisely, if they do, that joy is outweighed by the rolling litany of daily horrors that Trump has inflicted.

The horrors are both consuming and exhausting. For me at this point they center on an erosion of equality. This by no means downplays Trump’s incessant lying, the outrage of his draining the Treasury for his personal junkets, or his disturbing turn toward war. But somewhat below the radar, or at least with less fanfare, our access, inclusion and justice are being assailed by a man who lied on the campaign trail promising to promote them.

And the very sad thing is that even with his approval rating hovering around 40%, his core still supports him despite the knowledge that his actions hurt them the most.

I’ve been reading a lot to escape and have found some very interesting books to recommend.  Rudolf Fisher was the first African-American to write a mystery.  His book, “The Conjure-Man Dies”, is set in a 1930s Harlem.  Fisher (1897-1934) was a doctor, music arranger, and writer, which explains his interest in using science to solve the crime.  Everyone in the book is black:  The police detective, the medical examiner, the victim, and all of the suspects.  “Conjure-Man” has just been reprinted and reissued.  In some ways, “Conjure-Man” is clearly a first mystery.  I’ve found that in many first mysteries the plotting is more complicated than needed, but the glimpse of life in Harlem is well worth the effort of getting though the twists and turns.

ows_136396805189380“Ordinary Grace” is a total opposite.  Set in the summer of 1961 in rural Minnesota, it is narrated by a now middle-aged man recalling the summer.  I think this is considered to be a mystery as it won an Edgar Award for William Kent Kruger, but I thought it was just a wonderfully written novel.  I read this for my book group, Malice on Main, and I was not the only one who reported crying through much of it.  “Ordinary Grace is an extraordinary book.

My final recommendation is “Writing to Save a Life” by John Edgar Wideman.  I’m not sure how to characterize this book which tells the story of Louis, Emmett, and Mamie Till.  The New York Times Book Review and the National Book Awards call it non fiction, but some of the almost stream of conscious speculation about Louis Till seemed to be excellent fiction writing.  Louis Till, Emmett’s father, was executed during World War II in Italy for the rape and murder of a young local woman.  I have to say I still am not sure how I feel about this book, but it is fascinating reading.

Reading, baseball, and gardening this summer will save my sanity – I hope.

Agatha Goes on a Little Trip

When I was shopping for Christmas books, I picked up what looked like an interesting book on the sale table.  I just finished reading The Grand Tour by Agatha Christie.  In February 1922 Christie, her husband, Archie, and others left on what we would call a trade mission.  They went to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada with a vacation stop in Hawaii.  They got back to England on December 1st.  Christie wrote letters home as a kind of diary.  Her grandson, Mathew Prichard, put them together with photographs (largely taken by Christie) interspersed with excerpts from her autobiography.

agatha

The Grand Tour provides the reader with a glimpse of the British empire in the days when change was just starting in the colonies.  People are judged by how “British” they are; natives are treated as exotic.  There are tensions between the members of the mission.  There are injuries and illnesses.  I found her descriptions of the landscapes the most interesting.  For example her description of Wellington harbor:

Great mountains all around coming down to the water’s edge – the far off ones with snow on them.  Blue sky and deep blue water and Wellington itself nestling on the side of the mountain.

But the best part was learning about Agatha Christie as a young woman.  I don’t know about you, but I think of her as either Miss Marple or the older woman in many of her pictures, a little stout and stern.

older-agatha

But on the trip she thinks nothing of going off on an 11 mile hike, she golfs, and, most surprising, she learns to surf.  My image of her will never be the same.

If you have ever read any Christie mysteries and you like travel stories, you would enjoy reading The Grand Tour.

 

Photograph from Prezi.com

 

Likable and unlikeable heroes

I’ve spent the first part of the summer reading the John Madden books by Rennie Airth, the first two Inspector Morse books by Colin Dexter, and “The Truth and Other Lies” by Sascha Arango as well as dipping into “Swann’s Way” by Proust.  This reading has gotten me thinking about central characters which in this case all happen to be men.  Why do I like some of them and intensely dislike others?  What makes one continue to read when the “hero” is unlikeable?

A bit about the books first.

Airth

There are four John Madden books.  In the first, “River of Darkness”, Madden is an Inspector with Scotland Yard after World War I when a mass killing of a family.  Only the daughter has survived.  The story, as do all four Airth books, centers around the after effects of war:  the physical and psychological cost to society.  Madden struggles through what we call today, post-dramatic stress, to solve the crime.  We like him for admitting his uncertainties.  In the next three books, Madden has retired from the Yard but finds himself involved nonetheless.  These are complex stories set in the 1930s, during WWII and after WWII.  I first read them a number of years ago and re-read them this summer and found they lost nothing during the second read.  In fact, they have much to say about how we treat our veterans today.

I became addicted to “Endeavor ” on Masterpiece Mystery this summer.  There was something appealing about the very young Inspector Morse.  He comes across as smart, brave, and somewhat of an oddity on the Oxford police force.  Never having read anything by Colin Dexter, I started reading the Inspector Morse books from the beginning.  Much to my surprise, Morse is arrogant, treats his subordinates badly, and is obsessed with sex and pornography.  OK.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but just a little.  He is not the likable Endeavor Morse at any rate.  But the stories are great puzzles full of red herrings and false paths and I did enjoy going down them with Morse.

Finally, there is Sascha Arango’s “The Truth and Other Lies”.  This is a German mystery.  The translation made the 2015 New York Times 100 Notable Books list and I read it for my book group, Malice on Main.  The central character, Henry Hayden, lives a totally manufactured life.  He uses people and then seems to rid himself of them when they become inconvenient or no longer useful.  He is totally unlikeable and I almost couldn’t get through it.  If I hadn’t been reading for a discussion, I probably would not have finished it.  I kept hoping he’d get caught and exposed.

As for Proust, I haven’t gotten through enough to decide much except he paints his grandfather as a not very nice man and he appears to have had a very strange boyhood.

I can’t wait for the next John Madden (Airth seems to produce a new book every 5 or 6 years.) in January and I will probably read more about Inspector Morse even if I don’t like him much, but I am very happy to be done with Henry Hayden.  The difference between Morse and Hayden:  Morse may not be someone you want to be friends with but he does want justice for his victims while Hayden cares about no one but himself.

P.D. James, Queen of Crime

My mother introduced me to the mystery novels of P. D. James many years ago when I was a teenager.  James didn’t publish often; she was not a twice a year or even once a year mystery writer.  A new James was the occasion for celebration and we read all of them.  I believe there were 18.  The New York Times obituary outlines the story of her life.

She was born Phyllis Dorothy James on Aug. 3, 1920, in Oxford, the eldest of three children of Dorothy and Sidney James, a civil servant who did not believe in inflicting too much education on his daughter. The family settled in Cambridge when she was 11, and before she left the Cambridge High School for Girls, at 16, she already knew that she wanted to be a writer and that mysterious death intrigued her.

“When I first heard that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,” she was fond of saying, “I immediately wondered: Did he fall — or was he pushed?” But a marriage to Ernest C. B. White, a medical student, and World War II halted her plans for a writing career.

P.D. James, in 2010.

P.D. James, in 2010.

James was a hospital administrator for a number of years and used hospitals as the setting for some of her early novels.  But

[a]fter the death of her husband at 44, in 1964, Ms. James took a Civil Service examination and became an administrator in the forensic science and criminal law divisions of the Department of Home Affairs. The work would supply her novels with the realistic procedural detail on which she prided herself.

Although she rarely describes actual murder, the dead bodies in her novels always make an indelible impression on the innocent bystanders who chance upon them. “To many of them, it’s a really appalling and dreadful discovery,” Ms. James said. “I think that the reader should share that horror and that shock, so I make the descriptions just as realistic as I can.”

Her primary detective, Adam Dalgleish, was designed to be the anti-Peter Wimsey.

Her intention with Dalgliesh, she told the British critic and writer Julian Symons in 1986, was to create a detective “quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur” popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. James envisioned a realistic cop as her protagonist, a dedicated and skilled professional, and yet “something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being,” she said.

A few months back, James was featured on the Barnes and Noble mystery section as one of the authors who discussed their favorite books.  It was interesting that she picked Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair and Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise, two of the more complicated   stories by each author.  Also on the list were a book by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (A Fatal Inversion), the first Ian Rankin (The Complaints), and Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengance.  I have to confess that I don’t care all that much for Rendell, but I liked the other books on her list, so maybe I’ll try again.  There was one book, Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, I had never heard of before.  On James’ recommendation, I ordered it and have it on my pile to read.

It is sad that there will be no more books by P.D. James, but I will spend them this next year re-reading and savoring all that she had left us.

Photograph:  Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Professor Borges on reading

Jorge Luis Borges taught a course in English literature in 1966.  The lectures were recorded and transcribed (albeit not always accurately when it came to names which were rendered phonetically into Spanish) by some of his students.  The lectures have been translated from the Spanish and edited for clarity, but one can tell they were spoken and not written for publication. So far, I have only read a couple of them:  on Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Borges’ take on their lives and writings is unique to say the least and offers much room for new ideas.  It the kind of book where one can pick a lecture topic that is of interest and just read that section.

But it is Epilogue to the book that I want to post today.  It is not from a lecture, but an interview with him at the National Library in 1979.

I believe that the phrase “obligatory reading” is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory.  Should we ever speak of “obligatory pleasure”?  What for?  Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek.  Obligatory happiness!  We seek happiness as well.  For twenty years, I have been a professor of English Literature in the School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and I have always advised by students:  If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read a book because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old.  If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost -which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which is also is not tedious to me.  But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.  Reading should be a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament – which I do not plan to write – I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writers’ reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment.  It is the only way to read.

Great advice for a retired person maybe, but not really the St. John’s College approach.  I believe it is in the famous Saturday Review of Literature article on St. John’s from the early 1960s that the phrase, “at St. John’s readings include some of the most boring books written” or something like that.  But if I hadn’t had to read Galen or Kant, I believe my life would be less rich.  Not true for everyone, probably, but true for me.  Sometimes plowing though something boring is good discipline.  But when it comes to reading for pleasure, I agree with Professor Borges:  Read only what you enjoy.

Borges

The book is Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature.  Edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis.  New Directions, 2013

FortLeft is moving

No, not the blog, just physically.  We are moving off the hill in Roxbury (Boston) to a hill in Brattleboro, VT.  As one of my Vermont friends said, “Welcome to Bernieland!”

You may – or may not- have noticed that I haven’t posted anything new in quite a while but things have been a little crazy what with house hunting, getting loans, etc.  And now that we have a target closing date there are all the details to deal with.  Home inspection, insurance, changing everything to another state and finding contractors when you are not on the scene is a challenge.  My advice is to have a good broker.  And then there is packing.

Packing up 20 years of stuff spread out in a 14 room house is quite an experience.  At least we are moving to another large house with attic and a basement that is dry and are sorting and culling rather than downsizing.  The trick is to imagine where things will go in the new house.  That’s what I do at 3 am when I can’t sleep – along with worrying about what kinds of quirks the new house will have.  My grandson said the other night that he thinks it will take at least a year to know all about the new house.  He’s 10.

I’ve been sorting though papers and have found a lot of treasures in piles and boxes. For example, I found some old letters and emails from two of my best friends.  One of them died of a rare form of cancer, the other now has a form of dementia.  We were all so happy and cheerful 12 and 15 years ago.  And then there are all the loose photographs from back when there was actual film. Remember, people would take pictures and then send prints of the best ones so a lot of them are still in envelopes which assists in identification.  And then there are all the ones my husband and I have taken.  At one time I did try to put them in albums, but that fell of the radar early on.  Now they are just loose or in the envelopes they came back from the developer in.  They will mean something some day.  My husband and I are our respective family historians so we have many of the old family albums.  It was a wonderful moment to find the picture I had thought was lost: My grandfather, the Reverend Kyogoku, with his friend, D.T. Suzuki.  (A subject for a future post.)  That photograph is now digitized and saved in several places.

I am an admitted pack rat and had saved old Christmas cards carefully bundled by year.  I ditched the cards, but saved the pictures.  One long Vermont winter I will pull them out to group chronologically by family.  I also had papers from a lot of the big projects I’ve worked on over the years in Boston.  I kept the final products but have recycled most of the work papers.  I have program books and announcements and copies of speeches from (to mane a few) the Jackson Square redevelopment (the early years); “Women on the Edge of Time”, the annual conference of the National Commissions for Women held in Boston in 1999; the creation of the Massachusetts Commission for Women; the first statue of women on Commonwealth Avenue; grants I helped write for domestic violence efforts; and booklets I put together for the Boston Housing Authority on civil rights issues. When I last  moved 20 years ago, I did the same thing with my stuff from Richmond which is still in neatly labeled boxes.  I also have political stuff from the various campaigns I’ve worked on – from George McGovern to Elizabeth Warren.  My lesson learned is to try to file things as you go along.  At least I’m starting with good intentions but I think I had them after Richmond.  Oh, well.

And then there are the books.  All 7,000 or so that are moving with us.  A small library.  I’ve been cataloging them on LibraryThing, for the last two years, but I’m only about half finished.  (LibraryThing is a great way to keep track of your books even if you just have a few.)

Mr. Bunter and piles to be sorted.

Mr. Bunter and piles to be sorted.

There is lots of excitement and anxiety on Fort Hill these days.  The cats are confused by all the piles of boxes and things that keep getting moved around as we pack. We talk to them and try to explain, but all they know is that things are different and they aren’t happy about it.  Mr. Bunter cries and Harriet eats Kleenex out of the boxes.  They are just as stressed out as their humans.

I will continue to write about life in a new place, living in a small town, and – always national politics.  My location will change but FortLeft will endure – perhaps a little irregularly for a while, but I hope not with as long a gap as just occurred.

 

 

 

Amazon’s war on books, writers and publishers

I got the word through a post on Facebook by one of my favorite writers, Margaret Maron.

“When elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.” Amazon has turned into a real bully, blocking a publisher’s sales in order to squeeze more money out of them. Last year, it was the Macmillan Group; this year, it’s my publisher, Hachette. I would urge my readers to order from your local bookstore or from Barnes and Noble. Up until this week, Amazon was taking preorders for my book, Designated Daughters. No longer.

For those who don’t know her work, she writes mysteries.  Her primary focus over the last few years has been on a North Carolina judge and her huge extended family.  Along the way, Maron comments on contemporary issues and national and local politics.  My late mother always used to ask me if there were any new books about that judge as she was an avid reader.  But I digress.  Maron included a link to a  New York Times story.

Amazon’s power over the publishing and bookselling industries is unrivaled in the modern era. Now it has started wielding its might in a more brazen way than ever before.

Seeking ever-higher payments from publishers to bolster its anemic bottom line, Amazon is holding books and authors hostage on two continents by delaying shipments and raising prices. The literary community is fearful and outraged — and practically begging for government intervention.

“How is this not extortion? You know, the thing that is illegal when the Mafia does it,” asked Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, echoing remarks being made across social media.

The battle is being waged largely over physical books. In the United States, Amazon has been discouraging customers from buying titles from Hachette, the fourth-largest publisher by market share. Late Thursday, it escalated the dispute by making it impossible to order Hachette titles being issued this summer and fall. It is using some of the same tactics against the Bonnier Media Group in Germany.

Hachette publishes Maron’s books.

Publishers tried to rein in Amazon once, and got slapped with a federal antitrust suit for their efforts. Amazon was not directly a party to the case but has reaped the rewards in increased market power. Now it wants to increase its share of the digital proceeds. The publishers, weighing a slide into irrelevance if not nonexistence, are trying to hold the line.

Late Friday afternoon, Hachette made by far its strongest comment on the conflict.

“We are determined to protect the value of our authors’ books and our own work in editing, distributing and marketing them,” said Sophie Cottrell, a Hachette senior vice president. “We hope this difficult situation will not last a long time, but we are sparing no effort and exploring all options.”

The Authors Guild accused the retailer of acting illegally.

“Amazon clearly has substantial market power and is abusing that market power to maintain and increase its dominance, which likely violates Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act,” said Jan Constantine, the Guild’s general counsel.

Independent booksellers, meanwhile, announced they could supply Hachette books immediately. The second-largest physical chain, Books-a-Million, advertised 30 percent discounts on select coming Hachette titles. Among the publisher’s imprints are Grand Central Publishing, Orbit and Little, Brown.

Maron urged her readers to purchase locally or from Barnes and Noble – which still has actual bookstores.

And there is a second New York Times story which points out that Amazon has walked into the predictions of critics who never like the way it did business.

Physical bookstores sell books at a huge markup, which necessarily reduces the number of books that people can afford to buy. Amazon sells printed books, e-books and audiobooks for much, much less. Anyone who has used Amazon’s services has noticed how that fact changes one’s attitude toward books. Through its Prime program, through the Kindle, and through its audiobook subsidiary Audible, Amazon has made it possible to buy books on impulse.

Just wait, the company’s critics have always shot back. Wait till Amazon controls the whole market — then see how well it treats authors, publishers and customers.

Now Amazon is walking right into its detractors’ predictions. There are a couple obvious reasons this is a bad strategy. It’s bad public relations — if it doesn’t already, Amazon may soon control a monopolistic stake of the e-book market and its tactics are sure to invite not only scorn from the book industry but also increased regulatory oversight.

Maybe the local bookstore does charge more, but there are places other than Amazon where you can get discounts.  And not everyone loves e-books. Higher prices probably do mean fewer impulse sales, but publishers and writers are fighting back.  The first Times story reports

The confrontations with the publishers are the biggest display of Amazon’s dominance since it briefly stripped another publisher, Macmillan, of its “buy” buttons in 2010. It seems likely to encourage debate about the concentration of power by the retailer. No firm in American history has exerted the control over the American book market — physical, digital and secondhand — that Amazon does.

James Patterson, one of the country’s best-selling writers, described the confrontation between Amazon and Hachette as “a war.”

“Bookstores, libraries, authors, and books themselves are caught in the crossfire of an economic war,” he wrote on Facebook. “If this is the new American way, then maybe it has to be changed — by law, if necessary — immediately, if not sooner.”

Mr. Patterson’s novels due to be released this summer and fall are now impossible to buy from Amazon in either print or digital form.

The retailer’s strategy seems to be to drive a wedge between the writers, who need Amazon sales to survive, and Hachette. But this does not seem to be working the way Amazon might want. Nina Laden, a children’s book writer, was one of many Hachette authors lashing out at Amazon in the last week.

“I have supported Amazon for as long as Amazon has existed,” she wrote in a Facebook posting she also sent to the retailer.

She went on to say that she was “frankly shocked and angry at what you are doing” to her new book, “Once Upon a Memory.” “It has made me tell my readers to shop elsewhere — and they are and will,” she wrote. (Amazon customer service wrote back, saying “We will be glad to investigate this issue further” if Ms. Laden would provide additional information.)

Physical books are, unfortunately, under siege and this doesn’t help.  So if books are important to you, I think it is important to stop shopping for them on Amazon.

Books

Photograph:  madeinepal.com