Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Becoming a Critic

A week from tonight I'm going to be talking at the Twinsburg Library on the subject "How to Read a Book Like a Critic." The library called me out of the blue and asked if I would do this, and I agreed to, mostly because it was a subject I wanted to think about more systematically. And for the past month or so I've been thinking about it and writing my remarks--and putting together a small PowerPoint to show some things that words can't quite handle. Basically, I'm going to talk about how I became the guy who's published more than 1400 book reviews--starting in 1997--and how I figure out what I'm going to say about the books I'm reviewing.

I'm not going to "give away" much here, though, after the talk, I'll probably post the entire thing on this blog, but I thought I'd just mention, in general, what I'm up to--and why I've found the whole enterprise so useful for me.

I'm going to talk a bit about my own background as a reader--what did I read as a child? an adolescent? What do I read now? I'm going to talk as well about a period (early adolescence) when I pretty much didn't read anything at all except the Plain Dealer sports pages and the cereal boxes in the morning. This is not new territory for me: I've written an entire memoir about my reading life (Turning Pages: A Memoir of Books and Libraries and Loss, Amazon Direct, 2012), but I'll share with the audience a few key things.

Then I'm going to talk about how I became a critic--a profession unthinkable when I was a boy--a boy who really wanted nothing more than to ride the range with Hopalong Cassidy. I'll talk about how I did a few reviews for Ohio Writer, then Kirkus Reviews (for whom I'm still working), and the Plain Dealer (ditto). (Other periodicals have re-printed some of them.) I'll talk, too, about my reviewing routines: when do I read? what about notes? The differences between fiction and nonfiction? That sort of thing ...

After that bit of background, I'm going to talk about the principles I try to follow when I'm reviewing. What do I look for? What do I weigh? Some related questions, too: How does it feel to write a negative review? What are some of the "adventures" (and/or hot water) that reviewing has occasioned?

I'll try to answer some nuts-and-bolts questions, too--like How do I choose the books I'm going to review? What do editors do with my reviews?

Finally, I'm going to give those in attendance a very short story, have them read it, and then we'll talk about what we would say if we were going to write a review of it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (84)


Just before dawn I heard something in the hall outside. I slipped out of bed and tiptoed across the room. In the hallway light that leaked under our door, I could see it: a folded piece of note paper. I knew immediately who it was from. I flicked on the light and read it quickly. Harriet stirred in bed, looked over at me.
“Vickie …? What’s …?”
“Oh, no!” I cried. The page fluttered to the floor. I hurried to my clothes, threw them on, pulled aside the window drape and looked outside.
I saw Gil, shuffling across the road. Heading for the Niagara River.
I ran out into the hall, found the elevator, then decided it would be quicker to take the stairs. I raced down them and hurried out into the dawn. I could see Gil, already across the parkway, moving steadily toward the river.
“Gil!” I cried.
He hesitated, just a step, but did not turn around. He knew who had called, I was sure of it.
When he reached the edge of the river, he turned to face me. I was running as fast as I could, crying his name aloud. As I got closer, I could see a small smile on his face. He slowly stretched out his arms, as if reaching for something on either side of him. And then he let himself fall backwards into the raging river. Which swept him away.
“No!” I screamed as I reached the spot. I could see Gil out in the river, heading rapidly for the Falls, on his back, his arms still stretched outward. And he was smiling … smiling.
I felt a palm in my back, a shove, and, suddenly, I was in the frigid waters, too, being swept swiftly along, like a bird in a high wind. I wrenched my head round to look back toward the shore, and I saw Blue Boyle laughing.
But he didn’t laugh for long. Running up behind him was a huge creature—he had to be seven or eight feet tall. Dressed in rags. It looked human … but not, too. Humanoid. With a flick of his wrist he sent Boyle soaring out into the river. I could hear his terrified cry just before he hit the water. And then that creature dived in and began swimming furiously toward me. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw another person dive in, too, a little closer to the Falls. Mr. Leon?
By then I was in almost a trance. The frigid water—I’d swallowed a lot of it—the certain death roaring ahead of me—I had surrendered. I was calm. No longer worried. Oddly, I wondered if I would drown first or be smashed on the rocks below the Falls. It didn’t seem to make a difference.
And then the creature reached me. I told you to watch! he said as he grabbed me by the waist with his two enormous hands, raised me out of the water, and, in an act of superhuman strength, hurled me to the shore only heartbeats before he and Blue Boyle hurtled over the edge of American Falls, where they would join Gil and Mr. Leon, certainly crushed now by the tons of water colliding with the mountainous rocks below.

I lay gasping on the shore, both from amount of river water I’d swallowed and from hitting the ground so hard. I felt familiar arms around me, heard the sweet voice of my dearest friend.
“Vickie! You’re safe.” And then I heard Harriet weeping.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Home Library Woes ...

As I've written here before, Joyce and I have been trying to "downsize" around here--especially our library, which now comprises far-too-many thousands of volumes. We have sold some on Amazon's site (you can check out our listings on D. J. Doodlebug Books on Amazon), and we have given others away and will soon open an account on ABE, where we'll sell our more "serious" books (i.e., collectible editions). The picture shows our living room, which has become a book-storage room, for now. (Or just a pile of clutter--whatever you see.)

Some of the LOA volumes
Anyway, we are also deciding which things to keep, at least for the nonce. Among those we know we're going to keep are the Library of America (LOA) volumes. We have a complete set. First printings--all. I began subscribing when they first started publishing in the late 1970s/early 1980s and have bought every volume they've published. They're wonderful to have in the house: Both Joyce and I have used them all the time for reference, and I've read many of them--e.g., the novels of Henry James when I went on an HJ kick a few years ago.

We also have most (all?) of the special volumes they published outside the subscription: volumes devoted to American poets, anthologies on various subjects (writings about New York, writings about L. A., etc.). And, as I've said, they've been wonderful to have.

But recently ... an adventure. When we were cleaning shelves, pulling off books we didn't want, putting up on the shelf some of the LOA volumes that we'd never shelved properly, we made a grim discovery. On a bottom shelf, four LOA books were water-damaged--badly. Beyond rescue. We weren't sure what had happened, but we imagined a knocked-over drink? A leak of some sort? Anyway, these volumes included two by Zora Neale Hurston, one by Washington Irving, another by Shirley Jackson.

So ... onto the ABE website I went and began ordering replacements (1st printings, of course!), and, in some cases, this was no inexpensive proposition. So far, we have received the Irving and the Hurstons, but Shirley Jackson is still in progress. And here's what that has involved:
  • Unable to find a first printing of her book in a slip cover (LOA publishes two versions: slipcover + traditional dust jacket), I ordered a second printing in a slipcover.
  • I then ordered a first printing in traditional dust jacket.
  • When the latter comes, I will remove the jacket and insert the book in the slipcover!
Soon, all will be well once again on our shelves (and on our living room floor). And I am now positive--if I was not before--that bibliomania exists--and it reigns in our house. (Where, apparently, it also rains--at least it does on some LOA volumes.)

PS: bibliomania (from the OED): 

Etymology:  < biblio- comb. form + Greek μανία madness, after French bibliomanie.

A rage for collecting and possessing books.

1734   T. Hearne Diary 9 Nov. (1921) XI. 389,   I should have been tempted to have laid out a pretty deal of money without thinking my self at all touched with Bibliomania.
[1750   Ld. Chesterfield Let. 19 Mar. (1932) (modernized text) IV. 1517   Beware of the bibliomanie.]
1809   Dibdin (title)    Bibliomania, or Book-madness; containing some account of the history, symptoms, and cure of this fatal disease.
1836   T. Hook Gilbert Gurney II. i. 11   The bibliomania which appeared to engross my friend.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Signal, Anyone?

I groused on FB the other day about people/motorists who don't use their turn signals anymore, and a friend from Hiram High School days reminded me that when we were in driver education class (summer 1960), the teacher--Bob Barnhart (who was also our beloved basketball coach and later went on to become a school superintendent)--taught us the hand signals you see at the top of the page. Lots of people still used them in 1960, even though cars all had electric blinkers, too. In fact, there was a question about whether we ought to use them during our driving test. I did. Though, as I recall, the officer riding around with me seemed more amused than impressed.

I still use the signals when I'm biking (if I'm on a roadway--and if there is traffic). But I don't think I've seen a driver of a car use them in decades. Few people, in fact, even have their windows open nowadays: Everyone has A/C. Why open a window and let bugs or birds inside? (I remember reading, years ago, about fatal crashes caused by curious (or unlucky) starlings or sparrows or condors flying into open car windows.)

Yes, we now all have blinkers to indicate lane changes and turns. But lately I've noticed that fewer and fewer people are using them at all. Last evening (Thurs.) Joyce and I were driving to Chapel Hill Mall to get a new battery for her watch (remember when you had to wind a watch? I didn't think so), and I was noticing how few people used the blinker for lane changes or exits from the Rt 8 freeway. Amazing.

My dad, I remember, was a post-facto turn-signaler. He would turn it on after he'd made his move. I always thought that was kind of weird--as if Dad were giving those behind a message: Here's what I've just done.

I am a fastidious signaler. Every lane change, every turn--even if there is no other car in the county at the time. Habit.

I don't know why people are so careless about it now ... too busy texting? Eating? Changing a CD? Fussing with GPS? Drinking? Skipping ahead on an iPod? Punching a passenger? Using Bluetooth (or hand-held) phone to explain whey they're going to be late? Chiding children. Playing with the dog? Who knows?

All I know is this: It's more dangerous than ever on the road. And I think about the line that used to end the opening sequence of Hill Street Blues every week: Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (the late Michael Conrad) would always say to the assembled cops--Let's be careful out there!

Good advice.

PS -- Here's a YouTube clip of Conrad saying it ... Let's be careful out there.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (83)

Later, in the dark, I heard Harriet’s voice from the other bed. “You never told me the end of that story about Bysshe Shelley’s heart.”
“Well, what happened to it?” she asked.
“This is a hard story to tell right now,” I said. “Especially right now.”
“Because of Gil.” This was not a question.
“I can wait.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said. I took a deep breath, fearing I would break down as I talked. “Well, Bysshe drowned in the summer of 1822, was cremated on the beach. And then his friend Trelawny snatched his heart—or probably just a portion of it—from the fire.”
“And then another friend got it from Trelawny.”
“Right. But then Mary found out—and wanted it.”
“So what happened?”
“Another friend of Mary’s managed to get it back from their other friend who had it—his name, by the way, was Leigh Hunt—and presented it to Mary. But only after some hassles with Hunt, who wanted to keep it.”
“That must have been quite a scene.”
“I imagine.”
“Anyway,” I said, “that was 1822. Mary lived nearly thirty more years, wrote some more books, and raised her only surviving son, Percy Florence Shelley.”
“That’s not a name too many boys today would like,” joked Harriet.
“I guess not. He got the ‘Florence’ part because he was born in that city in Italy.”
“Still … not a name a boy would like. And if you’re going to name your kids after the towns they’re born in, you’d better be careful where you’re living. Your son could never get over a name like Florence. Imagine the nicknames—‘Flo,’ for instance!”
“Or ‘Flower,’” I said, smiling in the dark. Then smiled more when I thought how useless it is to smile in the dark. No one can see you. I went on. “So Mary died in 1851—a brain tumor. February 1.”
“Why do you know all this stuff?” asked Harriet.
Then … “Oh, you know me,” I said.
“Sometimes I’m not sure I do,” said Harriet.
“After Mary died, her son was going through her things and found Bysshe’s heart, dried and flattened, between the pages of one of the books of poetry Bysshe had written.”
Then Harriet said, “I was going to say ‘Gross!’ but then I realized how beautiful that story is. Your husband’s heart among his words.”
“Would you want to keep your lover’s dried heart in a book for thirty years?”
“But there’s more than one way to keep a lover’s heart,” I said.

Deep into the night I felt that presence again, heard the whisper, somehow more urgent this time. Watch, Victoria. Watch. And I’m not sure I slept again the rest of the night.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Little Thought About Memory--and Ice Cream

Yesterday, I was writing some little doggerel to include in the Easter cards we are sending to our grandsons (9 and 5). For the older boy, Logan, I'd written this silly thing ...

Logan wondered if it would be
Really kind of dandy
If he found a way that he could
Get all Easter candy.

Later, lying in bed, the lights out, sleep somehow playing cagey (Morpheus stubbornly refusing to extend his arms), I began thinking about mountains of candy--not that I wanted any, mind you. Just the image appeared. And then--who can tell why?--I began to think about my father. And I remembered ...

When I was a boy, living in Oklahoma, we took several long summer drives to Oregon and Washington, where Dad had grown up--and where he still had many relatives (it seemed to me that there were thousands of them). Our drives--in the late 1940s and on into the 1950s--were in the days before most cars had air-conditioning, so you can imagine the pleasures of driving across the Great Plains, the deserts? Windows wide open, three boys whining for a stop at every Dairy Queen and A & W we passed? Begging for a motel with a swimming pool (a rarity then)? Mom was in charge of the Thermos jug of lemonade that sat at her feet in the front; it began the day cool, but before long the contents were warm--or worse. Nothing like tepid lemonade on a hot day in Utah.

But Dad was full of stories and silliness. He used to tell us--Just wait. Soon we'll be in the Rockies. And then you can be on the lookout for Ice Cream Mountain and the Root Beer Falls!

I believed they were real, early on. And as soon as we nudged our way into the Rockies, I was on fierce lookout for them. As was little Davi, four years younger than I. Dickie--three years older--never believed, I don't think, but--bless him--he did not (as I recall) disabuse us of our belief. Maybe he was just grateful that it kept us quiet so he could read War and Peace in peace (yes, he read books like that in childhood; I first read it when I was in my 60s; comments welcome).

Of course, I didn't live much longer before I realized the Ice Cream Mountain and the Root Beer Falls existed only in Dad's imagination. But I don't remember feeling any resentment for the Adult Lie; instead, I think I felt more gratitude for a father who could tell fine stories--and for the image of a mountain I could eat, a waterfall I could drink--ideas that appeal to me even now, in the dark, sleep evading me, and memory washing over me like ... like ... like a Root Beer Falls.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Papers of Victoria Frankenstein, II (82)

In town—without Gil, who went with his mother back to the hotel to rest—Harriet and I wandered around, poking in gift shops and other odd little stores and quiet museums. In one of them we looked at a display about people who’d gone over the Falls—on purpose and otherwise. Harriet was shocked when she saw one of the information cards on the display.
“Vickie! Look at that … thousands of people have died at the Falls.” She looked closely at the display. “Accidents. Suicides. Stunts that didn’t work out. I had no idea.”
“I didn’t either,” I lied, not wanting her to know.
She looked at me. “Are you lying?”
She paused. “Are you lying about the Falls? Or are you lying about whether you knew or not?”
Harriet couldn’t help it. She laughed so loudly that a nearby adult with a group of kids from somewhere gave her a sharp look—not something that really impresses Harriet too much.
“But it’s not just people,” I said. “Fish, of course, go over all the time, and a very high percentage of them survive and swim on downriver.”
“I’d actually wondered about that. About how fish manage the Falls.”
“And you want to know a weird one?”
“Of course!”
“In the 1820s some guys bought an old boat and loaded it up with a variety of animals. They announced what they were going to do, and tens of thousands of people showed up to watch.”
“That’s gross,” muttered Harriet.
“Yes.” I waited. “Want me to go on?”
“Of course.”
“Okay, well, on the boat they put two bears, a bunch of geese, a buffalo, an eagle, two foxes, a raccoon, and more than a dozen geese.”
“This can’t be true,” said Harriet.
“I wish. But it is true. So they launched the thing, but the ship was so rickety it fell apart before it arrived at the Falls. The big animals—the bears, the buffalo—jumped off, and one of the bears was saved. All the others went over.”
“That’s horrible.”
“Guess how many lived?”
“No, one goose. And that’s it.”[1]
“I’ll tell you something,” said Harriet as we were back outside, walking back to the bus. “I’ll bet Blue Boyle would survive it. He’d probably just swim right straight up the Falls itself.”
“I’d kind of like to find out,” I said.
Harriet looked shocked, then we both giggled and raced for the bus, not knowing whether our speed of foot was powered by happiness—or terror.

We had our simple Saturday night dinner in the hotel, and Mr. Gisborne gave us strict instructions to go to bed as soon as we could. We were planning to leave after a 7 o’clock breakfast in the hotel so that we could get home in the early afternoon on Sunday. I was ready for that. I was exhausted with all the walking, all the on-and-off-the-bus stuff. And I missed Father—not something that a lot of middle school kids would admit … missing their parents.
We saw Gil’s mom at supper, but she told us he was resting and wouldn’t come down. She was taking a few things up to him in the room. I asked if we could stop in a minute and see him. Which, of course, she was happy for us to do.
We found him propped up in one of the beds reading one of those little pamphlets about the Falls that he or his mom had picked up at one of the gift shops. There was a small pad of note paper beside him, too, and a pen. When he saw us, he closed the booklet and turned over the notepad.
“Writing your memoirs?” I joked.
He just smiled. He looked so pale, so weak. It was hard, in fact even to look at him and pretend I wasn’t seeing something that was breaking my heart.
“Something like that,” he said.
“Am I in it?”
“Oh, of course!” he said. “Major role.”
“And me?” asked Harriet.
“Your role is exactly the same size as Vickie’s.” He gave us a Gil-smile.
“It had better be!” joked Harriet.
“I’m not sure how I feel about that,” I said.
“You should feel pretty good,” he said. “It shows I like both of you.”
“So you say only good things about us?” I asked.
“Of course.”
Harriet said softly, “I don’t think you really feel the same about us, do you?”
He looked at us, now seriously. “I love both of you,” he said.
“I’m glad,” I said, not knowing what else to say or do.
“We love you, too, Gil,” said Harriet.
“Yes,” I said. “We love you, too.”
Gil dropped his head and suddenly—though this doesn’t seem possible—looked even more tired and drained that he had just moments before. I actually think he’d fallen asleep.
“You girls probably ought to go back to your room,” his mother said, her voice tight with emotion. “And I can’t tell you how much …” Her voice trailed off. She came over and hugged us both, and we returned to our room feeling a torrent of emotions.

[1] Unfortunately, Vickie’s story is a true one and can be found in Berton’s book Niagara.