The Wright Brothers

I have it on good authority that David McCullough is moving to my little town, which will cause the mean income of town authors to increase by approximately eleventy billion percent.  His latest book, The Wright Brothers, will certainly do nothing to harm his bank account.  Like all his books that I’ve read, it’s vivid and entertaining.  And the Wright brothers are a great story — how two self-taught Ohio bicycle mechanics solved the basic problems of heavier-than-air flight through sheer brilliance and amazingly hard work.

I have a minor complaint and a question.  First, I share with the Times reviewer the wish that McCullough had expanded his story, which basically stops at the point of the Wright brothers’ greatest triumph, and then just briefly sketches in the rest of their lives and the story of aviation after their triumph:

“In his brief epilogue, McCullough tells us that in the years leading up to his death, Wilbur was consumed by ‘business matters and acrimonious lawsuits.’ When I finished the book, I rushed to Wikipedia to find out more — and when a reader has to go to Wikipedia, he must be pretty hard up.”

And my question: how does a successful historian like McCullough decide what to write about?  There have been dozens of books about the Wright brothers, if McCullough’s bibliography is any guide.  Does he think the world needs a new one?  Did he uncover new source material?  Or (more likely) did he just feel like writing the story, because it’s the kind of story he likes to tell?  If that’s the answer, it’s fine by me.

Is writing fiction like solving a crossword puzzle?

That’s the thesis of this New York Times op-ed — the last, we are told, in its “Drafts” series about the craft of writing.  Not a great ending for the series. It’s not that there aren’t parallels between the two activities.  It’s that the parallels are trivial.  Sometimes it’s hard to get started solving a crossword puzzle.  Hey, same for novels!

The equivalent blank period in novel writing can, unfortunately, last months or even years, but the principles at work are just the same. There will be stretches in which the only characters you’re able to summon arrive faceless or, worse, voiceless. There will be whole seasons in which every plot idea you come up with collapses the moment it appears on your screen. These are the times when you’d start Googling law school application deadlines if it weren’t for the memory of that Saturday puzzle: Even a granite wall, studied with sufficient patience, reveals its cracks.

Well, okay.  The principle at work is: both activities can be hard, especially when you’re getting started.  This is news?  What the author doesn’t discuss is the crucial difference between puzzles and novels: puzzles, by definition, have a single correct solution.  Novels?  Not so much.  And that’s why novels are a bit harder than the Saturday Times puzzle.

Fairly deep into the second draft of my novel, I have decided to make a fundamental change in a major character’s back story. Was this the correct solution to my narrative problem?  Has the novel gained more than it’s lost?  I have no idea.  And I can’t look in tomorrow’s Times to find out.  Because I’m the only one who can say whether the solution is correct.  And I may never be totally sure.

Thomas Becket and Deflategate

Everyone is asking me what I think about Deflategate.

Well, my wife asked me, so that’s a start.  Anyway, my theory is that Brady is King Henry, uttering “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” in frustration at the actions of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.  In NFL-speak, this comes out as: “I sure like my balls underinflated.”

And the ballboys interpreted this innocent remark as a royal command: Tom likes his balls underinflated.  We must make it so. So one of them takes the balls into the men’s room at Canterbury Cathedral and . . . well, you get the picture.

In this scenario, Brady is, of course, totally blameless.  When he finds out what has happened — when he sees the infamously false Chris Mortensen tweet — he is outraged.  They have gone too far!  But what can he do?  He is too noble to turn on his loyal retainers.  So he maintains his silence as to their deed, and correctly asserts his innocence when brought to trial.  Perhaps he gives the retainers some Uggs as a reward for their service.  What a guy!

Really, he’s the one who should become a saint, not Thomas Becket.

E-books and price resistance

Now that I have a Kindle Paperwhite, I’m paying more attention to my book-buying thought process. Yesterday I was thinking fondly about A Fan’s Notes, and I was prepared to purchase the ebook, but I just couldn’t bring myself to click the button — $9.99 just seemed too high a price for an impulse purchase where there was a good chance I’d be disappointed.  I would certainly have bought it for $4.99, but I wouldn’t have gone much higher.

The big publishers essentially won their battle with Amazon over agency pricing for ebooks.  They get to set the price, and they don’t seem to want to go below $9.99, even for a 47-year-old mid-list book like A Fan’s Notes.  I can’t really say they’re over-charging simply based on my personal level of price resistance.  But:

We’re hearing widespread but totally unofficial reports that big publisher ebook sales are dropping noticeably when their new higher Agency prices are activated.


What appears to be happening, writes Shatzkin, is that higher Agency pricing by publishers may be placing  the majors’ ebooks right out of the market for many potential buyers.

I did pay $11.99 recently for the ebook version of Faith vs. Fact.  But that was at least partially because I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment over the years from reading Jerry Coyne’s website Why Evolution Is True and wanted to give something back to him.  I find it hard to imagine I’d pay that much otherwise.

Interesting times for traditional publishers.

“A Fan’s Notes” and Frank Gifford

Frank Gifford had something of a legendary life, and his death reminds me of Frederic Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, published 47 years ago and still ranked #211 in contemporary literature on Amazon.

Here is the novel’s synopsis from Wikipedia:

A Fan’s Notes is a sardonic account of mental illness, alcoholism, insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, and the black hole of sports fandom. Its central preoccupation with a failure to measure up to the American dream has earned the novel comparisons to Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby. Beginning with his childhood in Watertown, New York, growing up under a sports-obsessed father and following his college years at the USC, where he first came to know his hero Frank Gifford, Exley recounts years of intermittent stints at psychiatric institutions, his failed marriage to a woman named Patience, successive unfulfilling jobs teaching English literature to high school students, and working for a Manhattan public relations firm under contract to a weapons company, and, by way of Gifford, his obsession with the New York Giants.

Exley’s introspective “fictional memoir”, a tragicomic indictment of 1950s American culture, examines in lucid prose themes of celebrity, masculinity, self-absorption, and addiction, morbidly charting his failures in life against the electrifying successes of his football hero and former classmate. The title comes from Exley’s fear that he is doomed to be a spectator in life as well as in sports.

The novel made so deep an impression on me when I read it that I’m afraid to reread it and risk being disappointed (the way I was disappointed by Pynchon’s V when I re-read it a few years ago).  Today Slate reprinted an article about it from 1997:

First published in 1968, the book has been kept alive by zealous readers who feel compelled to promote it, Amway-style, to everyone they meet. Read a chapter or two and you’ll know why. Written by a self-pitying autodidact for consumption by self-pitying autodidacts, A Fan’s Notes divides the world into two camps: tortured, bewildered misfits (Exleys) and serene, fair-haired conformists (Giffords). In America, Exley implies—indeed, he shouts it—a person is either a suffering poet or a cheerful drone.

In the years after A Fan’s Notes I kept hoping that Exley would come up with something to rival it.  But he never did.  His other two novels/memoirs were pale imitations, and in real life he was, of course, slowly drinking himself to death (he died in 1992 at the age of 63).  Gifford outlasted him by 23 years, but he didn’t quite manage to age with the dignity befitting his glory days as a football hero.  I wonder if Exley’s one great book will ultimately be what we remember about Gifford.

Several views of Mount Fuji

The spectacular Hosukai exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts ended today, and I finally managed to get there.  I took bunches of photos, none of which do justice to the originals.  I’ll post just a few of them today.

Hokusai’s greatest hit was the series of landscape prints called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.  Here’s the greatest hit of that greatest hit, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa”:

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And here’s “Umezawa in Sagami Province“:

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And “Tsukuda Island in Musashi Province“:

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And “South Wind, Clear Sky”:

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As a special bonus, here is an MFA favorite, Monet’s portrait of his wife in Japanese costume, “La Japonaise”:

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Is your solution in the cloud or on-premise?

Part of my day job involves answering questions from potential customers about my company’s products and solutions.  Here’s one that comes up all the time:

Is your solution in the cloud or on-premise?

This new meaning of the word cloud is ubiquitous now, and I think it’s great.  I don’t need to know where exactly WordPress saves my blog content — it’s just somewhere out there.  “Cloud” captures this perfectly.

Inventing a singular version of the word premises is also ubiquitous in tech-speak, but that usage is like fingernails scraping down the chalkboard of my mind — at least partially because premise is a totally different word.  Here’s a web page from IBM that leads with a customer who is supposed to be saying: “I want self-service access to on-premise services and data from the cloud.”  But the page also manages to use “on-premises” a paragraph later; apparently IBM hasn’t gone totally over to the dark side.

And here’s an entertaining rant about this usage in technical documents and press releases. Its title is “So apparently we lost the grammar war”:

Seriously I don’t know why this is. The two terms do not mean the same thing and are not interchangeable. Are we all just that lazy that we can’t stumble through the three entire syllables of premises? And if we’re too careless to notice that, what chance do we have of actually paying attention to the technical documents to install these products? (Again, I don’t fault individual usage of IT pros, but vendors’ press releases? Seriously??)

Or maybe this is the evolution of language. It’s shortened, perverted, and flexed to evolve with the times. Fine, let’s call it linguistic evolution.

bt i srsly dont lik it. do u?

The thing is, that extra syllable does make “on-premises” harder to say, especially when it leads into a word like “services” that repeats the sibilant. I predict complete victory for “on-premise”, although saying that gives me a pit in my stomach.