Naming names

I was too annoyed with Western civilization last month to write the usual recap of my year’s reading.  But the best novel I read was The Sympathizer, which my son recommended to me.  It’s a novel about the Vietnam war, and life in America, and Apocalypse Now, and sundry other things, written from the point of view of a nameless Vietnamese double-agent.  For my son, this was pre-history; for me, it was stuff I had vaguely experienced, second-hand, told from a completely different perspective.

It was brilliant, but the author made a couple of choices that I found odd.  I liked that the narrator was nameless, but I was puzzled that many other characters–but not all–were also nameless.  The narrator’s boss is referred to only as The General, but the boss’s daughter has a name.  One character he has to deal with is called “the crapulent major”, while a comparable character is named Sonny.  (Spoiler alert: the narrator ends up murdering both of them.)

I have trouble deciding ahead of time whether minor people and places deserve a name.  In the novel I’m writing now, I have already had to retrospectively name a couple of places that turned out to be more important than I originally expected.  But this is standard fiction writing: characters and places, if they become important enough, get a name; otherwise, it’s hard to keep track of them  Nguyen is obviously trying to distance us from some of his characters; I’m not sure why.

Another distancing effect: he doesn’t use quotation marks.  My son didn’t even notice this, but it annoyed me.  It seemed like an affectation.  Punctuation helps the reader, and sometimes we need all the help we can get.

“For I am every dead thing…”

Somehow every year I get around to reprinting this poem by John Donne about Saint Lucy’s Day, the Winter Solstice.  Will our sun renew?  Sure doesn’t feel like it.  But let’s not give up hope.

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.

That sinking feeling when you realize that the novel you’re reading is about an author with an unhappy childhood

I liked Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (although I liked the HBO movie better).  Her new novel is called My Name is Lucy Barton, and the reviews I have seen have been luminous.  “It is both a book of withholdings and a book of great openness and wisdom” raves the Washington Post, for example.  Maybe I’m the wrong audience. 

“A book of withholdings” is another way of saying it’s short (193 pages, actually).  The narrator (who’s about 60) is sort of telling you the story of her life, but she mostly skips over stuff like why her marriage failed and what her books are about; she names characters almost grudgingly, as if naming them would force her to pay more attention to them.  She focuses on her childhood, but she does this by setting up the narrative voice at two removes: she is remembering a long hospital stay in the 1980s when her mother flew into New York and stayed with her, and they ended up talking, often elliptically, about their shared past.  Turns out it wasn’t that great.  Nothing much flows from this, as far as I can tell; no conflict and no resolution, except in the sense that the narrator seems at peace with what she has had to endure. The complex narrative structure doesn’t seem to accomplish much; telling a story in a non-linear fashion doesn’t necessarily make the story more interesting.

I do want to say that I listened to the book, and the narrator was just wonderful.  If it weren’t for her, I probably would have given up.

A nice review of “The Portal”

Here’s a nice review someone just posted on Amazon for my novel The Portal:

The story is riveting from beginning to end. Two preteens far from home but in fact not far but in a parallel universe is a fascinating concept all by itself. Throw in the time travel, dangerous situations, an array of interesting characters to interact with, and the emotions evoked as they experience privations and loss, and this becomes a captivating story you don’t want to put down until the very end. Recommended for teens and adults.

I couldn’t have said it better myself!  I’ll probably post more of these when I get closer to publishing its somewhat long-awaited sequel.

What I read in 2015

Highlights, anyway.  Much of it listened to, rather than read.  Listed more or less in order of enjoyment.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  An English woman takes up hawking to get over the death of her father.  She tells the story of training the hawk, interspersed with a psychobiography of T.E. White, the author of The Once and Future King.  Well, that doesn’t sound promising, does it?  But it’s glorious.  I felt like I was entering deeply into a wondrous world I never knew existed.  And Macdonald’s narration is also glorious.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.  This book, about how we deal with the end of life, has gotten a lot of praise, and it deserves every bit of it.

The Iliad.  Narrated by Dan Stevens.  I talk about it here.

SPQR by Mary Beard.  A history of ancient Rome up to the early 200’s.  I love this kind of book.

Middlemarch by George Eliot.  It still works.

Fore! The Best of Wodehouse on Golf.  I don’t know a mashie from a niblick, but Wodehouse on anything is great.  I was trying to read The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy and kept switching back to this book so I could feel good about life.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders.  Weird, wonderful stories about weird, wonderful people.  With a lovely afterword about how Saunders finally found his voice and his success.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks.  Finally got around to reading this.  Lovely, illuminating stories.

Adverbs by Daniel Handler.  A strange but enjoyable “novel” for adults by the author of the Lemony Snicket series.

Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan.  Who doesn’t want to listen to 25 hours of narration about the peace conference after World War 1?  I learned a lot.

Faith vs. Fact by Jerry Coyne.  A good summary of why science works as an explanation of the world and religion doesn’t.  Fairly familiar stuff to people who read Coyne’s web site, but worth getting down on paper.  It probably won’t change many minds, alas.

Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb.  Tells the story of the scientific discoveries about DNA, RNA, and genetics, down to the present day.  Great, although a bit too dense for someone listening to it at rush hour.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind  by Yuval Noah Harari.  Harari is a big, big picture kind of guy and has all kinds of provocative ideas, not all of which I agree with.  But I was entertained and educated nevertheless.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  This is a novel about the world after a flu epidemic causes civilization to collapse, with lots of flashbacks to the final days of the world we knew.  It’s been a big best-seller and was nominated for the National Book Award.  I’m a big fan of dystopian novels — I’ve written a few myself!  But this one, despite being very well written, left me a bit cold.  Too many characters and too many plot strands insufficiently developed.  And I really didn’t get the Station Eleven stuff.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This book was showered with praise and awards, but it left me rather cold.  I’ve enjoyed his shorter work more.  Partly it was the author’s narration, which I thought was rushed.  And I wished he pronounced the word “asked” rather than “axed”.  But I also found it difficult to follow his argument sometimes (if there was an argument).  The centerpiece of the book is the death of one of his college friends at the hands of an out-of-control police officer.  This is a symptom of what’s wrong with America; fair enough.  But the police officer was black, working for a black-controlled police department.  I wanted Coates to connect the dots for me better than he did. Here’s a long review that says what I thought about the book better than I can.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir.  More than I wanted to know about them, I guess.

I notice that several of these books came my way via BookBub.  And I notice that my Kindle is filling up with BookBub titles that I really want to read, all purchased for $1.99 or less.  Is this the future?  Do we like this future?

Where did Homer get his MFA?

Homer and I go way back — all the way to the summer before my senior year in high school, when one evening a week I would drive to Dorchester and translate the Odyssey while dripping sweat onto the ancient text.

I’ve lost all my knowledge of ancient Greek in the intervening years, but I feel the need to reacquaint myself with Homer every once in a while.  Most recently, I listened to an audio version of the Iliad narrated by Dan Stevens.  Listening to this ancient epic while fighting traffic on Interstate 93 isn’t perhaps the ideal way of encountering Homer, but it’s the best I can do nowadays.  A few brief comments:

  • Dan Stevens is pretty good!  He obviously made the right career decision by quitting Downton Abbey for the lucrative business of narrating epic poems.
  • It’s amazing how modern some of the narrative structure is — for example, Homer needs a scene that shows Hector’s wife Andromache mourning his death.  But the sceone won’t work unless he has a previous scene establishing their love.  And that’s exactly what he has–a set up, and then a while later, the payoff.
  • On the other hand, he must have been absent the day his MFA program went over the rules for naming characters.  The Iliad, of course, features two major characters with the same name: Ajax. So Homer has to put his Homeric epithets into overdrive to ensure that we know which one he’s talking about. (Someone mentioned to me that some people point to this as evidence that these were real people–even back then, no one would be stupid enough to give two made-up characters the same name.)  Also, of course, multiple characters have more than one name.  Thanks a lot!  Generally, although not always, the alternative name is just a patronymic; even so, this doesn’t help us follow the action.  Similarly, Homer doesn’t bother to call the Greeks “Greeks”; instead they are Argives or Achaeans or Danaans.  (And Troy is randomly referred to as Ilion.) That is also really helpful.
  • The gods are hugely present in the Iliad, and are generally speaking much more entertaining than our current crop of deities.  The Zeus/Hera squabbling never gets old.  Here is a photo of grey-eyed Athena from the Museum of Fine Arts:

2015-08-09 12.38.24

  • On the other hand, I have never been happy with how much the gods motivate the action.  It’s never the case the one side does well because somebody has a good plan; or, if he does have a plan, it’s because a god put him in mind of it.  This is the sort of thing that Julian Jaynes points to in everyone’s favorite bookThe Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, as evidence that back in those days people weren’t conscious in the way we are today; instead, they heard voices in their minds that they interpreted as being the gods.
  • Finally, after all these years, I still prefer the Odyssey to the Iliad.  I ultimately find the incessant battle scenes repetitive and a bit exhausting.  Along with the rest of the Argives and Achaeans and Danaans, I just want Achilles to get over himself and come back and win the damn war.

More on e-book price resistance

Via The Passive Voice, I see the Wall Street Journal reporting on the decline in e-book sales from the major publishers.  This is in the wake of the new contracts they signed with Amazon, which allowed them to continue to set their own prices.

A recent snapshot of e-book prices found that titles in the Kindle bookstore from the five biggest publishers cost, on average, $10.81, while all other 2015 e-books on the site had an average price of $4.95, according to industry researcher Codex Group LLC.

“Since book buyers expect the price of a Kindle e-book to be well under $9, once you get to over $10 consumers start to say, ‘Let me think about that,’” said Codex CEO Peter Hildick-Smith

Hachette cited fewer hot titles and the implementation of its Amazon deal as reasons that e-books fell to 24% of its U.S. net trade sales in the first half of 2015, from 29% a year earlier. Declining e-book sales contributed to a 7.8% drop in revenue in the period.

Then there’s this paragraph:

One high-level publishing executive disputed that the Amazon pacts are contributing to the e-book sales decline. “This is a title-driven business,” he said. “If you have a good book, price isn’t an issue.”

This is, of course, insane.  Price is always an issue.  Maybe you’ll pay more for a new Stephen King book, but there is a price at which you won’t bother to buy it.  And how much money are big publishers leaving on the table by not appropriately pricing their backlist?  The novelist James Salter died recently.  I had heard of him but never read anything by him.  I went on Amazon, and all his ebooks were $9.99 or more; recently one showed up on BookBub for $1.99, so I scooped it up.  As the Passive Guy says:

Since Amazon is the biggest bookstore in the world, one which obsessively collects and analyzes data concerning customer behavior, it is much better qualified to set optimum prices to maximize revenues from the sales of ebooks than a bunch of provincial publishers who have never run any sort of store and have virtually nothing in common with a typical reader.

If you give a kid a stick of dynamite, why would you expect anything other than trouble?

Stephen King on being prolific

Stephen King has always struck me as being a humane and generous writer.  In today’s New York Times he has a piece entitled “Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?”  He points out:

No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.

And he points out that some writers (himself included) are just meant to be prolific–they can’t help themselves:

As a young man, my head was like a crowded movie theater where someone has just yelled “Fire!” and everyone scrambles for the exits at once. I had a thousand ideas but only 10 fingers and one typewriter. There were days — I’m not kidding about this, or exaggerating — when I thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane. Back then, in my 20s and early 30s, I thought often of the John Keats poem that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain …”

But he never quite answers the question in his title (the title, of course, may not be his).  This comes to mind as I read Elin Hilderbrand’s novel The Rumor.  She is no dummy:  She went to Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She has created her own wildly popular genre–the Nantucket beach novel.  But clearly her publisher wants her to write a book, maybe two books, a year.  Could her novels be better if she took more time writing them, if she aimed higher? Is she being too productive?  Beats me, but I think maybe so.  The Rumor seems OK, but it is very slight.

On a related topic, I have so little time to read that I tend to avoid prolific novelists, because I fear that they are sacrificing quality for quantity.  But, of course, I could be wrong.  Here is Shakespeare’s output for 1599, as chronicled in the wonderful book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599:: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet.  I don’t think any of us would  have wanted Shakespeare to slow down in 1599.

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.

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.