In early October 2012 I decided to start a blog about books and some of my other interests. Now you may say, “so what’s so strange about that?” Well, I was a 67 year old retired mechanical engineer who had no formal training in the things I planned to write about. I did have a lifelong love of books, music, movies and such, however, and had worked as an on-air volunteer on two different public radio station here in Baton Rouge for over 25 years. During that time I started and/or hosted various programs which featured opera, Broadway and movie music, light classical and pops, and even big band music. I had also been in book clubs for years and had lead book discussion groups using the methods championed by the Great Books Foundation. I’ve also taught a number of classes about movie music for the LSU chapter of the nonprofit Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) here in Baton Rouge.
With some invaluable assistance from some wonderful folks at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library, I got my site up and running, and on October 23, 2012 I published my first post. Today’s anniversary post is my 128th. And I’ve got so much more that I want to share with you!
Since many of you were not reading Book Notes Plus when it started, I have decided to re-post some of my favorite tidbits from the early months. I hope you enjoy them, and I hope we can get together again on October 23, 2014 to celebrate the second anniversary of Book Notes Plus.
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Should you decide to write a detective story you might keep in mind these rules formulated by crime writer Ronald Knox:
- The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure into the plot.
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- The detective himself must not commit the crime.
- The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
If you think about it, the above rules might also help you to determine who did it (and who couldn’t possibly have done it) in any detective story that you read – assuming that the author is aware of and follows Knox’s rules.
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Some years ago the East Baton Rouge Parish Library published lists of fiction books that were best sellers between the years of 1930 and 1999. Here are three lists from 30 years apart. Notice that Daphne du Maurier has books on two of the lists.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field (also a best seller in 1938)
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (also a best seller in 1938)
- Wickford Point by John P. Marquand
- Escape by Ethel Vance
- Disputed Passage by Lloyd C. Douglas
- The Yearling by Marjorie K. Rawlings (also a best seller in 1938)
- The Trees of Liberty by Elizabeth Page
- The Nazarene by Sholem Ashe
- Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (also a best seller in 1940)
- Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo
- The Love Machine by Jacqueline Susann
- The Inheritors by Harold Robbins
- The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
- The Seven Minutes by Irving Wallace
- Naked Came the Stranger by Penelope Ashe*
- The Promise by Chaim Potok
- The Pretenders by Gwen Davis
- The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
- The Testament by John Grisham
- Hannibal by Thomas Harris
- Assassins by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
- Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks
- Timeline by Michael Crichton
- Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
- Apollyon by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
- The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
- Irresistible Forces by Danielle Steel
- Tara Road by Maeve Binchy
*Naked Came the Stranger was, indeed, a best seller. It was also a literary hoax as was its author, Penelope Ashe. The book was actually written by a group of reporters (both men and women) at Newsday who wanted to see if they could out-sex, and out-trash Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins and other popular writers of the time. Each of the 15 chapters was written by a different person. Some chapters had to be altered somewhat to make the plot flow smoothly, and some had to be dumbed-down a bit because they were too well written. The resulting novel was so successful – even after the hoax was exposed – that the instigator of the ruse, Mike McGrady, was approached about writing a sequel. He refused the offer, though he did collaborate on the screenplay for the x-rated movie that was made from the book in 1975.
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Back when silent movies began, theater owners often paid people to play music during the movies. Since there were no movie music composers at the time, the musicians had to make up the music as they went along or play existing music – often classical. The music reflected what was happening on the screen, but served another purpose as well: it masked the clickety-clack sound of the projector which was present in the same room where the moviegoers sat.
As time went by sound was added to the movies, and the projectors were moved into another room with a rectangular hole just large enough for the light beam to pass through onto the screen. At that point a discussion about music in movies began. On one side you had those who said that movie music would only distract the patrons from what was being said. On the other side you had those who said that movie music could be used to enhance the action and dialogue by setting the mood for the various scenes. The second group eventually won out which lead to another discussion.
Some people said that the music should be so subtle that the audience hardly noticed that it was there. Others believed that the music should be prominent in order to make the greatest impact. That argument has, to some extent, continued to this day, though no one would argue that movies like The Magnificent Seven and Jaws would be better without music. In fact, some movies are remembered principally for their musical scores.
The realization that music was important lead the movie companies to form music departments, and hire composers who could tailor their music to whatever film was in production. The music for a swashbuckler had to be very different from that for an intense love story or a murder mystery. So who did the studio executives hire to compose such a broad range of movie music? In large part they started with Europeans who were classically trained – people like Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, and Dimitri Tiomkin.
Many of the early composers had a few things in common: they were classically trained and only intended to write movie music for a short time before returning to their first love; some of them were fleeing Europe due to the rise of anti-Semitism; their music tended to be symphonic in nature; and, in most cases, they never got back to writing classical music.
Later, composers like Alfred Newman, Bernard Hermann, David Raksin, Alex North and Elmer Bernstein began to write movie music, but it was unlike that of the early composers. It was less classical, and in the case of Elmer Bernstein and others, the music could be downright jazzy. They were followed by composers like Henry Mancini, Dave Grusin, John Barry, Thomas Newman, Randy Newman, James Horner, and the great John Williams (whose music harkens back to the symphonic style of the early movie music composers).
I could go on and on about this subject, but it would be better if you read a book about movie music. And, I’ve got just the book for you: Music for the Movies by the late Tony Thomas. This is by far the best book you will ever find on the subject of movie music for those who are not musically trained. Thomas was superb in telling the life stories of his subjects, and explaining the fundamentals of their music, and his vignettes about the composers are priceless. He updated his book once, but it is necessarily incomplete since he died in 1997 at the age of 69.
Thomas’ book is still in print, so pick up a copy or borrow one from your local library. Once you read it you will never be able to watch a film again without being very aware of the music, and who composed it. And, that is as it should be.
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In 1807 noted essayist Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, published a book entitled Tales from Shakespeare. The book, which is still available in a number of editions, was written so that children could read and easily understand the stories from Shakespeare’s plays. Eleven years earlier, in 1796, Mary had a nervous breakdown and killed her mother with a kitchen knife. From that time onward she had to be kept under close supervision. When their senile father died, Charles became Mary’s guardian. When preparing Tales from Shakespeare, Charles wrote the stories of the tragedies while Mary wrote about the comedies – probably a good idea. Mary Lamb is the central character in Peter Ackroyd’s 2004 novel The Lambs of London.
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I invite you to send me a list of your favorite books (fiction and nonfiction), short stories, plays, essays and anything else that is meaningful to you. I suggest that the list include no more than ten works. You can either give complete descriptions (as I do below) or simply present the books and their authors without any comments. You can list old works, new works or a combination. Most importantly, tell us WHY you have chosen those particular works if you give descriptions. I am including a sample of some of my favorite works as a guide to how I would like your list to be formatted. Send your list to me at email@example.com, and it will be included in a future post. I reserve the right to reject any submission that I deem inappropriate or too controversial for this blog.
Here are some of my personal favorites:
- Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser – This, the first of over a dozen books that Fraser wrote about the cowardly, bullying womanizer (and those are his good points) named Harry Flashman, is a magnificent blend of fiction and history that I keep going back to time and time again. When you get past the seemingly gratuitous sex and violence that may make this book seem like a perfect read for a randy teenage boy, you find that it’s also a true story about the first Anglo-Afghan war, and the retreat of 14,000 or so British troops, their families and their Afghan servants in the face of ceaseless sniping by Afghan warriors. The stupidity and incompetence of the British commanders before and during the retreat will truly astound you. Fraser was a meticulous researcher who couched history in novels about a make-believe poltroon who seems to have been involved in every important historical occurrence of the 19th century. This should be your first taste of the Flashman series, but it certainly won’t be your last.
- “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson – Jackson’s short story is included in almost every anthology of great American short stories for a good reason. It is a chilling tale of what happens in a small New England town once a year for reasons that are difficult to fathom. “The Lottery” will make you question the motivations and beliefs of those townspeople, and may even make you rethink your own, and that’s good. After you read the story consider this: Jackson claimed to have dashed off this story one afternoon after a shopping trip in the small New England town where she and her husband lived. Furthermore, she claims that it had no particular meaning.
- The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer – These epic poems credited to a man named Homer, who may or may not have ever existed, were recited or sung (we’re not sure which) for perhaps hundreds of years before the Greeks gained the ability to write from the Phonecians. Now, over 2,500 years later, we still read them for their grandeur, and for the lessons they have to teach us about ourselves and everyone else on this planet. It’s hard to believe that people ever had the ability to memorize such long works, and its equally difficult to believe that they contain so much that is still relevant about the human condition.
- Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey – Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, The Virginian, may have been the first western novel ever written, but I would argue that Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, written in 1912, is the quintessential portrait of the quiet but supremely capable cowboy who doesn’t look for trouble but knows how to handle it when it comes his way. It contains every cliché that would later be included in those cowboy movies that I loved as a kid. If you like this story, you will want to read its sequel, The Rainbow Trail. Caution: Grey’s portrayal of Mormons in this book may be offensive to some.
- The Complete Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne – Montaigne invented the essay form back in the 16th century, and he has perhaps never been bested in this form of writing. He was a genius who wrote and in many cases rewrote his thought on an astounding range of subjects which included friendship, good and evil, the education of children, and cannibals. Don’t expect to simply breeze through his essays. Instead, set out with the idea that you will read one, savor it for a while, and then, perhaps, read it again in order to really reach its core. If you ever read and understand them all, you’ll be my hero. I suggest the translation by Donald M. Frame.
- The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling – This set of seven novels written for children of all ages (including some of us who have never totally grown up) is a classic tale of good versus evil with more than a few fascinating plot twists. Rowling’s spectacular imagination is what makes the series so intriguing. Her novels are set in a truly magical world populated by witches and wizards; a strange game called quiditch which is played while flying on broomsticks; and magical animals such as hippogriffs, blast-ended skrewts and flobberworms. Thankfully, we “muggles” have been invited to take a peek into Harry’s world.
- Othello by William Shakespeare and Otello by Giuseppe Verdi – It’s impossible for me to think of one without the other. First, of course, came Shakespeare’s masterpiece, and then Verdi set it to music – and what music! Each in its own unique way tells of the terrible consequences that too often occur when jealousy trumps reason. Shakespeare wrote his play when he was in his prime; Verdi composed the music for his opera when he was an old man thought incapable by many of writing with such passion and dramatic intensity. Do yourself a favor – enjoy both. Read Shakespeare’s masterwork first, and then enjoy it with the added dimension of Verdi’s glorious music.
- The Art of the Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing edited by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn – The title just about says it all. I’ve seen lots of short story anthologies, but this one stands out because each short story includes a biography of the author before the story, and an essay by the author after the story. There are also a number of essays at the end of the book on subjects like plot, characterization, and point of view. I’ve used this book to lead discussions on short stories, and the participants have always enjoyed the selections. Authors include Chinua Achebe, Ernest Hemingway, Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery” mentioned above), Zora Neale Hurston, Ha Jin, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, and Yukio Mishima. Undoubtedly this 926 page book is meant to be used in literature classes, but its $22.00 retail price is more like what you would pay for a popular book rather than a textbook.
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In his book, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900-1999, Michael Korda, who was the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster for many years, and the author of a number of bestsellers himself gives us a history of the book business and how it changed over the years as well as a list of bestsellers (both fiction and non-fiction) for each year from 1900 to 1999. His perspective is unique, I think, because he was an insider in the book business. Here are some of the interesting tidbits from his book.
- There are a few types of books in the nonfiction category that recur throughout the 20th Century: home and garden care; how to raise children; figuring out what’s wrong with you, and how to fix it (self-help); cookbooks, and diet books. Is there possibly a link between the last two?
- Winston Churchill wrote a number of bestselling novels in the early part of the 20th century. No, not that Churchill; the Winston Churchill from Saint Louis, Missouri. He and the more famous Winston Churchill met and exchanged letters occasionally, and agreed that the British statesman and author would include his middle initial (S for Spencer) to distinguish himself from the American novelist.
- The Bible is undoubtedly the best-selling book in history, but it was literally number one on the non-fiction bestseller list in 1951, 1952, and 1953 because in 1951 Nelson Publishing released the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Then The Living Bible made its debut in 1972 and topped the non-fiction bestseller list for two years.
- Before the great depression book publishers sent booksellers copies of their books with a no-return policy. When the great depression began booksellers often found themselves with lots of unsold books on their hands due to the rampant poverty of the time. As a temporary measure the publishers relented, and agreed to essentially send books to their customers on consignment. After the depression ended, the publishers decided to continue their consignment policy.
- While novels have traditionally been a few hundred pages long, books in the category of historical fiction (a genre which many credit Sir Walter Scott with starting) have usually been much longer – sometime running to 600 or 700 pages.
- The first book published by Simon and Schuster had some people (including some within the company) wondering if it was a “book” at all. The problem was that it did not exactly meet the commonly accepted definition of a book. It was, in fact a book that you wrote in – a book of crossword puzzles. The company was so concerned that it would be considered a laughing stock that the book was initially published under the name of a fake publishing company. When the book became a bestseller, Simon and Schuster began to publish it under its own name.
- The company called Pocket Books was formed in the 1930s to produce paperback copies of hardcover books, and to sell them for 25 cents each. However, paperbacks weren’t even mentioned much less sold in bookstores. Instead paperbacks, which were distributed by magazine wholesalers, were sold in drugstores, at newsstands, and in assorted other stores. By the early ‘60s bookstores were grudgingly selling paperbacks and some booksellers even began to discount hardcover books.
- A Supreme Court decision in 1949 allowed the sale of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the United States. No longer did one have to go to Paris to buy such books, and then smuggle them in through U. S. Customs. The court decision also served to open the publishing business to a spate of sexually explicit books that were, after a while, prominently displayed and sold in mainstream bookstores.
- Some things never change. One is that certain authors have a knack for writing one bestseller after another. Some authors from the early part of the 20th Century who had multiple best sellers are Winston Churchill, Mary Johnson, George Barr McCutcheon, Mary Roberts Rinehart, John Fox, Jr., Eleanor H. Porter, Booth Tarkington and Frances Hodgson Burnett.
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Here’s what they put on the dust jacket: “This gritty street tale is a breakout book by an author who bears watching. His wildly imaginative epic offers an edgy, sensual, and utterly unflinching visionary view of life that brilliantly defies categorization.”
Here’s what they really mean: “This gritty street tale (Black author from the hood) is a breakout book (Hail Mary pass) by an author who bears watching (as opposed to one you are actually going to want to read). His wildly imaginative (wrote book high on mescaline) epic (long) offers an edgy (contains no adult voice of reason), sensual (soft porn), and utterly unflinching (has a lot of bad words) visionary (can’t be proven wrong yet) view of life that brilliantly defies categorization (even the author has no clue what he’s turned in).”
You can read the hilarious definitions of the publishing industry buzzwords used above and many more here.
Warning: After this, dust jacket blurbs and book reviews will never be the same.
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In her delightful book of essays entitled Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman (Clifton Fadiman’s daughter) tells this story: “Some friends of theirs had rented their house for several months to an interior decorator. When they returned, they discovered that their entire library had been reorganized by color and size. Shortly thereafter, the decorator met with a fatal automobile accident. I confess that when this story was told, everyone around the dinner table concurred that justice had been served.”
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For years I listened to a weekly classical music program called The Record Shelf on our public radio station here in Baton Rouge. The host, Jim Svejda, is a walking encyclopedia concerning classical music, and his show is superb. The Record Shelf is still syndicated, but you can hear him every weeknight on KUSC public radio in Los Angeles from 7:00 p.m. to midnight Pacific Time over the internet. Be sure to check out the weekly highlights while you’re at the site.
If you are just learning about classical music, check out Svejda’s books on the subject. They are big books, and they are jam-packed with great information. One thing to be aware of is that his two big books, The Insider’s Guide to Classical Recordings, From the Host of The Record Shelf, a Highly Opinionated, Irreverent, and Selective Guide to What’s Good and What’s Not, and The Record Shelf Guide to Classical CDs and Audiocassettes: Fifth Revised and Expanded Edition, were written/updated in the 1990s, so they don’t include the latest recordings. However, you will find many classic recordings in these books that still represent some of the best interpretations of the greatest classical composers of all time – and Svejda’s comments are witty and enlightening.
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F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on a novel, tentatively titled The Love of the Last Tycoon, when he died suddenly from a heart attack on December 21, 1940. He had talked to his friend author Nathaniel West (The Day of the Locust) about the book, and had asked West to finish it if something happened to him. West was unable to carry out Fitzgerald’s wishes, however, because he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident on December 22, 1940 – the day after Fitzgerald’s death. Many critics agree that the unfinished Tycoon was better written than anything Fitzgerald had ever produced before including The Great Gatsby.
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“Look, one day I had gone to a little village. An old grandfather of ninety was busy planting an almond tree. ‘What, grandfather!’ I exclaimed. ‘Planting an almond tree?’ And he, bent as he was, turned around and said: ‘My son, I carry on as if I should never die.’ I replied: ‘And I carry on as if I was going to die any minute.’ Which of us was right, boss?” – Zorba in Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel Zorba the Greek
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For most of the time that we storytelling animals have existed, we have had no way to publish and copyright the stories we have created. Even after the printing press was invented, many people still failed to have their works published; people like Shakespeare, for instance.
Early works including The Iliad and The Odyssey were composed centuries before the Greeks learned how to write from the Phoenicians, so you can imagine how much these two epics must have changed through the centuries as they were sung or simply spoken (we don’t know which was the case) before they were finally written down. But even after these and other works such as the Greek tragedies, and the Bible became written documents, there was still a problem. The scribes who copied them made inadvertent mistakes as they copied, and, as we have discovered, sometimes consciously added or omitted words and passages for some unknown reason.
When Alexander the Great died his generals split up his empire. One named Ptolemy became the ruler of Egypt. He was an intellectual, so he set up a library in Alexandria – the city founded by Alexander himself – and it became the most important library in the world. It was not simply a library, it was also a research center that attracted some of the greatest minds in the Mediterranean world.
Ptolemy I and his successors accumulated hundreds of thousands of scrolls consisting of all sorts of documents. Realizing that copied documents often contained errors, he and his successors took steps to get the oldest, and therefore the most accurate, copies they could find. They bought what they could and used underhanded means to get the rest. Ships in the port were searched, and any scrolls found were copied. Now, here’s the important part: The originals went into the Library, and the owners of the scrolls were given the copies. At one point Ptolemy III, who very badly wanted the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, convinced the Athenians to loan them to him. The Athenians, being wary of him, demanded that he post a bond of 15 talents (millions of dollars in today’s currency) before they would hand them over. He paid the bond, received the plays, and had copies made of them. However, he kept the originals and gave the Athenians the copies. He forfeited the 15 talents, but seems to have thought that he came out the winner.
Imagine all the priceless documents that the Library at Alexandria contained. Imagine that some of the documents were originals, and others were the best copies of originals that existed anywhere in the world. And finally, imagine the loss when the Library was destroyed. There are various stories about when and how it was destroyed, but we don’t know which of the stories is accurate. We believe that the Library and a smaller annex burned, but we don’t even know if it happened accidentally or if the structures were purposely set on fire.
Various surviving documents mention the plays of the great Greek tragedians, and fragments of some of their plays exist, so we have an idea of how many plays they actually wrote. Aeschylus wrote at least 70 plays, but only seven exist today. Only seven of Sophocles’ 120 or so plays exist, and fewer than 20 of the 90 or more plays of Euripides survive. How many of those plays did Ptolemy III have in his library? How many more Greek plays, and other great works would we have today if the Library of Alexandria had survived? We will never know, of course, but we can say without a doubt that the destruction of the Library of Alexander is one of the greatest intellectual losses ever suffered by mankind.
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How’s this for the plot of a novel? A black child is born into poverty in the rural south, somehow gets a degree in anthropology from Barnard College; plays a significant role in the Harlem Renaissance writing plays, short stories, and four novels; does African American culture and folklore studies in the southern U.S. and elsewhere; and wins a Guggenheim fellowship to do ethnographic studies. Then her works disappear from print; she falls into severe poverty; dies, and is buried in an unmarked grave. But that’s not the end of the plot. Years after her death another black writer pens an article about her which renews interest in her works, and she finally finds her proper place in the firmament of great American authors.
As you have probably guessed by now, this is not fiction, but rather the true life story of Zora Neale Hurston. Though born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891, her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in the Unites States. This was a unique setting for Hurston to grow up in because all of the town’s residents were black. Blacks ran the businesses, blacks (including her father) were the mayors, and black people built everything. When Hurston was thirteen her mother died, and her father, a minister, married a much younger woman. Hurston did not get along with her stepmother, and after a few years left home with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan company. At age 26 she turned up in Baltimore and lopped ten years off her age so she could finish high school. She later attended Howard University and earned an anthropology degree from Barnard College. She became a major member of the Harlem Renaissance hobnobbing with writers such as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. She wrote her best known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942. She also married twice, but both marriages failed after a short time.
Tragically, Hurston’s life deteriorated after a while, and she ended up taking jobs as a substitute teacher and a maid in Fort Pierce, Florida. By then her books were out of print, and she was unknown to most people, so no one took notice when she had a stroke and died on January 28, 1960. Hurston, a pauper, was buried in an unmarked grave there in Fort Pierce.
A young black writer named Alice Walker had been influenced by Hurston’s writings, and in 1973 she went to Florida in search of Hurston’s grave. In the Garden of Heavenly Rest – an overgrown, ill-kept, segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce – Walker waded through the high grass, and found a rectangular area where the ground had sunk. She decided that that was the spot where Hurston was buried, and there she put Hurston’s grave marker.
In 1975 Walker wrote a story for Ms magazine entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” That single article renewed the public’s interest in Hurston and her works, and returned many of them to print. Additionally, there is now an annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts & Humanities in Eatonville, Florida. You can find information about it here.
Like all black people of that time she endured discrimination, but she had an admirable way of dealing with it. “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against,” she said, “but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
In 2005 Hurston’s most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was made into a movie for television. Halle Berry who played Janie, Michael Ealy, who played Tea Cake, and the rest of the cast members made it a movie worth searching for if you haven’t seen it. The story is riveting.
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Sol Steinmetz, who died in 2010, wrote some fascinating books about words. His last book, There’s a Word for It, is about words and phrases (some new, some from other languages) that came into our vocabulary between 1900 and 2009. Not only does he give us new words for each year in between, but he gives us a brief history of each decade, and a snapshot of what each decade will be remembered for. For example the chapter on the decade from 1920 to 1929 is titled “The Roaring Twenties.” The decade from 1940 to 1949 is titled “World War II and Postwar.” Here, picked at random, are some of the interesting words he catalogued:
- 1900: egocentric, escalator, hillbilly, motorcyclist, nonstop, ping-pong, radiology, side-step
- 1910: age-old, brain trust, chain store, keystroke, moron, Oedipus complex, pipsqueak, post-impressionism
- 1916: ambivalent, dagnab it, dysfunction, economy size, low-maintenance, one-nighter, photofinishing
- 1925: bail out, chewy, compartmentalize, motel, quiche, superstar, Tootsie Roll, Wheaties, zipper
- 1930: bass-ackwards, crooner, drive-in, freeway, gangbuster, Nazi, pistol-whip, PJs (= pajamas), whodunit
- 1939: Blitzkrieg, burger, counterspy, Disneyesque, moolah, name-dropper, pollster, self-image, soap opera
- 1945: atomic bomb, bebop, cold war, Kilroy, mobile phone, must-read (n.), pit bull terrier, retiree, sweet talk
- 1955: boogie, decaf, inner child, non-leaded, pinball, Sabin vaccine, sci-fi, weirdo, wire-tap (n.), zinger
- 1966: acid (LSD), barf, headcase, hippie, multitasking, personal computing, spacewalk, wheelie, zilch
- 1975: air-kiss, craftspeople, downsize, McDonaldization, mood ring, multiculturalism, rope-a-dope, salsa
- 1990: applet, cringeworthy, gangsta rap, malware, shout-out, smackdown, World Wide Web
Many words started out as nouns, and became verbs as well within a few years. The noun “telecast,” which was coined in 1937, for instance, became the verb “telecast” in 1940. Then words like “telecaster” and “telecasting” were coined.
Being a Harry Potter fan, I was surprised to see the word “muggle” listed as one of the new words of 1926. But, whereas author J. K. Rowling used it to designate non-wizards (ordinary people), the word “muggle” was used in 1926 as a slang word for “marijuana cigarette.”
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“I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture. I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats the milk, knits a blanket, makes little requests and bustles about trying not to think – and life is tolerable. But the moment I am alone and allow myself to think, everything seems insufferable.” So wrote Sofia Tolstoy about life with her husband the great writer Leo Tolstoy. The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, translated from the Russian by Cathy Porter, tells us more, perhaps, than we can be comfortable with about life with an overbearing, egomaniacal genius. Leo Tolstoy became a religious fanatic and guru who believed in celibacy even in marriage. That, however, did not stop him and Sofia from having 13 children. The story of their life together ends tragically when Tolstoy runs away from home at the age of 82 and dies from pneumonia 10 days later. Sofia was kept from seeing him before he died by his disciples. The 2009 film The Last Station, which stars Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, gives us a fly-on-the-wall view of their lives together beginning shortly before his death. You can read a review of the book here and read an interesting story about how a Canadian university gained the rights to publish it here.
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A new book, The Wives: The Women behind Russia’s Literary Giants by Alexandra Popoff, tells us about Sofia and five other wives of Russian authors. The common thread throughout the book is the self-sacrifice of all six women in order to enhance the careers of their husbands – in some cases even after their husbands had died. You can read a review of the book here, as well as a short interview that Popoff did with Natalia Solzhenitsyn.
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One of the short stories I chose for discussion in a Great Books Discussion class a year or two ago was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates based the story loosely on an article entitled, “The Pied Piper of Tucson” written by Don Moser for Life magazine in 1966. I found Moser’s article in a recent book entitled True Crime: An American Anthology edited by Harold Schechter, and published by The Library of America. It’s very interesting to read the true story, and then to see what Oates did with it in her short story.
In the same book I found a story about the murder of a woman who was nicknamed “The Black Dahlia.” Jack Webb, better known to us as Sergeant Joe Friday from the early days of TV, included the details of this grisly case in a book he wrote in 1958, The Badge: True and Terrifying Crime Stories That Could Not Be Presented on TV, from the Creator and Star of Dragnet.
Shortly after its publication a young boy, whose mother had recently been murdered, received a copy of Webb’s book for his eleventh birthday. He found the story of “The Black Dahlia” particularly fascinating for obvious reasons. When this boy, James Ellroy, became a man, he wrote a novel, The Black Dahlia (1987), based on Webb’s account of the “Dahlia” murder, and it became his first big hit. Like Oates, Ellroy took a gory story with sketchy details, and imagined what might have happened before and after the murder. Ellroy went on to write a number of other popular crime novels including The Big Nowhere, L. A. Confidential, and White Jazz. Incidentally, True Crime also includes “My Mother’s Killer,” James Ellroy’s account of his mother’s still unsolved murder.
True Crime presents the writings of a remarkable variety of figures (literary and otherwise) including Truman Capote, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Thurber, Zora Neal Hurston, and even Abraham Lincoln. The cases stretch back to the first recorded murder among the pilgrims (as reported by one of the pilgrims), and go forward to Dominick Dunne’s account of the gruesome murder of Kitty and Jose Menendez by their sons Lyle and Erik. If you enjoy crime stories I think you will find True Crime endlessly fascinating.
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When I hear a new song, I primarily listen to the melody, and only later take in and digest the lyrics. That’s what I did when I first heard “Poor Butterfly,” a song composed in 1916 by Raymond Hubbell with lyrics by John Golden. Well, I was smitten by the melody – and I still am. When I paid attention to the lyrics I found that they told a story that you may be familiar with:
There’s a story told of a little Japanese.
Sitting demurely ‘neath the cherry blossom trees.
Miss Butterfly’s her name.
A sweet little innocent child was she
‘Till a fine young American from the sea
To her garden came.
They met ‘neath the cherry blossoms every day.
And he taught her how to love the American way.
To love with her soul t’was easy to learn.
Then he sailed away with a promise to return.
‘Neath the blossoms waiting.
For she loved him so.
The moments pass into hours.
The hours pass into years.
And as she smiles through her tears,
She murmurs low:
The moon and I know that he’ll be faithful
I’m sure he’ll come to me by and by.
But if he won’t come back then I’ll never sigh or cry,
I just must die.
You surely recognize the source of this story if you listen to opera. The story is from Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly. In the opera, which was based on a play by David Belasco (and that on a short story by John Luther Long), a very callous U. S. naval officer, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton who is based in Nagasaki, Japan, “marries” a 15 year old geisha named Cio-Cio San, who is called Butterfly. Butterfly is shunned by her family after her marriage, and has only Pinkerton and her loyal servant Suzuki. When Pinkerton’s ship is ordered to leave Japan, he promises to return to Butterfly, but really intends to go home to marry his American sweetheart. Three years later we find Butterfly still believing that Pinkerton will return. We also find out that she has a son – Pinkerton’s son. When someone writes to Pinkerton to tell him about the existence of his son, he and his American wife, Kate, return to Nagasaki to bring his son to America. When Butterfly finds out that he has only come back for his son, and that he has brought his American wife with him, she commits suicide.
So what happened to their son? We are lead to believe that Pinkerton and his wife take the boy back to America and raise him. And in Butterfly’s Child by Angela Davis-Gardner that’s just what happens. Benji lives on a farm with his father and Kate, who he believes is his real mother, until he finds out that his real mother was a Japanese geisha. Then he travels back to Japan to find out what he can about her, but he hits one dead end after another. Along the way Puccini’s opera becomes a central element of the plot. Many well-crafted twists and turns later, Benji finally finds out the surprising truth.
A song, an opera, a short story, a play, and a book about her. “Poor” Butterfly indeed!
Here is Pat Suzuki’s rendition of “Poor Butterfly.”