Talking About Books . . .

The Sympathizer

The list of the 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Grant winners has been released, and, as usual, the list is quite diverse.  Also, as usual, I am reminded of how unlikely it is that John D. MacArthur would be the person whose billions would make the grants possible.  An NPR article lists the recipients, their areas of interest, and provides interviews that the recipients have done on various NPR programs – where available.  The Eccentric Billionaire by Nancy Kriplen, a biography of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, tells the fascinating story of these unlikely philanthropists.  You can read a post that I did in 2015 about MacArthur here.

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Historically we in the United States have had little interest in “world literature” – however you define that term.  Walter Cohen, an English professor at the University of Michigan has an article on the Oxford University Press  blog website that explains the meaning of the term “world literature,” and, more importantly, he provides a link to a website, Words without Borders, that features lots of interesting articles about world literature as well as some short stories translated into English.

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Many authors have directed that their unfinished and unpublished works be destroyed, but Terry Pratchett may be the first to designate that a steam roller crush the hard drives containing those works.  And that’s just what happened.

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Why We Sleep

I recently saw a CBS Morning News interview with sleep expert Professor Matthew Walker who was promoting his new book Why We Sleep.  There are also several YouTube videos in which  Walker discusses the subject.  Here is one of them.  He made one comment that startled me: a lack of sleep decreases our immune system’s activity so much that a lack of sleep could be considered carcinogenic.

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Bookish features an article in which 13 Young Adult (YA) authors discuss the books that influenced their decisions to become writers.  The article also lists a book by each of the YA authors.

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Radium Girls

This is the time of year when book clubs choose the books to be discussed during the coming year.  BookBrowse offers a list of 13 books – both fiction and nonfiction – that your book club might want to consider reading in 2018.

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A few years ago Hogarth Press began commissioning authors to write novels that were reimagined some of Shakespeare’s plays as novels.  The locations, the names of the characters, and even the storylines could be altered, but the substance of each play had to be discernible in the end product.  Edward St. Aubyn recently completed Dunbar which tells the story of a Canadian media mogul named Henry Dunbar.  The elderly Dunbar cedes control of his empire to his two oldest daughters who then deliver him to a facility where he is kept heavily sedated.  His youngest daughter, who was his favorite, took no part in the ouster.  She lives quietly on a ranch in Wyoming with her family.  Sound familiar?  It should since it’s the basic plot of Shakespeare’s King LearThe Atlantic has a review of the novel as well as a link to the Hogarth Shakespeare Series.

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Authors often face law suits from people who claim that their ideas were stolen. Usually the cases are dismissed, but the authors sometimes have to go to court to clear their names.  Electric Lit has an article describing five weird lawsuits accusing authors of stealing ideas.  One concerns the word “muggle” which J.K. Rowling used to designate non-wizards.  A woman claimed that she invented the word, and that Rowling stole it from her.  In a post back in February 2013 I mentioned that the word “muggle” was used as early as 1926 to mean “marijuana cigarette.”

Authors name their characters only to have unscrupulous people claim that the authors used their names without permission.  Then come the law suits for damages.  This also happens in advertising.  I’ve read that when Procter & Gamble decided to do a commercial for Charmin bathroom tissue in which a grocer can’t stop himself from “squeezing the Charmin,” the advertising agency went through a list of its employees, chose the name “George Whipple,” and had the employee named George Whipple sign a contract saying that he was giving permission for the use of his name in the Charmin adds.  That protected Procter & Gamble from frivolous lawsuits by every other George Whipple in the world.

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The Home Front

I don’t particularly care to read about the many battles of World War II, but I love to read about what was going on in the lives of those who were at home here in the United States while the fighting was going on just about everywhere else around the world.  Rationing of food, gasoline, and tires; Japanese internment along the Pacific Coast (but not in Hawaii); Rosie the Riveter; auto manufacturers ceasing production of cars in order to mass produce things like tanks, women fighting for equality in all aspects of life, black people fighting battles all over the world, but finding little acceptance back home – all of this and more was happening right here.  Audible has produced an audio masterpiece called The Home Front: Life in America During World War II which looks at many different aspects of what happened here after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  It is narrated by Martin Sheen and features comments by many learned history professors, celebrities like Carl Reiner, and (best of all) archival audio comments by the common men and women who were living through the uncertainty and hardships of the time.

The Home Front is eight hours of oral history that should not be missed.  Best of all, you can obtain it from Audible at no charge if you hurry.  I got it free because I have an Audible membership, and the website indicates that it will be free to everyone until mid-November.  However, I can’t promise you that there will be no strings attached – such as a 30 day free trial.  You can check it out for yourself here.  Note: you must have the free Audible app installed on your computer, phone, or tablet in order to download and play the program.

Audible also offers a Daily Deal each day of the week.  The Deal consists of an audio book that can be purchased for $2.95 or so.  You can check the homepage of the Audible website for the Daily Deal as well as for other deals such as The Home Front.

— — — — — challenges you to name each of 22 books with only three clues for each one.  Can you do it?  Take the quiz here.  By the way, I answered all 22 correctly.  Not that I’m bragging.  I wouldn’t do that!



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Quotes of Note

“Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together, she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.” – Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 

“Depression afflicts millions directly, and millions more who are relatives or friends of victims.  It has been estimated that as many as one in ten Americans will suffer from the illness.  As assertively democratic as a Norman Rockwell poster, it strikes indiscriminately at all ages, races, creeds and classes, though women are at considerably higher risk than men.  The occupational list (dressmakers, barge captains, sushi chefs, cabinet members) of its patients is too long and tedious to give here; it is enough to say that very few people escape being a potential victim of the disease, at least in its milder form.  Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has been demonstrated with fair convincingness that artistic types (especially poets) are particularly vulnerable to the disorder—which, in its graver, clinical manifestation takes upward of twenty percent of its victims by way of suicide.  Just a few of these fallen artists, all modern, make up a sad but scintillant roll call: Hart Crane, Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Arshile Gorky, Cesare Pavese, Romaine Gary, Vachel Lindsay, Sylvia Plath, Henry de Montherlant, Mark Rothko, John Berryman, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, William Inge, Diane Arbus, Tadeusz Borowski, Paul Celan, Anne Sexton, Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky—the list goes on and on. . . And why were they destroyed, while others—similarly stricken—struggled through?” – William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990)

“It helps to remember why we got into this whole fiction-writing ‘business’ to begin with: because we wanted to see what was behind that door, if not to break it down altogether. Because writers are born snoops and eavesdroppers and gossips and sneaky little diary readers just about driven by what we don’t know. We’re not expressing ourselves in our writing so much as we are searching for the otherwise inexpressible.” – Max Winter

“[Henry] James transfigured the novel form, or at least offered it the possibility to be something entirely new. If I were asked to identify the place where he effected this change, I should point to chapter 27 of The Portrait [of a Lady] – ‘obviously the best thing in the book,’ in the author’s opinion – when one night Isabel Archer sits alone by the fireside in the palace in Rome where she lives with her husband, Gilbert Osmond, and contemplates the disaster that she, with the secret connivance of others, has made of her life.

“Here, in this chapter, as it navigates the stream of Isabel’s consciousness, was the ‘psychological novel’ born.” – John Banville, “Novels Were Never the Same after Henry James

 “Mabel [Tolkien’s mother] gave Ronald [J.R.R. Tolkien] more than a lovely world in which to grow up; she gave him an array of fascinating tools to explore and interpret it. We know little of her own education, but she clearly valued learning and vigorously set about transmitting what she knew to Ronald. She instructed him in Latin, French, German, and the rudiments of linguistics, awakening in him a lifelong thirst for languages, alphabets, and etymologies. She taught him to draw and to paint, arts in which he would develop his own unmistakable style, primitive and compelling, Rousseau with a dash of Roerich. She passed on to him her peculiar calligraphy; he would later master traditional forms and invent his own. She tried to teach him piano, although that proved a failure. And she introduced him to children’s literature, including Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Princess and the GoblinThe Princess and Curdie, and Andrew Lang’s collections of fairy tales. In George MacDonald he encountered goblins and, although he did not realize it at the time, Christian mythopoesis; in Lang’s retelling of bits of the Old Norse Volsunga saga he met Fáfnir the dragon, a creature that excited his imagination like no other, and the prototype of Smaug of The Hobbit: ‘The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him … I desired dragons with a profound desire.’ It was his first baptism into the enchantments of Faerie, an otherworldly realm just touching the fringes of ordinary life and leading, in its farthest reaches, to the outskirts of the supernatural.” – Philip and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

“When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” – Ray Bradbury

“I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.” – Laurence Sterne

“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.” – Voltaire

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The Haunting of Hill House

Deadline is reporting that Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Malcolm  X: A Life of Reinvention is set to become a TV series.

Deadline is also reporting that Shirley Jackson’s 1959 ghost story The Haunting of Hill House is being developed in a “modern reimaging” for Netflix.

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Actress Vivien Leigh was quite a book collector.  Her library, which contains many books signed by their authors, will  be auctioned off on September 26th at Sotheby’s and is expected to bring in more than £500,000.

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Two years ago my wife and I spent 10 wonderful days going through the many museums in Washington.  They were wonderful.  One of the most memorable, though you have to pay to get in, is the Newseum which celebrates the history of one of our greatest treasures: a free press.  Now I read that the Newseum is in such dire financial condition that many think it will not survive much longer.  What a shame.  I don’t know that anyone can save it, but I urge you to visit it while you still can.  A Washington Post article tells the story of its plight.

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Behold the Dreamers

I’ve found a website that features interviews with some impressive authors.  It’s at the Creative Live website and is called “Between the Lines.”  Author Kelly Corrigan interviews 16 well-known authors including Margaret Atwood, John Grisham, Imbolo Mbue, and Alan Alda.  You can watch the interviews free, but you have to log in to do so.  Logging in is simply a matter of providing your e-mail address, choosing a password, and providing a few other bits of information.  I watched Corrigan’s interview with John Grisham, and found it very worth my time (about 27 minutes).

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I’ll once again host Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH Public Radio this Sunday, September 3rd from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. CT.  The music will feature a quick biography of songwriter Harry Warren – probably the best tunesmith you’ve never heard of – and eight songs that he wrote (including “Chattanooga Cho-Cho” and “That’s Amore”).  I will also play an episode of the Alka-Seltzer radio show featuring Curt Massey and Martha Tilton.  Massey had a voice and laid-back style similar to that of Perry Como, and Tilton was one of the most popular female vocalists of the Big Band era.  I’ll also play “Angel Eyes” featuring Jesse Belvin. Belvin had a beautiful voice, but he never attained the fame he deserved due to his tragic death at the age of 27.  If you watched TV during the late ‘50s and early 60s you probably remember a detective series that starred Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and featured Edd Byrnes as a handsome young hipster named “Kookie” who was forever combing his hair.  We’ll listen to the theme from the series and to “Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb),” a very popular song from 1959 performed by Connie Stevens with Kookie himself laying some jive on her (and us) throughout the number.

You can hear Music on the Sunny Side in the Baton Rouge area at 90.3 FM or over the internet at

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, September 3, 2017 from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET.  The featured guest will be author and radio host Eric Metaxas.  His books include Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World and If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.

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Talking About Books . . .


If you are “of a certain age,” you probably have one or more coffee tables books containing prints of some of Norman Rockwell’s paintings.  Rockwell’s paintings generally picture America as the land of the good and kind.  One painting shows a kindly old doctor listening to the heartbeat of a little girl’s doll.  Another depicts a “typical” family gathered around the table ready to enjoy a Thanksgiving turkey dinner together.  I don’t know if such an America ever existed, but I would like to think that it did – somewhere at some point in time.

Less well-known is the Norman Rockwell who was driven to paint about the darker side of American life.  He was socially conscious, and wanted to express his feelings in his art, but magazines like The Saturday Evening Post didn’t want that sort of thing on their magazine covers.  It clashed with the mood they were trying to create for their readers.  Upsetting people might lead to lower magazine sales.

An article at the Pop History Dig website delves into both sides of Rockwell.  I highly recommend it to you, and I hope you will explore other articles at the site while you’re there.

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Cesar Millan, known as The Dog Whisperer, has been teaching us about how to understand and handle unruly dogs for years.  Nevertheless, I was quite surprised when I saw that he is now advocating the use of audio books to keep dogs calm and happy while their humans are away.  Is he serious?  Absolutely.  You can get a free 53 minute audio book from Audible to find out more about his theory.  He has also chosen lists of audio books that he thinks might be just right for your pooch.  I’ve listened to his sales pitch, but I’m still not convinced that anyone should spend money buying audio books for their pets.  However, a lot of sound information about how a dog’s mind works is mixed in with his spiel, so I recommend that you get the audio file – especially since it’s free and only requires that you have an Audible app, which is also free, in order to hear it.

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Classic Crime

If you love crime novels, you must read Michael Dirda’s Washington Post column about the best crime novels of the first half of the 20th century, and about two books that have to do with them.

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Fodor’s Travel has released a list of the 10 best new museums in the world.  First on the list is the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago.  Another of the top 10 is The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts. There is a brief description of each museum listed along with a link to the homepage for each.

Speaking of Dr. Seuss, you may be interested and surprised by what he did during his early career.  You can find out what he did here.

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Could you write a short story in only six words?  Hemingway did: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”  You don’t get the whole story, but your mind creates a story line that fits those six meager words, doesn’t it?  That’s genius.  And what you imagine probably makes you sad.

According to The New Yorker Hemingway was so pleased with the response to his six-word story that he wrote some sequels to it.  I assumed that something tragic happened to the baby before it could wear the shoes, but Hemingway’s stories make me think that I was totally mistaken.

Quirk Books recently featured 15 six word Hemingway-esque short stories.  Note: these stories were not written by Hemingway.

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A Lesson Before Dying

Looking for Something to read?  Southern Living magazine has a list of recommended novel associated with each state plus what you might call “runner-up” selections for each state.

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You can thank Alfred A. Knopf book editor Judith Jones when you read Ann Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.  Frank’s book, which had been published in Europe but not the United States, was about to be rejected by Knopf when Jones picked it up and read it.  She knew immediately that it had to be published in the U.S.  The 2009 movie Julie and Julia tells the story of Child’s entry into the world of famous chefs.  The movie starred Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Erin Dilly as Judith Jones.  Jones recently died at the age of 93.  USA Today has an article about Jones’ long, illustrious career.

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William Faulkner’s The Reivers

The Reivers, which was published in 1962, the same year its author, William Faulkner, died is a coming-of-age story that takes place in northern Mississippi and southern Tennessee in 1905.  It concerns a stolen car, a horse race, and some very colorful rural people – both black and white.  The book won a Pulitzer Prize the following year.  This was Faulkner’s second Pulitzer Prize.

Despite the ease of reading and enjoyable story, and despite the fact that it won a Pulitzer, The Reivers is not nearly as well known as some of Faulkner’s other novels such as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August.  In fact, that’s a bit surprising because it contains three elements that people seem to enjoy in a novel: sex, drugs, and violence.  One thing that some might possibly see as a negative is the leisurely pace at which the story proceeds, but other people may say that Faulkner is simply taking time to develop his very entertaining and sometimes comical characters.

The movie adaptation of The Reivers was released in 1969.  It starred Steve McQueen as the wild and unpredictable Boon Hoganbeck and was narrated by Burgess Meredith, as Lucius, who is telling the story of what happened to him, Boon, and a wise black man named Ned McCaslin (Rupert Crosse) 60 years before.  The music was composed by the great John Williams before he became famous for the music scores of such movies as Jaws, the Star Wars series, the Indiana Jones series, and Schindler’s List.

When movies were first made there was a debate about whether or not music should be used in films.  But even during the age of silent movies, pianists were often hired by theater owners to play music during the showing of a film – though the music might have also been used to mask the sound of the noisy projectors which were routinely placed in the same rooms as the audiences.

Once most people in the movie business accepted the idea that music was an essential part of setting a mood, signaling impending danger, or raising the level of interest in an action scene such as a sword fight, the debate became about how noticeable the music should be.  Some argued that it should be perceived subliminally while others insisted that it should register almost as strongly as the dialogue.

Williams has weighed in on the side of those who think we should be conscious of the music by showing the opening scene of Jaws, where the young woman is swimming in the ocean, with and without the music he wrote for that scene.   Without the music the young woman might simply be enjoying a moonlight swim.  With the music added you know that something horrible is about to happen to her and you’re on the edge of your seat or hiding your eyes.  Once you’ve seen the movie that music will forever be imprinted on your brain.

Music for Stage and Screen

Williams’ CD, Music for Stage and Screen, contains a track that tells the most interesting part of the story from the movie adaptation of The Reivers.  Like the movie, this quick sequence of pivotal events is narrated by the very capable Burgess Meredith.  Remarkably, the 18+ minute track has relatively long segments that are only music.  Meredith could have filled in those segments with dialogue, but he didn’t need to.  Williams did a great job of moving the plot along without Meredith’s help.  You only hear music, but you’re never in doubt about what is taking place.  And in every case your mind is creating the scenes just as surely as if Meredith was describing them.

I found this track from Music for Stage and Screen on YouTube, and I encourage you to listen to it.  Then consider watching the entire movie.  Or better still, take time to read The Reivers.

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Can People Change?

A Confederacy of Dunces

Must characters in a novel “grow”?  The Guardian has an article about John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in which the article’s author, Sam Jordison, explores this question.  In doing so he cites the “lives” of characters created by Charles Dickens and P. G. Wodehouse as well as those created by Toole.  Once you’ve read the article, consider this: Do adults – I mean real people, not fictional characters – grow over the years?  My belief is that some do and some don’t.  But fundamentally, I think that change is difficult once we have become mature adults.  What do you think?

A Confederacy of Dunces was The Guardian’s reading group pick for June 2017.  You can find more articles about this book and many other reading group picks here.


Shortly after writing the above, I saw something that relates to it.  It was a segment that NBC did about the upcoming 100th birthday of Boys Town on December 12th.  Father Edward J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, began working with homeless men in Omaha, Nebraska in 1916, but quickly realized that the men would never change.  He interviewed about 2,000 of them to find out what made them the way they were, and found that most had been on their own as children.  There was no one to guide them, no one to set boundaries.  That’s when he realized that he had to work with children rather than adults. And that was the beginning of a program that has changed the lives of thousands of boys.

In 1938 a wonderful movie was made about Father Flanagan and his struggle to found Boys Town outside Omaha.  Spencer Tracy portrayed Father Flanagan and won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role as a result.  Mickey Rooney did a great job playing the trouble Whitey Marsh, but the kid who will steal your heart is Pee Wee played by Bobs Watson.

It’s a great movie, and it will renew your faith in humanity – should you need it.

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Words at Play

All of the articles in this edition of Words at Play come from the venerable Guardian.  There are many more articles about words at the newspaper’s website, but I found those below to be particularly interesting.

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose would by any other name smell as sweet,” says Juliet in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet.  But is that true about the names that we are given – or give ourselves?  If true, then why did Frances Ethel Gumm change her name to Judy Garland?  Why did Reginald Kenneth Dwight change his name to Elton John?  (Actually, he changed his name to Elton Hercules John.)  Would Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. have had a successful movie career if he had not changed his name to Rock Hudson?  And finally, Barbara Streisand, dropped the second “a” from her first name because she hated the name, but didn’t want to totally change it  The Brooklyn-born Streisand, considered a bit of a kook early in her career, also claimed to have been “born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon.”

So, what’s in a name?  A lot according to this article.

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Is British English being Americanized?  And does that worry the British?  The answers are “yes,” and “yes.”

English continues to change in another way: through the coining of new words.  The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) just received its quarterly update and about 1,000 new words were added.

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What are emojis, where do they come from, and why are they so popular?

Here is another interesting article about emojis and the OED word of the year for 2015.

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The Oxford University Press recently published a four volume dictionary detailing the origins of nearly 50,000 surnames from Britain and Ireland.  Even if your surname is not British or Irish you might still find it in the dictionary since people from many countries have settled in Britain or Ireland over the last few hundred years.  Just reading the article was fascinating.  For instance the surname Baxter originally meant “baker,” and the surname Short might have originated as a facetious nickname for someone who was tall.

You can purchase the dictionary through Amazon for $329.30, but you might also be able to access it free through your local library’s internet resources.

Be sure to watch the embedded videos in the article.

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