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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Music Notes

For many years I produced a program called Opera Showcase on WRKF Public Radio here in Baton Rouge.  The local opera lovers who did most of the shows were as knowledgeable about opera as anyone in the United States.  In fact, when the Met Opera Saturday matinees would feature an opera quiz during the intermission between acts, I would often think about how my people could have answered more questions than the opera cognoscenti who participated in the quizzes. Our local audience was small compared to those who preferred classical music or even Big Band music rather than opera, but the shows were top-notch, and the opera lovers gave more per pledge than any other group of listeners.

The WRKF membership drives occurred twice a year and my associates and I would use any means to get our listeners to pledge.  For instance I used to compete with Lew Carter who did a Big Band show called Music Makers just prior to Opera Showcase.  Lew had more listeners than anyone else at the station, but his listeners gave relative small pledges.  So Lew and I could compete without things being too one-sided.  The winner would receive one dozen chocolate covered donuts from the loser.  I usually lost, but not always.

The Glory of the Human Voice

One way I used to entice my listeners to quickly make a pledge was to play the absolutely worst opera recording ever made.  The threats usually works, the phones started ringing, and I ended the torture.  The “soprano” who butchered arias like “Lakme’s Bell Song” from Delibes’ Lakme and the “Queen of the Night Aria” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute was a New York socialite named Florence Foster Jenkins.  I knew little about her other than that she had a devoted following despite her truly awful voice.  She was a mystery who we all laughed at as we covered our ears to close out her screeching.


Now, imagine my surprise when I learned that the great Meryl Streep would portray Jenkins in a movie.  Not only had Streep committed to the movie, but Hugh Grant would portray Jenkins’ common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield.  Truly, it was hard to imagine what was so fascinating about Jenkins’ life that two A-list stars and millions of dollars would be employed to make a movie about it.  This was very strange.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Soon after learning about the up-coming movie I discovered that a biography of Jenkins’ life had recently been published as well.  The book is Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer by Darryl W. Bullock. Even stranger.

I decided to read the book and then to watch the movie.  It turned out to be the best sequence.  You definitely have a much better understanding of the movie by reading the relatively short book first.  You also better appreciate the excellent acting by Streep and Grant.

As it turned out Jenkins’ life was quite interesting.  Jenkins (1868 – 1944) was born into a well-to-do family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  She was a gifted pianist, so she definitely wasn’t tone deaf.  She wanted to study music in New York, but her wealthy father opposed the idea.  He did, however, allow her to travel to New York City and to remain there for short periods of time.  When he died Jenkins and her mother were able to do as they pleased for the rest of their lives without worrying about where the money would come from.

Jenkins soon gave up her dream of being a famous pianist due to an accident to one of her arms.  The cause or exact details of the problem were never known.  Jenkins couldn’t be a concert pianist, but her life revolved around music, so she joined and even started numerous organizations that promoted the love and public performance of music.  Often her money was used to keep these enterprises operating.

One of her devoted followers was a man named St. Clair Bayfield.  He was a sophisticated Brit who occasionally performed Shakespeare and other plays on stage.  They fell in love and for 36 years he assisted her in her endeavors and shielded her from anyone or anything that might harm her.  In the biography he comes across as truly loving Jenkins, not merely using her for his financial well-being.  Hugh Grant does an admirable job of portraying Bayfield in a similar manner in the movie.  The aforementioned undying love didn’t, however, stop Bayfield from carrying on a 14 years affair while he professed his love and devotion for Jenkins.  After Jenkins’ death Bayfield married his lover, but declared his love for Jenkins until the day he died.  Bayfield was as enigmatic as Jenkins.

I don’t know how to explain Jenkins’ blindness to reality.  She had a few quirks, but she seemed fairly normal except when it came to her singing.  How could someone with her musical knowledge – remember she had been a pianist – perform in public and not hear how horrible her voice was?  Even more, how did she fail to understand the people were laughing at her?  The few selections we have of her singing are the result of vanity recordings she made (with piano accompaniment by Cosme McMoon) to give to her friends.  The human mind is quite complex, so she somehow didn’t realize (or accept) that she was a joke until a few days before her death in 1944.

Truly, there was much more to Florence Foster Jenkins than I ever imagined way back when I used her recordings to aurally bludgeon my listeners into making pledges.  Knowing what I know now, I’m sorry that I used her lack of self-awareness  to raise money for WRKF.  On the other hand, lover of music that she was, she might have enjoyed knowing that she helped to keep opera alive on public radio.

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The Mills Brothers

The Mills Brothers

On the most recent edition of Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH Public Radio I  included a segment called “Ella & Friends.”  The “friends” were three well-known vocal groups: The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers, and The Delta Rhythm Boys.  I was delighted to then find an excellent article at udiscovermusic entitled “Pitch Perfect: A History of Vocal Groups.”  It’s too good to pass up if you enjoy the above mentioned groups or The Fisk Jubilee Singers, The Andrews Sisters, barbershop quartets, The Boswell Sisters, The Dinning Sisters, The Mel-Tones, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Beach Boys, or even New Jack Swing.

A wonderful bonus at the end of the article is the inclusion of 27 songs featuring many vocal group mentioned in the history.  This is an awesome article.  Don’t miss it.

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While you’re at the udiscovermusic website, check out their articles about Glen Campbell the popular singer and guitarist who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  One article gives you information on his life while three other articles (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) are about the recording of Adios his final album.  It was recorded shortly after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  Campbell is 81 years old.

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Quantum Physsics

Chris Ferrie is a quantum theorist.  On a lark he created a book to explain quantum physics to babies.  He was surprised when he learned that his wife and children loved Quantum Physics for Babies, so he set about getting it published in paperback format.  Then Mark Zuckerberg and his wife posted a picture on Facebook that showed the couple reading the book to their newborn child.  That’s when the book really took off.  It was so popular that he has now published a number of additional board books: General Relativity for Babies, Newtonian Physics for Babies, Rocket Science for Babies, Optical Physics for Babies, and Quantum Entanglement for Babies.  Of course a newborn won’t actually be able to understand the ideas in the books, but they’re cute gift ideas for newborns as well as for those of us who are physics-ly challenged.

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Being a ghostwriter can be quite lucrative, but there’s a downside to it as there is with most things in life.  Andrew Crofts, who has ghostwritten many books, discusses the positives and negatives in a Times Literary Supplement article.

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The Social Life of Books

“In theory, book clubs are supposed to be about reading and discussing books. In practice, they are often more about hanging out with a group of people, drinking, gossiping, and generally having a nice evening. Depending on the percentage of the group that has actually read the book, it may be discussed, or it may not. The book is the excuse, not necessarily the point.”

That’s the way many book clubs are today, but have they always been that way?  You can learn a lot about the early days of book clubs in an interesting article at the Atlas Obscura website.  You should also check out the site while you’re there.

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Design for Dying

Nancy Pearl, “America’s librarian,” has issued her reading recommendations for this summer.  You can read the list here.  Be sure to check out other recommendations by Ms Pearl at the end of the article.

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In my last “Lagniappe” post I asked you to name two things that Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Leonard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerry Herman, Burton Lane, Yip Harburg, and Jerome Kern have in common.  I provided the answer during the June 4th edition of Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH.  The answer, in case you missed the show, is that they all wrote the music and/or lyrics for well-known Broadway musicals, and they are all Jewish.

One of the few non-Jewish Broadway greats during the golden age of Broadway was Cole Porter (1891 – 1964).  Porter wrote both the music and lyrics for his shows.  And what lyrics!  They are often labeled as “sophisticated,” though I think a more appropriate word would be “catchy” – more so than the lyrics of any other Broadway songwriter. Porter loved to ride horses, but unfortunately, his right leg was crushed when his horse fell on him in 1937.  Though he had 34 operations and endured ceaseless pain over many years,  he was still able to produce some of the most remarkable and upbeat Broadway music ever written.  Finally, his leg had to be amputated in 1958.  He lived for six more years, but never wrote another song.

During the July 2nd edition of Music on the Sunny Side I’ll present five numbers from five different Porter musicals to demonstrate the remarkable talent of this gifted songwriter.  The show airs between 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. CT.  If you’re in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana area, you can listen at 90.3 FM.  We’re also on 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, July 2,  2017 from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET.  The featured guest will be author, journalist, and history professor Herb Boyd.  His books include Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination and By Any Means Necessary Malcolm X: Real, Not Invented.

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Quiz of the Month – June 2017

Below are the partial titles of 30 fiction and nonfiction books along with the names of their authors.  See if you can complete the titles.  As always the answers to the quiz can be found on my Quiz Answers page.

  1.  A Connecticut Yankee . . . – Mark Twain
  2. Around the World . . . – Jules Verne
  3. The Sword . . . – T. H. White
  4. Watership . . . – Richard Adams
  5. The Gang That . . . – Jimmy Breslin
  6. Riders of the . . . – Zane Grey
  7. Guns, . . . – Jared Diamond
  8. All the Light . . . – Anthony Doerr
  9. Astrophysics for People . . . – Neil DeGrasse Tyson
  10. The Very Hungry . . . – Eric Carle
  11. One Flew Over . . . – Ken Kesey
  12. The Bonfire . . . – Tom Wolfe
  13. Tinker, . . . – John Le Carré
  14. The Heart . . . – Carson McCullers
  15. The Manchurian . . . – Richard Condon
  16. Midnight in the Garden . . . – John Berendt
  17. The Man Who Mistook His Wife . . . – Oliver Sacks
  18. I Know Why . . . – Maya Angelou
  19. The Old Man . . . – Ernest Hemingway
  20. The Fault . . . – John Green
  21. The Emperor . . . – Siddhartha Mukherjee
  22. Friday the Rabbi . . . – Harry Kemelman
  23. One Hundred Years . . . – Gabriel García Márquez
  24. The Phantom . . . – Gaston Leroux
  25. The Girl with . . . – Stieg Larsson
  26. The Strange Case of . . . – Robert Louis Stevenson
  27. Things  . . . – Chinua Achebe
  28. The Talented . . . – Patricia Highsmith
  29. Their Eyes . . . – Zora Neale Hurston
  30. The Master . . . – Mikhail Bulgakov
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Quotes of Note

“Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. For them there is no winter food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security.” – Richard Adams, Watership Down

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau

“There are many lessons in my fantastic journey. As I approach my eighth decade, with more fans and adulation than I could ever deserve, I can say with certainty that to be interesting you have to be interested. You can watch the parade that is life—and live vicariously through others, as many do—or you can get in and participate in your own journey. And the best time to go for broke is when you’re already there.” – Jonathan Goldsmith (a.k.a. The Most Interesting Man in the World)

“Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own.” – Jill Lepore, “A Golden Age of Dystopian Fiction” in The New Yorker magazine

“When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” – Flannery O’Connor

“The course of life is fixed, and nature admits of its being run but in one way, and only once; and to each part of our life there is something specially seasonable; so that the feebleness of children, as well as the high spirit of youth, the soberness of maturer years, and the ripe wisdom of old age—all have a certain natural advantage which should be secured in its proper season.” – Cicero, “On Old Age”

“My dear Laelius and Scipio, we must stand up against old age and make up for its drawbacks by taking pains. We must fight it as we should an illness. We must look after our health, use moderate exercise, take just enough food and drink to recruit, but not to overload our strength. Nor is it the body alone that must be supported, but the intellect and soul much more. For they are like lamps: unless you feed them with oil, they too go out from old age. . . the intellect becomes nimbler by exercising itself.” – Cicero, “On Old Age” (This prescription for good health is as true today as it was when Cicero wrote it over two thousand years ago.)

“They [authors] may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies.  They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the Battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology, and so on.  This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalizable region, the author’s mind.  In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in  the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the Battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon.  Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

“Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?” – Ursula K. Le Guin, “Introduction” to The Left Hand of Darkness

“To my creditors, who remain an eternal source of inspiration.” – Book Dedication by Author Michael Moorcock

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” – Dorothy Parker

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Y Is for Yesterday

Detective novelist Sue Grafton is nearing the finish line of her A to Z series featuring Casey Millhone.  An article about the series in USA Today also features an excerpt from her latest installation Y Is for Yesterday.

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This autumn spy novelist John Le Carré, 85, will publish his final book featuring George Smiley.  He will also make a rare public appearance to discuss his most famous creation.

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Team of Rivals

The Independent has compiled a list of 32 books that will make you a more well-rounded person – just in case you’re lacking in roundedness.

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The two startup founders of theSkimm have created an equivalent to The Oprah Book Club and millennials love it.  Business Insider has the details of a phenomenon that has 5 million email subscribers to its daily newsletter.

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Into the Water

Paula Hawkins, author of the extremely popular novel Girl on the Train, has written a new novel titled Into the Water.  You can read a short excerpt of it here.

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James Patterson routinely co-writes novels with others, but this time he is working on a mystery novel with a former president: Bill Clinton.  “Unbelievable,” you say?  Believe it.

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I'd Die for You

Though it’s almost unbelievable, a new book containing a number of heretofore unpublished short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald has recently been published.  Written at a bleak time in Fitzgerald’s life, some of the stories reflect his state of mind, while others are startling for their humor.

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In 18th century Europe reading in bed at night was equated with asking for God’s punishment.  Why?  An Atlantic article explains.

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Have you ever heard of Jilly Cooper?  Well, you should learn a bit about her since she is being compared favorably to Charles Dickens.

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An article in Time magazine has some interesting (and perhaps unsettling) facts about the age at which our brains and bodies perform best. Read the article at your own risk.

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Can you name two things that Sigmund Romberg, Rudolf Friml, Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, Leonard Bernstein, Steven Sondheim, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerry Herman, Burton Lane, Yip Harburg, and Jerome Kern have in common? Tune in to Music on the Sunny Side on Sunday, June 4th between 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. CT and you’ll find out.  If you’re in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana area, you can listen at 90.3 FM.  We’re also on the internet at WBRH.

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, June 4,  2017 from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET.  The featured guest will be author and journalist Matt Taibi.  His recent books include Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus and The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

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