Monday, October 30, 2017

Naturals: Dickens Fatigue and The Kid Bats First

Having recently finished reading Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend--his last completed novel and one of the long ones--and being part way through his earlier (and shorter) A Tale of Two Cities, I observe that Dickens is a bold writer.  With a reputation for sentimentality, he does not shrink from confronting the unromantic realities of everyday life in the 18th century (in "Tale") and his own 19th.

He forthrightly describes the harsh material conditions of the non-wealthy (and more generally, in the 18th century) as he exposes the pretensions of the rich exploiters without compromise, and often with a tone combining ridicule with an undercurrent of anger.

He seems to write naturally, with as much confidence in these last decades as when he began.  This may be partly due to his popular success and literary accolades from the start.  Though he had relative ups and downs, he never knew failure.  His very first story was immediately accepted for publication.

As Andrew Maurois notes in his study published as Dickens in English,  "The man whose course is thus shaped gains by being spared the pangs of the soured artist, and self-confidence allows him to write with that attractive freedom which perhaps is one of the secrets of beauty."

A Tale of Two Cities, celebrated as a romance, begins with the horrors of a coach journey in winter, after brief reference to other horrors in both England and France.  The novel begins with the famous line "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." but Dickens starts with the worst.

Our Mutual Friend is bold in a different way.  It begins with aggressively satirical portraits of the newly rich with their "bran-new" furnishings and their "bran new" oldest friends, and those on the lower edges of polite society whose avarice compels them to cultivate these suddenly fashionable folk.  ("Bran new" was a version of "brand new" in Dickens day, and some editions change it to this spelling.  The expression does not refer to the brand name on a label of a new garment or such, as I always assumed.  The expression goes much further back, and the "bran" refers to a hot piece of wood fresh from the fire, which in turn became the basis for cattle brands etc.)

While Bleak House portrays a society in transition from the landed aristocracy to the industrial barons, Our Mutual Friend takes place in a society where fortunes and careers to be made from deals, stocks and political relationships.  There is a certain contemporary familiarity in this passage, for example:

“He goes, in a condescending amateurish way, into the City, attends meetings of Directors, and has to do with traffic in Shares. As is well known to the wise in their generation, traffic in Shares is the one thing to have to do with in this world. Have no antecedents, no established character, no cultivation, no ideas, no manners, have Shares. Have Shares enough to be on Boards of Direction in capital letters, oscillate on mysterious business between London and Paris, and be great. Where does he come from? Shares. Where is he going to? Shares. What are his tastes? Shares. Has he any principles? Shares. What squeezes him into Parliament? Shares. Perhaps he never of himself achieved success in anything, never originated anything, never produced anything? Sufficient answer to all: Shares. O mighty Shares! To set those blazing images so high, and to cause us smaller vermin, as under the influence of henbane or opium, to cry out, night and day, ‘Relieve us of our money, scatter it for us, buy us and sell us, ruin us, only we beseech ye take rank among the powers of the earth, and fatten on us!’”

I read the Penguin Classics edition of Our Mutual Friend with an introduction and copious notes by Adrian Poole.  I found the notes (all in the back) very helpful, and kept a bookmark in the notes section as well as the chapters as I read along.

I also read the aforementioned book by Maurois, and among other items of interests, I was pleased with his observation that he too couldn't remember much of the story of a Dickens' novel afterwards.  However, I was convinced by Geoffrey Tillotson in his foreword to Bleak House that Dickens paid more attention to structure than most critics--including Maurois--acknowledge.  Poole also includes Dickens' outline or plan for the plot of Our Mutual Friend, which as usual was written for periodical publication (in this case, over two years) and on deadline.  The notes are skeletal but clearly he wasn't utterly improvising.

I read Our Mutual Friend with great pleasure, all 797 pages (plus another 35 or so of notes.)  I lost track of a few characters but basically followed the story, and noted Tillotson's guide to Dickens' many literary references, chiefly fairy tales and the plays of Shakespeare, plus nods to contemporaneous events, as well as the themes of death (including near and false death) and resurrection.

I am reading A Tale of Two Cities with less enthusiasm.  I don't know why exactly. It has all the elements, including those startling turns of phrase ("the abolition of eagles"), the pointed observations. Maybe the characters or some of the dialogue. Maybe it's Dickens fatigue. I will be on the lookout however for some biography or edition of this work that tells me how Dickens came to write it, since it is so different in setting and time from his other novels.

Not So Natural

I just finished The Kid From Tomkinsville, the baseball novel for young readers by John R. Tunis, referred to in my "The Boy of Summers" piece.  I'd read (and recently re-read) the sequel, The Kid Comes Back, and made myself curious about this first book centered on Roy Tucker.

It's even more of a baseball book than the sequel, and had small pleasures for me, such as references to Brooklyn Dodgers players staying at the Schenley Hotel across from Forbes Field when they play the Pittsburgh Pirates, and where I saw my first major league games.  There indeed was a Schenley Hotel there, and visiting baseball players stayed there, including Babe Ruth on the night before he hit the last two home runs of his career, at Forbes Field.  The Schenley Hotel building is still there, and for years has been used as the student union for the University of Pittsburgh.  Forbes Field itself is gone, and the Pitt Library sits where it once did.

But what struck me most was how closely the plot of Bernard Malamud's famous novel The Natural follows The Kid From Tomkinsville.  Malamud's novel (and the even more famous Robert Redford movie from it) is renowned for treating baseball as a mythic stage.  The wikipedia entry for example stresses its use of the Fisher King myth and the Arthurian legends.  Those are clearly present, as are elements from baseball history: the shooting of a Philadelphia Phillies player by a deranged woman targeting baseball stars, as well as such lore as Babe Ruth at personal appearances in the hinterlands challenging local pitchers to strike him out.

But The Natural (published in 1952) is about a young baseball player named Roy from the hick heartland who breaks in as a phenomenal pitcher, is shot, returns as a great hitter, makes the decisive play in a game for the pennant, surrounded by (at least in the movie) thunder and lightning.  The Kid From Tomkinsville (1940) is about a young baseball player named Roy from the hick heartland who breaks in as a phenomenal pitcher, is injured (in a non-mythic but realistic baseball way, as the consequence of players jostling in the shower after a game) and returns as a great hitter, to make the decisive play in a game (not a strikeout as in Malamud's book nor a home run as in the movie but a leaping fence-crashing catch) for the pennant. With thunder and lightning.

Seems like somebody should owe the Tunis estate some cash.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Library Days: The Boy of Summers

I recall the summers of my 11th and 12th year as both my actual initiation into the joys of reading books, and in some ways, the purest and most perfect experiences of them, due largely to the revelations of discovery, the awakening, shimmering clarity of the first time.

 Between baseball, bike trips, paper routes and Saturday afternoons at the movies in those hot golden months in western Pennsylvania, my visits to the Greensburg Public Library on Main Street became more frequent and regular. There I searched and settled on my three allotted volumes, which most times I would easily finish within my two-week limit.

 I read outside, including with my back against a huge rock that I discovered in a nearby hillside vacant lot of scattered trees and bushes, my fortress of solitude. I read sprawled on the sofa in the living room, the curtains drawn against the afternoon heat, Italian style. I read in my bedroom, on my double bed or in it, within the umbra of my bedside lamp.

 I read sipping Kool-Aid, munching an apple or pear, or with a stack of saltines nearby, with butter or peanut butter between two crackers. I read restlessly and with total absorption, until I got restless again, forcing me reluctantly out of my reading dream.

My choice of reading wasn't at all precocious. I've noted the Hardy Boys novels. I also read sports books, both fiction and biographies. I was beginning to notice the author's name on a book I liked, and to look for other books they wrote. I read The Kid Comes Back, a baseball story by John R. Tunis, and I remembered his name and found other sports fictions he wrote, like Young Razzle and Go, Team, Go!

 Sports books were a staple of fiction for boys--a cache of my uncle's books I discovered in my grandmother's attic had several from his childhood. John R. Tunis was perhaps a more serious writer than most. The Kid Comes Back was a sequel to The Kid From Tomkinsville, about a rookie with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Published in 1946, it begins with the hero, Roy Tucker, in France during World War II. Like a number of Major League players, his career was interrupted by service overseas. There are thoughtful reflections on regrets for not taking better advantage of school for knowledge that would be an advantage to their survival.

Tucker is injured, and once the novel returns to baseball, it is about his struggle to overcome his injury and war experiences, and find a role as an older player, which is to support the team first. The baseball sections are detailed, with managerial strategy and game descriptions--just what we wanted at that age, as we were learning the game from radio broadcasts and--if we were lucky enough to run into knowledgeable adults--from coaches and baseball dads.

 Tunis is considered the father of modern sports books, and Roy Tucker is an obvious forerunner for Roy Hobbs in Malamud's The Natural. His young football hero in All American battles anti-Semitism and racial discrimination. Tunis also wrote on other subjects in his books for young readers. His last book in the 1960s, His Enemy, His Friend, is a poignant and eloquent novel exposing the brutalization of war, centered on the retreat from Dunkirk. In the adult world Tunis was a sports commentator and writer who could be a harsh critic of, for example, the role of money in college football.

Joe Archibald is another author's name I remembered, though I'm not sure which of his scores of sports books I read--probably novels about football and baseball. Archibald wrote fiction and sport biographies, and I also read those. One of the bios I remember (not Archibald's work, I don't think) was about Jackie Robinson (the first African American player in the majors and one of baseball's great all-time star), which opened with him at a young age trying to scratch his black skin off his arm, because of the prejudice he experienced. It was a powerful image and message. 

I read adventure stories about sailing ships and pirates, possibly under the influence of TV's "The Buccaneers" (another syndicated series imported from England and largely written by blacklisted American writers) as well as the Disney movie of Treasure Island, at least as excerpted on the Disneyland TV show.

 Though I don't remember any specifically, I may have actually read some Robert Louis Stevenson, but all I recall is that I came up against my limit in reading one of these books about seafaring--it was too long and too hard to follow. (It might have been one I secreted from the adult stacks.) But eventually I would return to such tales: a paperback of Conrad's Lord Jim was one of the books I took with me to college.

I was actually much more interested in modern stories about ships and the Navy. I particularly liked Midshipman Lee of the Naval Academy by Annapolis grad Robb White. I'm pretty sure I'd already read it when I first saw a TV series called "Men of Annapolis" (it began in 1957 and ran for only one season)-- Robb White was one of its writers. There was also a West Point Story TV series at the time, which I watched, and I found novels about West Point, too.

 I got so enthusiastic I decided that when I was college age I would try to get into the Naval Academy. I would need to be appointed by our congressman, but my father used to see him at Democratic gatherings, and I'd already corresponded with him, so I thought I had a good chance. I held onto that dream until one day, descending from my house to the road, I suddenly realized that being deaf in one ear would disqualify me.

But before that terminal thought, I actually did go to the Naval Academy. During my 11th summer I spent several weeks at my cousins on the eastern shore of Maryland, and when my parents drove down to pick me up, we detoured to Annapolis for a quick drive through the Academy grounds, pausing long enough for me to hop out and have my picture taken.

 Something else happened on that trip. As we were piling into the Ford to leave Federalsburg, my Aunt Toni produced a tin of her homemade cookies and a cardboard box of old science fiction magazines which I assume had belonged to my Uncle Bill. These were the classic s/f pulps with boldly colored art on the covers, containing mostly short stories. It was a long drive, and I spent it in the back seat, reading story after story while munching chocolate chip cookies, nut rolls and jumbalones in the speeding summer light.

American science fiction was largely that--short stories published in the pulps, and it had been that way since the 1920s. The relatively few science fiction novels were usually cheap paperbacks. This was still a pulp genre.

 But in the 1950s, several publishers started a science fiction novel series for young readers--especially baby boomers like me, because there were a lot of us. Alice May Norton (under the name "Andre Norton") wrote them for Ace books--I don't remember seeing these.  However, I do remember the other two.

Beginning in 1947, Robert Heinlein wrote a series of a dozen "juveniles" for Scribners. For some reason--possibly because he published short stories in Boys Life--I recognized Heinlein's name early, probably the first science fiction writer's name I knew. Or maybe I learned to recognize his name from this series.

They were published in hardback, expressly for libraries, and their success helped jumpstart hardback science fiction novels for adults. Among the differences between his adult and juvenile fiction, Heinlein said, was that "the books for boys are somewhat harder to read because younger readers relish tough ideas they have to chew and don't mind big words..." In fact, these novels track well with the universe Heinlein created in his work for adults.

The most famous of his series was Space Cadet, a major influence on Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, as well as inspiring the early TV series "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet" and several other such TV shows that featured variations on the Space Patrol.

 The last in the Heinlein series in 1958 (Have Space Suit--Will Travel) has a lot of technical detail on space suits which didn't yet exist, partly because as a Navy engineer in World War II Heinlein had been tasked to design a space suit (or more specifically a high altitude pressure suit), a job he passed on to another officer who would also become a prominent science fiction writer. The whole idea of the space suit began in science fiction, as did so much of early space technology.

The titles I was most likely to have seen in these years were Citizen of the Galaxy and Time for the Stars, though I have a feeling I read Starman Jones.   Tunnel in the Sky (1955) depicted a group of young people marooned on a hostile wilderness planet who split into rival groups but ultimately realize they need to all cooperate to survive.  Science fiction historian H. Bruce Franklin believes it was Heinlein's reply to William Golding's famous Lord of the Flies, published the year before.

But I don't really remember which of this series I read back then, and probably never will, because about four years ago I tracked them all down (some I had, some were actually in the university library's children's room in their original editions, and some were available to buy in quality paperback collections) and read them in order of composition. They are all excellent. I wrote about them individually here.

 Apart from the quality of storytelling and sophisticated scientific detail, they engage moral and ethical questions, and expose various forms of racism and prejudice, as well as authoritarian (and big business) excesses.

The juveniles I remember mostly vividly and even reverently were in the Winston Science Fiction series. These were written by different authors including Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, Raymond F. Jones, and several (as many as 9 of the 35) by Lester Del Rey. This series (and the other two) "seem to have started a whole generation toward becoming science fiction fans," Del Rey wrote in 1979. "People still come up to me to declare that one of my juveniles was the first science fiction book they ever read."

 Again, I don't remember which I read, though I'm fairly sure they included Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse, Rocket to Luna by Robert Marsten (one of crime novelist Ed McBain's several pseudonyms) and Son of the Stars by Raymond F. Jones (who authored This Island Earth, which was freely adapted into the script for one of the better 50s sci-fi films.)

A number of these novels were reprinted in paperback editions by Thunderchild Publishing. These have the virtue of the original cover illustrations but lack the wraparound endpages and the heft of the original. One (The Secret of the Ninth Planet by Donald Wollheim) includes a marginally informative but ultimately unsatisfying essay on the history of the series. Original editions with pristine dust jackets are collector's items, but some old hardback library copies are around, and carry more resonance for me.

The Winston series was unified by a distinctive logo and especially the eerie endpapers which were the same for every book. The cover art was distinctive, too, but I never saw it on my public library copies. But those endpaper illustrations inside the front and back were in every volume, and more than any single book, I remember poring over this art, trying to imagine a tale that would unite them into a single story.

I wouldn't have seen or read these books but for the public library. (Some cheap editions of Robb White's work were available through schools, though I don't believe they were in mine. Also, I'm not aware that any of my schools had libraries until high school, and that was a small one I hardly ever used.)

 None of these are classic authors or books, though I suspect many baby boomers remember them fondly. Their techniques and rhythms prepared me for other literature, I believe, but I still find value in them on their own. I have copies of many of them today, and have read them in recent years.

 That they reawaken and renew the boy that remains an integral part of me is only one of their functions. For I read them again with calm pleasure and active delight, as well as the thrill of re-discovery.

This is one of a series of posts on childhood reading and the origins of my relationships with books, inspired by Larry McMurtry's reflections in his autobiographical Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Earlier posts are on the Book House books, Library Days and the Hardy Boys.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Dollar Diving

Searching out the hidden gems or just indulging in guilty pleasures at a bargain--those are the delights of shopping for books at The Dollar Store (or in my case the Dollar Tree.)

Guilty pleasures that the $ store indulges for me are "celebrity" memoirs.  But not celebrities actually--people whose work in film, theatre, music, TV I respect.  My first such purchase was actor John Lithgow's autobio Drama: An Actor's Education (Harper Perennial), which was interesting beyond the personal (that he had an affair with Liv Ullmann was a surprise.)  The "education" aspect applies his own experiences to the attempt to get the kind of work that leads to a fulfilling creative career.  He's clear that his affable and pliable personality helped and occasionally hurt him, that luck as well as determination, work and talent played a significant part.  Not a new combination but unique in each case, and the way it all happens is its own story, and we love stories.

Plus for me his book revealed that we have a friend in common (David Ansen, his Harvard roommate, who I knew as a film reviewer in Boston) and, in its opening pages, he put me onto a book I've since acquired and am enjoying, a 1939 anthology of short stories edited by Somerset Maugham, Teller Of Tales.

Next was Billy Crystal's autobio Still Foolin' Em (Holt)  I could have done with fewer aging jokes, but once it became about his amazing life, pretty absorbing.  His ties to his early life and family informed every step of his career, and he made some astonishing friendships (Muhammad Ali for one) that lasted.  He lived in this particular strata of powerful people, but within it, they were (in his telling) kind to each other, or at least to him. That was intriguing.

Most recently I've read Play On, the memoir by Fleetwood Mac co-founder and drummer Mick Fleetwood with journalist Anthony Bozza (Little, Brown.) Fleetwood's book is well-organized and told in a consistent voice. It deals with his personal relationships as well as musical accomplishments.  Accounts of both benefit from interviews with others, and in the case of his first ex-wife, her own memoir (Jenny Boyd, sister of Patti Boyd, who met George Harrison on the set of A Hard Day's Night, married him, and left him for Eric Clapton. The pop world of that era was decidedly inbred.)  The book also is by a 65 year old man who was still performing when it was published in 2014, and so benefits from maturity while it makes an effort to communicate the feeling of the time.

We know these artists from their works, and especially in the case of music, our memories adhere to moments in our own lives, often fraught with emotion.  Fleetwood Mac represented something particular to me in the 1970s, which had nothing to do with the band itself, only with their music when and how I received it.

But I've got at least a dollar's worth of curiosity about their reality.  I knew a little about the complicated personal relationships within the band  from occasional press accounts and a bit of personal experience (I stayed with a friend in Santa Monica who was also occasionally hosting secret liaisons of Stevie Nicks with the Beach Boy's Dennis Wilson; so Stevie and I apparently shared a bathroom.)  But as this book demonstrates, I really had no idea.

Similarly I was on the fringes of the rock music culture in the 70s but wasn't aware of the apotheosis of excess represented by Fleetwood Mac on the road at the height of its fame.  Mick Fleetwood emerges as basically good-hearted and trying to make sense of it all, but let's say he wasn't a fast learner.  What's amazing to contemplate is that all this emotional chaos and all this excess went into creating what I hear as possibly the cleanest, most efficient and yet emotional sound any pop music of the period produced.  Clearly the songs expressed emotions from these relationships, but how did all that excess lead to such economical music? Was it all really necessary?  That's the question it leaves with me, unanswerable.

Then there are the hidden gems--the discoveries, or the books by authors you know and admire.  I've read a half dozen of Jonathan Lethem's books of fiction, including Chronic City, a novel I especially liked.  So as soon as I saw it, I grabbed Lucky Alan and Other Stories (Doubleday 2015.)

You wouldn't call Lethem a realistic and naturalistic writer, but sometimes he comes close.  The title story and the first in the collection, "Lucky Alan" reminded me of the askew realism of Chronic City.  The subject of the collection's last and longest story ("Pending Vegan"), a young father with his family at Sea World, is something the young John Updike would have written about, although with different effect.

But other stories are more tilted towards the transparently surreal.  Some are riffs on newer forms, like the graphic novel ("Their Back Pages") or the blog: "The Dreaming Jaw, the Salivating Ear" is told in the blog form, with the most recent (the end) at the top, or the beginning. "Procedure in Plain Air," on the other hand, seems to be in the style of Kafka, including something like his length.

As a reading experience, the stylistic changes are a bit jarring, but then it's a story collection.  One or two seem like exercises but most have qualities of old fashioned stories, including sudden revelations at the end.

It occurred to me after finishing this volume that, though I took out a few of Lethem's books from the library, his books that I acquired were the result of accident, in the sense that I did not seek them out, order them, etc.  That's worked out pretty well so far and it seems a good procedure for me in the future.