Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana (1863-1952), philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.
World War II. Korean War. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Each war and generation of soldiers shared common kinship but experienced different landscapes – geographical, political and cultural. We are losing the warriors of the earlier wars as the history of more recent combat is still being written.
The ending of the U.S. military draft on Jan. 27, 1973 resulted in most Americans today having no direct link to a fallen soldier or a Gold Star family. News stories and Hollywood movies depict experiences and aftereffects of war. We watch from a distance and are moved. Then we return to the business of our everyday lives. Soldiers who experience war, however, bring it home in memory, an unseen wound. Rarely do they share their stories; when they do, self-editing usually softens the narrative for the rest of us. Important details and insights are lost.
Books do more than movies and news reports. They engage us and we absorb them. They become part of our thinking, consciously or not. They remind us that beyond observing Veterans Day and Memorial Day, thanking veterans for their service or the families of fallen soldiers for their sacrifice on the rare occasion we might cross their paths, we owe it to the heroes among us to never forget how they’ve made it possible for us to live day to day without war at our door.
Here’s a diverse selection of the best non-fiction and fiction books of military experiences in WWII, the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan:
WWII We Band of Angels – Elizabeth Norman (non-fiction) Willie and Joe: The WWII Years – Bill Mauldin (graphics)
Korea The Coldest Winter – David Halberstam (non-fiction) The Hunters – James Salter (fiction)
Vietnam In Pharoah’s Army – Tobias Wolff (memoir) The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien (metafiction) Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes (fiction)
Iraq House to House – David Bellavia (memoir) The Snake Eaters – Owen West (non-fiction) The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers (fiction)
Afghanistan War – Sebastian Junger (non-fiction) Soldier Girls – Helen Thorpe (non-fiction) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain (fiction)
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chosePaperbacks—The Hybrid Book?from August 10, 2014 after discovering that I had to adjust my old bookshelves to hold my new paperbacks since book dimensions have changed. That’s not all that has changed in the publishing world so it’s worth looking at the history of paperbacks… you might be surprised. (By the way, I never did buy an eReader.)
When I’m home, I prefer to read hardcover books but when I travel, I choose paperbacks. The reason is obvious: portability. Eventually, I will give in and get an eReader because it trumps paperbacks for portability, except that paperbacks don’t require battery power. With digital books, I will miss the sensory pleasures one gets with the touch or smell of paper that paperbacks offer. Even with an eReader, I’ll probably still carry a paperback when I travel.
I hadn’t given much thought to the health of the paperback industry until a couple of months ago when I saw an obituary for a man named Oscar Dystel. No, I hadn’t heard of him either, but I learned he was the publisher who “saved the paperback” in the mid-1950s.
When Dystel arrived at Bantam Books, founded in 1945 to maximize profits from new paperback production advances, the company had gorged on success but overextended itself and was on the brink of bankruptcy. As Bantam’s new president, Dystel reduced inventory while expanding publication to classics, school and children’s books. He also had a keen sense for what the public would respond to: appealing covers on the outside and riveting stories on
the inside. In just a few short years, he turned around Bantam Books, setting new standards that other publishers followed.
Another major paperback publisher, Penguin, celebrated its history in 2009 with a commemorative retrospective book, The Book of Penguin. It opens, “This is a book about the most advanced form of entertainment ever. You can pause it at any time. Rewind and replay it if you miss a bit … It’ll fit in your pocket. It’s interactive … It’s pretty cheap. It’s completely free to share. And it lasts a lifetime. This is a book about books.”
In the five years after that self-celebration, eBooks swept the market. In 2011, Amazon reported that eBooks outsold paperbacks and hardcovers combined. The upward trajectory of eBooks continued, at the expense of paperbacks. The 2013 BookStats report noted that eBook sales grew 45 percent since 2011, capturing 20% of the trade market. More ominously, Publishers Weekly said trade paperbacks saw a sales decline of 8.6 percent and total mass-market paperback sales fell by 20.5 percent between 2011 and 2012.
Before you mourn the death of paperbacks, consider this: sales reports don’t account for secondhand sales. There are no secondhand eBooks but secondhand paperbacks are wildly popular. Also, there are some genres that don’t sell well as eBooks but flourish in paperback form; popular narrative nonfiction and the pop-science books, for example.
The strongest hope for the continuation of paperbacks may lay with the intense market interest in indie books, a key force behind the growing popularity of indie bookstores. Readers are searchers. The physicality and staff experience offered by those stores offer “discoverability” – an element missing from digital books and online booksellers. Paperbacks make discoverability more affordable.
The role of books in all their forms is evolving. Fortunately, there’s a place for all of them.
Update: Sales of consumer e-books plunged 17% in the U.K. in 2016, according to the Publishers Association. Sales of physical books and journals went up by 7% over the same period, while children’s books surged 16%.
The same trend is on display in the U.S., where e-book sales declined 18.7% over the first nine months of 2016, according to the Association of American Publishers. Paperback sales were up 7.5% over the same period, and hardback sales increased 4.1%.
According to the Pew Research Center, 65% of Americans reported reading a printed book in the past year, compared to only 28% who read an e-book. Sales of e-readers declined by more than 40% between 2011 and 2016.
October isn’t only for harvesting crops from the field. It’s also the start of the two most bountiful months for literary fiction from the most acclaimed authors. You’ll also see books in other categories by best-selling and award-winning authors spill fourth in a cornucopia of tempting delights. Why is this? And what is a cash-challenged booklover to do?
The approaching winter signals more time indoors and a host of holidays, a perfect confluence for book sales. Book stores start setting up holiday displays in October. Publishers want their new books to be front and center. The uptick in competition for your attention begins in October with a steady drumbeat you’ll remember when it’s time to choose gift books and your own reading list. The best, the brightest and the most popular are rolled out with great fanfare.
Another reason for the spike in new titles from top authors is the timing of submissions for major book awards: autumn is awards season. The 2017 National Book Award, for example, considers books that were published between December 1, 2016 and November 30, 2017. Like film studios jockeying for timely placement toward the eligibility deadline, publishers want their best books to be buzzing in the judge’s minds.
Check out this smorgasbord of great new releases in just-about every genre:
Novels Manhattan Beach – Jennifer Egan Reservoir 13 – John McGregor The Rules of Magic – Alice Hoffman
Speculative Fiction Future Home of the Living God – Louise Erdrich
Science Fiction Artemis – Andy Weir
Legal Thriller The Rooster Bar – John Grisham
Biography Leonardo Da Vinci – Walter Isaacson
Memoir Where the Past Begins – Amy Tan
History Greater Gotham – Mike Wallace
Politics/Current Events We Were Eight Years in Power – Ta-Nehisi Coates
Science The River of Consciousness – Oliver Sacks
Short Story Collection Fresh Complaint – Jeffrey Eugenides
Essays The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick
Young Adult Turtles All the Way Down – John Green
The flip side of the booklover’s literary buffet is the cost of obtaining so many prize reads. My suggestion is to visit your local independent book store where staff is likely to be more familiar with the books they sell and can guide you to the most rewarding reads for your interests and within your budget.
Once you’ve run through your budget and have only pocket money to spare, head to the nearest public library that has a used book store. This is also the season the library has to make room for new editions by moving a substantial number of books to their store. You won’t find the best just-released books there but you have a good chance to snag the best books of the past three years, as well as older books you’ve had on your reading list. You’ll get these books for a bargain while helping to support your library.
If you also need to make room on your shelves by letting go of some books, consider donating them to your library. What goes around comes around.
Whatever you thought you knew about Puerto Rico has probably been changed by the news and images coming from the Caribbean’s “Rich Port” in the days since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Maria’s wrath made history in the Caribbean and its impact on the United States will likely also become historic: economically, culturally and politically.
It’s time to reconsider Puerto Rico. Many great books bring it to life, opening the door to the island and its people, the past and the potential for our shared future. They include:
Non-Fiction Vida – Oscar Lewis Puerto Rico, A Political & Cultural History – Arturo Morales Carrión When I Was Puerto Rican – Esmeralda Santiago History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of Its People – Fernando Picó
Fiction Eccentric Neighborhood – Rosario Ferré Stories from Puerto Rico – Robert L. Muckley & Adela Martinez
Anthology Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings – Roberto Santiago
Poetry Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos – Julia de Burgos
“Immigrant goes to America,
Many hellos in America;
Nobody knows in America
Puerto Rico’s in America!” – America (from West Side Story) – lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose Rejoice, Bookworms! from September 15, 2013 after going on a shopping spree for more books than my shelves can hold (several shelves are now 2 rows deep!). In addition to boosting brain function, studies also revealed that booklovers tend to be more empathetic, a much-needed quality in today’s world.
Have you seen those ads for Lumosity, MyBrainTrainer and other “brain gyms,” where you can fork over $15 or more every month to keep your brain youthful? The fear of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia in later life is as common as the fear of heart attacks and strokes. While some of us head off to the fitness center, others are investing in online brain games. Mental exercises, say “the experts,” can keep you sharp in old age, just as physical exercises keep your body fit through the years.
Time to break out the confetti and rejoice, fellow bookworms! According to research findings reported this past July in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, reading books and writing can do as much for you as ready-made mind exercises.
Findings from a six-year research study, supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Illinois Department of Public Health, are remarkable. Memory decline was reduced 32 percent in bookworms who continued reading into old age, compared to engaging in average mental activity. Those who neither read nor wrote frequently experienced a 48 percent decline in memory. “We shouldn’t underestimate the effects of everyday activities, such as reading and writing, on our children, ourselves and our parents or grandparents,” says study author Robert S. Wilson, a neuropsychologist at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Save your online “brain gym” membership fees and pick up a book instead. Don’t waste another moment. Just like physical exercise, the sooner you start and maintain a regimen, the better you’ll be in the long run. A seven-year study of 2,000 healthy individuals aged 18 to 60 found that mental agility peaks at 22. By 27, mental processes like reasoning, spatial visualization and speed of thought began to decline.
So let your mind take leaps and bounds. Let it take flight. Delight your synapses. Read a book. Then share it with a friend.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose Why Writers Write from September 22, 2013 as I reflect on the many award-winning, bestselling authors I’ve met during the past three seasons ofBOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™. We’ve completed our shortened third season with changes to the events that have been enthusiastically received by authors and booklovers alike. Exciting plans are underway for a full 2018 season! Meanwhile…
I recently chatted with two writer friends about why we write. This is a question I’ve pondered frequently since becoming aware of The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, recently published in English by Random House. What makes this best-selling book especially intriguing is that the author (only 13 years old at the time of first publication in Japan in 2007) is autistic and his autism built steep walls over which it seemed impossible to express his thoughts or feelings.
The translator of the book into English is bestselling novelist (Cloud Atlas) David Mitchell, whose son also has autism. Mitchell has noted that the physical and mental challenges Naoki faced in writing a book is a powerful testament to the human need for connection. In a Slate Book Review, Mitchell compared the writing challenge Naoki has to “the act of carrying water in cupped palms across a bustling Times Square or Piccadilly Circus would be to you or me.”
In a Publisher Weekly article, Mitchell said, “Naoki does have autism, and pretty severe autism at that. And yet, he both experiences and analyzes emotions, even if he can’t express these in direct speech, and has to type about them. If we ‘neurotypicals’ don’t think this is possible, I believe it shows the paucity of our imaginations and understanding.”
Naoki Higashida still writes. He keeps a nearly daily blog and has become a respected autism advocate. He continues to face – and overcome – formidable obstacles to writing.
Which brings me back to the question: why do writers write? It is probably for the same reason dancers dance, singers sing, visual artists paint, draw or sculpt, and musicians play instruments. It begins with the need to express our humanness. We say we are compelled to do it; we give birth to a brainchild (or brainchildren), much as one must give birth to physical children once they have formed within us. And though we would likely do it even if no one paid attention, we are most gratified when people do notice, especially if they respond positively.
From the art of prehistoric cave dwellers to Twitter fans today, we need to leave an imprint that claims our moment in time. That says “I was here and I had value.”
Ask a writer why he or she writes and you’ll invite any number of answers. I think it comes down to survival. We write in order to connect something within ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. We write to feel a sense of belonging to something beyond ourselves. To belong means to not be alone. To not be alone improves our chance to survive. Finally, to write means to “survive” beyond our mortality; to continue speaking. To hope there will be at least one person listening.
Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark. – Rabindranath Tagore
Who among us has not had our faith tested? Even an atheist has faith in something. At this moment in time, most of us are experiencing a test of faith, whether up close and personal (happening to us or loved one) or viewing crises from some distance (happening to those we don’t personally know but identify with).
When life seems unfair, even blindly cruel, our sense of balance is thrown. We seek explanation, justification or, at least, perseverance through storms of circumstance. When there is little or nothing left to hold onto, we cling to faith. Faith is a uniquely human universal experience.
When we feel especially vulnerable or alone, solace and inspiration can be found in some of our best literature. They help renew and nourish our faith, whether the source of our faith comes from humanity or something beyond. How many of these books – fiction and non-fiction– have you read:
Fiction The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks The Kite Runner – Khaled Husseini In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist – Ruchama King Feuerman The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah
Non-Fiction Tuesdays with Morrie – Mitch Albom Mountains Beyond Mountains – Tracy Kidder Letter to My Daughter – Maya Angelou I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai Last Chance Mustang – Mitchell Bornstein
My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear. – Anne Lamott
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. Seeing parents with young children waiting for yellow school buses in the morning, brings back memories of standing at the curb with my young ones, whether reading short stories and poems or fashioning my own fractured fairy tales to entertain them. My own school years were not always so lyrical. Here’s what I wrote on September 13, 2015 about great books that return us to our school years.
One of my recurring nightmares is finding myself back in school, either unable to find my classroom or being totally unprepared for a subject I learned a long time ago, maybe trying to read something and seeing only gibberish. Sound familiar?
In the light of day, fortunately, school (especially at the start of a new year) looks a whole lot brighter. Everything is fresh and new. Books and doors are there to be opened, new people to meet, the world at one’s feet with many paths to explore. No matter how the coming year unfolds, when the cycle begins in late August or early September, there’s excitement in the air.
Our school years help form us, leaving indelible memories. The experiences, as we grow through the school years and beyond, are potent. This is why schools and the people who walk through their halls appear in so many great books. How many of these have you read?
Good-bye, Mr. Chips—James Hilton The Blackboard Jungle—Evan Hunter Up the Down Staircase—Bel Kaufman The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—Muriel Spark Sophie’s World—Jostein Gaarder The Secret History—Donna Tartt Infinite Jest—David Foster Wallace Harry Potter—J.K. Rowling The Cheese Monkeys—Chipp Kidd Special Topics in Calamity Physics—Marisha Pessl
Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France
Katje is Dutch for kitten or little cat. On August 20th, 2017, I gave my Katje, the little cat with the big heart, the last gift I could. I kept a promise I made to her nine years ago that every day of her life with me would be a good one, and once they could not be good, she would not have to endure them.
So many of my friends and some of my relatives have had to say goodbye to their beloved pets in recent months. Each loss is another broken heart, mended over time by memories that bring smiles instead of tears. Understanding this is what allows us to love a pet we will have to say goodbye to and whose leaving us will break our heart.
Here’s what some famous authors have said about cats:
What greater gift than the love of a cat? – Charles Dickens
I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through. – Jules Verne
Of all God’s creatures, there is only one that cannot be made slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat. – Mark Twain
If you want to write, keep cats. – Aldous Huxley
A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not. – Ernest Hemingway
How we behave toward cats here below determines our status in heaven. – Robert A. Heinlein
I dedicate this week’s Book.ed blog post to Katje, offering nine (for a cat’s nine lives) recommended books in which memorable cats play a pivotal role:
For Young Children Puss in Boots – an Italian/French fairy tale in various forms (1550 – 1697) The Cat in the Hat – Dr. Seuss (1957)
For Older Children Star Ka’at – Andre Norton (1976) Catwings – Ursula K. Le Guin (1988)
For Children & Adults Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll (1865) Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – T.S. Eliot (1939)
For Adults The Silent Miaow , Translated from the Feline – Paul Gallico (1964) The Master & Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (1967) The Cat Inside – William S. Burroughs (1986)
I was living in Colorado and the weather was warm, so that would put the solar eclipse between 1983 and 1987. Near midday, the temperature quickly dipped several degrees, chilling the air. The landscape darkened but not the way it does at dusk. There was no gold-to-copper wash across ground or sky, only a bluish gray shadow. I allowed myself to imagine the fear people must have felt before science revealed the matching of sun and moon in the same arc.
A solar eclipse is awesome. A scientific explanation doesn’t remove its magic or inspiration… especially for writers. Whether or not you’ll be in the viewing path of the August 21st full solar eclipse, you can experience its impact through some wonderful books, both fiction and non-fiction.
Just in time for this year’s rare full eclipse, author David Baron has produced an ambitious non-fiction book, American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World. An extensive list of the best eclipse-related non-fiction books and articles, as judged by members of the American Astronomical Society, can be found at the AAS Solar Eclipse Task Force website.
And then there’s great fiction. How many of these novels involving a solar eclipse have you read?
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain (1889) Nightfall – Isaac Asimov (short story 1941; novel 1990) Voyage: a novel of 1896 – Sterling Hayden (1976) Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne – Stephen King (1992)
And for young readers: Every Soul a Star – Wendy Mass (2008)
A solar eclipse lasts only one to three minutes. Reading a great book entertains and informs for a few hours; its impact lasts a lifetime.
We’ve all experienced it but “coming of age” – transitioning from childhood to adulthood — doesn’t happen at the same time or in the same way for everyone. In fact, I’m still waiting for some middle-aged friends to grow up! For most of us, and for most literary characters, “coming of age” occurs sometime during the teen years. In real time, it is usually angst-ridden, yet in later memory, we often find humor in it; not always so for our literary counterparts.
One of the best recent coming-of-age novels is Alex George’s Setting Free the Kites and I’m delighted to announce that the August 27th BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ will host the award-winning, bestselling author and his latest work. The book is already a staff favorite at the Book Bin in Northbrook, IL — voted Make It Better magazine’s Best Book Store on Chicago’s North Shore – where we’re hosting this summer’s events.
Setting Free the Kites strikes the right balance between poignancy and humor, a heart-rending story full of charm and quirkiness that explores the pain, joy, and glories of young friendship. It is a worthy successor to the author’s acclaimed previous novel, A Good American. If you are in the Chicagoland area on August 27th, I hope you will join us for great books, great wines, great people and great times at the Book Bin.
Meanwhile, how many of these other notable coming-of-age novels have you read:
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott (1868) The Yearling – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith (1943) A Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger (1951) Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin (1953) To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (1960) Bless Me, Ultima – Rudolfo Anaya (1972) The House on Mango Street – Sandra Cisneros (1984) Harry Potter (series) – J.K. Rowling (1997-2016) The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri (2003) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie (2007) All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (2014)
A cousin of mine, Margaret Bergmann Lambert, died on July 25th at the age of 103. The New York Times and Washington Post were two of the many news outlets to write obituaries about this remarkable woman you probably haven’t heard of.
Known to our family by her nickname “Gretel”, Margaret was a Jewish German-born world-class all-around athlete, excelling in the shot-put, the discus and other events as well as the high jump. Having moved to England to avoid increasing antisemitism in her homeland, she won the British high-jump championship in 1935. Hitler’s government pressured her family to bring her back to Germany where she went on to tie a German record for the high jump.
As the 1936 Berlin Olympics approached, Germany needed to avoid an American boycott by appearing unbiased in its Olympic team selection. Threats to Gretel’s family coerced her into Olympic training for propaganda purposes. Despite all likelihood that Gretel would have won Gold for Germany, the Nazi government never intended to send her to the Olympics. Two weeks before the opening of the Olympic Games, she was denied participation. Weeks later, her accomplishments were stricken from German record books.
Gretel immigrated to the U.S. in 1937 with only $10, all the money the Nazi government allowed her to take out of the country. She forged a career for herself outside of athletics, married well, had children, grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Eventually, three stadiums were re-named in her honor: one in New York, one in her birthplace of Laupheim, and one in Berlin, the city where she had been denied her place in Olympic history.
We know it takes a special kind of person to become an Olympic-class athlete. War is one more hurdle the best of the best overcome. In addition to Margaret Bergmann Lambert’s book, other great testimonials to human perseverance of Olympic quality during wartime you should check out include:
Triumph (Jesse Owens) – Jeremy Schaap Unbroken (Louis Zamporini) – Laura Hillenbrand The Boys in the Boat (the University of Washington rowing team) – Daniel James Brown For the Glory (Eric Liddell) – Duncan Hamilton
Okay, we’re in the middle of summer, with its relentless weighty heat, white-washed days, fiery sunsets, rhythmic zing-songs of cicadas, and the call of the coast; the coast at the ocean, the lake or the river. Where terra firma gives way to caressing water, we seek our temporary escape. It’s a good place to bring a book. And when we can’t make it to the real coast, a good book can still take us there.
To get you through the rest of the summer, a handful of acclaimed novels where a coast plays a key role are offered; how many have you read?
The Awakening – Kate Chopin (1899) Death in Venice – Thomas Mann (1912) The Sea, The Sea – Iris Murdoch (1978) The Sea – John Banville (2005) On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan (2007)
Current daily news reports remind us how important words are. Spoken and heard or written and read, good communication depends on clarity of thought and intention. Can Artificial Intelligence improve our writing? And what might that mean for authors?
Sir Harold Evans, distinguished editor and author of Do I Make Myself Clear?, makes a strong case against the evils that have infiltrated much of today’s writing. His greatest angst comes not from errors in grammar and spelling, but from the type of intentional deception too frequently found in political and business statements. His anger is aimed at the lack of moral responsibility for fairness.
Evans is not a fan of Twitter. “Twitter’s wonderful for assertion. It’s absolutely useless for argument. You cannot deploy an argument of even the simplest kind in 140 characters.” On the other hand, Evans doesn’t believe in dithering around with useless verbiage. He observes the sage advice from his wife, editor Tina Brown: “Get to the point. Your point’s down here in paragraph 29. What the hell are you doing with it down there?”
The rules of good writing for articles and essays also apply to books, fiction as well as non-fiction. Readers need to understand what the author intends to convey and they must believe what they’re reading.
San Francisco-based tech firm Grammarly uses machine learning and Artificial Intelligence to improve users’ compositions; not just spelling and grammar but also recommendations on readability and clarity. The free app, available for the Chrome browser, Microsoft Word and Windows desktop is designed for a variety of compositions. Grammarly hopes to expand its capabilities, even to the point of helping users integrate humor.
So far, Grammarly does not suggest it can turn writers into successful book authors. “It’s not for replacing humans,” said Grammarly co-founder Max Lytvyn. “It makes humans more powerful.”
I suppose AI will one day (if not today) be able to figure the story elements and writing styles that appeal to the masses and create best sellers. But the best books, the best stories and the best writing will always need human curiosity, imagination and spirit to reach beyond algorithms. It takes a human mind and a human heart to break the rules.
The appeal of horses dates back to the earliest days of mankind, as evidenced by cave drawings. Humans began to domesticate horses some 6000 years ago and indications are that domestication was widespread by 3000 BC. They have been used in warfare for most of recorded history but they have filled many other roles over the millenia. Unlike other large animals that were tamed for work, horses also became popular for leisure activities and as beloved pets. Admiration for them took on mythic proportions.
Some stats: There are more than 58,000,000 horses in the world; more than 350 breeds. A 2004 “poll” of more than 50,000 viewers from 73 countries of cable TV show “Animal Planet” placed the horse as the world’s 4th favorite animal. The U.S. far outpaces other countries with a horse population of more than 10,000,000.
No wonder that horses have populated some of our favorite books over time. Fiction and non-fiction, from our first children’s picture books to adult novels. We love horses and we love great books about horses. One of the most popular BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ of last season featured author Mitchell Bornstein and his debut non-fiction book, Last Chance Mustang, an Elle magazine’s Reader’s Choice winner.
I couldn’t be more excited to announce that the first of this summer’s special BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES™ events will welcome the New York Times #1 best-selling author of The Eighty Dollar Champion, Elizabeth Letts and her newest blockbuster, The Perfect Horse. It’s the remarkable true story of the heroic rescue of priceless Lippizan horses in the closing days of World War II, a compelling account for animal lovers and World War II buffs alike.
Elizabeth Letts fans will want to make their reservations for this rare Chicagoland appearance on Monday, July 24th, at the Book Bin in Northbrook. We’ll be uncorking some fabulous wines (and a tasty non-alcoholic beverage) while socializing with the author and other guests, engaging in a group conversation, having books personally signed and participating in a raffle for some goodies. The event takes place from 5:30-6:30 p.m. and reservations can be made by calling (847)498-9999.
You can check out this event and keep up with future event announcements at the Book.ed website.
As we approach Independence Day 2017, Americans find themselves embroiled in a war of words over what it means to be a patriot. With its fuse lit in not-so-distant past elections, we’ve moved from civil discourse to civil war… perhaps uncivil war is more accurate.
Which leads to the question, “What does it mean to be a patriot?” Has the meaning changed over time? Can any group of Americans lay claim to being more patriotic than other groups? Are there common values and aspirations among our diverse demographics that can more closely bind us for the good of our country’s future… which meets the true definition of “patriotism”?
And don’t we owe it to those who sacrificed for our freedom to do more than hold backyard barbecues and light fireworks on the Fourth of July?
Answers to these questions, or at least inspiration to guide us, can be found in many of the excellent books about patriotism that are available from booksellers and libraries. Here’s your starter list of five books for adults and two books for children:
Lincoln – Carl Sandburg A Patriot’s Handbook – Caroline Kennedy 1776 – David McCullough Selected Addresses of Frederick Douglass
The Ethics of Patriotism – John Kleinig, Simon Keller, Igor Primoratz God Bless America – Irving Berlin Liberty – Lynn Curlee
All sorts of things popping as I prepare to leave for an 8-day vacation (means no business, no emails, no social media) in New York City. When I return to Chicago, I’ll be dropped into the middle of preparations for a couple of very special BOOKS ‘n’ BOTTLES events for July and August (stay tuned for news in future blogs).
Meanwhile, I want to encourage all you writers – published and aspiring – when you feel like no agent or publisher has the wisdom to recognize the brilliance of your manuscript. Keep plugging away. To inspire you, check out “The rejection letters: how publishers snubbed 11 great authors”. Feeling rejected? You’ll be in great company while you laugh out loud!
Like so many modern technological “advances”, Amazon has the capacity to be a boon or a bane. In the book world, it allows us access to hard-to-find or out-of-print books and allows students to rent costly textbooks at a fraction of the cover price. At the same time, it competes with brick-and-mortar bookstores that act as community centers and it strong-arms both authors and publishers to accept its lower prices.
Fortunately, Amazon’s attempt at establishing its own bookstores has been less than stellar while local dedicated independent booksellers are flourishing. You can’t teach an elephant to tap dance and Amazon bookstores can’t cater to booklovers the way community stores can.
I admit to using Amazon for many kinds of purchases when buying locally is problematic due to size, weight or unusually high cost, or when the item I want is not available. But a new, surreptitious move by Amazon should be alarming to anyone who cares about the health of the book business.
Until recently, a visit to the Amazon site for books differentiated between new and used books. Want a new book, click the appropriate button and you’d be sent to the publisher. Now, in select interactions, you could be sent to a third-party seller who is selling you a book that appears new but is actually used. And you won’t know it.
This bait and switch may seem innocuous. After all, if it appears new and you assume it is new, what’s the harm? The harm is that a used book will have previously been recorded as a purchase; the publisher and author will receive no compensation for the sale of your used book.
I am not against the sale of used books, just as I’m not against checking books out of a library. Both practices expand the circulation of books to more readers. I am against misleading sales practices that disrupt the fine balance that sustains the flow of books and supports the people who produce them: writers, publishers, stores. Each needs to earn a fair share of sales to survive and flourish. Amazon’s latest ploy is an unnecessary fraud, simply to further line its own pockets.
It is in your hands to stop Amazon from ripping everyone off. All it takes is to avoid clicking the buy button for a “new” book if it goes to a third-party seller on the Amazon site. Better yet, order the book from your local independent bookstore. You’ll be helping to nurture the garden of literary delights, now and for generations to come.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose Shorts in the Summer from June 23, 2013 (updated, with an expanded book list) to get you ready for cool summer reading.
Summer calls for shorts. Not just the kind you wear. The kind you read. Winter is a good time to pick up a novel, a memoir, a complex text. Something you can sink your teeth into like a thick stew that fills you up with comfort through long, cold nights. But summer is all about brevity. A day at the beach. A cool mouthful of ice cream. Something comfortable you can dip into and out of. This doesn’t mean short stories are flimsy, fly-away and forgettable. Some of our greatest literature is found in the short stories of such authors as Fitzgerald, Poe, O’Connor, Chekhov, du Maurier, Asimov, de Maupissant… and my personal hero, O.Henry. The list could go on well beyond summer. Great writers understand the challenge and power of the short story.
It’s true that a full-length story establishes lasting relationships through details and complexities of plot that a short story lacks. But a well-crafted short story can stay with you far beyond its reading. If you think that fewer words mean less intensity, I offer up what is possibly the shortest story ever written and challenge you to remain unmoved:
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” This six-word story is often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, although it actually was scripted by someone else into a play about Hemingway. Does it matter? You get the point.
Several acclaimed contemporary novelists have collected short stories into books (check out the shorts of Harry Crews, Bobbie Ann Mason, Stephen King, Lorrie Moore, Jim Shepard, Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and Annie Proulx). You can also find great short stories in literary journals such as Tin House, Granta, Ploughshares, Crazy Horse, Black Warrior, Prairie Schooner and Glimmer Train.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose How Shall We Remember Them? from May 24, 2015 (with an expanded book list) to honor those who serve and sacrifice on behalf of the rest of us.
Who kept the faith and fought the fight; The glory theirs, the duty ours. – Wallace Bruce
Everyone wants to be on the right side of history but history is still in flux. Regardless of your political leaning, you’ve probably noticed how people’s view of the Iraq war has changed over the years, just as the view of the Vietnam war has evolved. This adjustment of judgment is the psychological nature of all humans, not just politicians, pundits and media personalities.
One opinion that has secured firmed footing, regardless of how we feel about war: soldiers who serve in our name, risking life and limb, are heroes. Literature helps us understand and fully appreciate the lives and sacrifices of those who serve in our military, as well as the heroic families that sacrifice to support them. It also enlightens our understanding of how society (that’s us folks) relates to soldiers … and we can show our appreciation.
Regardless of which war interests you, and whether you prefer non-fiction accounts or novels carrying the theme, great books to enlighten and inspire readers abound. Here are some recommendations:
Non-Fiction Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free — Alexander Jefferson with Lewis Carlson (WWII/Europe) Unbroken — Lauren Hillenbrand (WWII/Pacific) The Ghosts of Hero Street — Carlos Harrison (WW II, Korea) Dispatches — Michael Herr (Vietnam) Jarheadv — Anthony Swofford (Persian Gulf)
vGhost Wars — Steve Coll (Afghanistan) Thank You for Your Service — David Finkel (Iraq) Fobbit — David Abrams (Iraq) Plenty of Time When We Get Home — Kayla Williams (Iraq) The Face of War — Martha Gellhorn (various)
Fiction The Red Badge of Courage — Stephen Crane (Civil War) A Farewell to Arms — Ernest Hemingway (WW I) Catch-22 — Joseph Heller (WWII) The Thin Red Line — James Jones (WW II, Pacific) Johnny Got His Gun — Dalton Trumbo (WW II) Paco’s Story — Larry Heinemann (Vietnam) Tree of Smoke — by Denis Johnson (Vietnam) The Things They Carried — Tim O’Brien (Vietnam) The Valley — John Renehan (Afghanistan) The Yellow Birds — Kevin Powers (Iraq)
How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes! – Maya Angelou
Once upon a time, libraries were categorized collections of shelved books that one could borrow. Period. My how times have changed!
Over recent decades, libraries have added audio and video materials for loan to patrons. They’ve also added programs and services for all ages. Libraries have become full citizens of the communities they serve.
My local library, in fact, hosted its first naturalization ceremony on May 9, welcoming 72 new citizens from 29 countries to the United States. Staff from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Chicago Field Office administered the special service. The Northbrook Public Library ceremony was part of a 2013 partnership between the USCIS and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, whereby the two national organizations provide support to libraries and museums by disseminating public information and hosting events linked to immigration and citizenship.
“We want to reinforce the library as a welcoming place where community is formed,” said Northbrook Public Library Assistant Director Brodie Austin. “Libraries play a critical role in helping immigrants get the information that allows them to be active, engaged citizens.”
Two days before the naturalization ceremony, I attended the library’s inaugural “Engaged Citizen Unconference”. Registered participants completed surveys that library staff used to guide the Unconference’s breakout sessions, in which attendees’ discussions were facilitated by moderators. A thought-provoking keynote address preceded the breakout sessions. The concept is still finding its way but the first meeting brought people together in genuine civil dialogue to explore important issues that face all of us today.
Instead of musty halls of dead things, today’s libraries are vivid, living entities that deserve our support. If you haven’t been to your local library recently, go check it out. You might be surprised. And I bet you’ll be inspired.
There is a void in the American museum world. We collect in central points the artifacts of civilization and honor politicians and soldiers, athletes and artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, but we neglect our writers. In a country established as an idea explicated in written documents and embellished by generations of poets, novelists, and critics, the case for commemorating the written word is self-evident. After all, what is written describes a people and what is celebrated defines their values. — Jim Leach, former Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities
It’s surprising when you realize that in this innovative nation of creative talent, we have never had a museum dedicated to American writers and their work. Until now.
On May 16, 2017, Chicago will celebrate the debut of the American Writers Museum, whose mission is “to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives.”
According to its website The American Writers Museum will:
• Educate the public about American writers – past and present
• Engage visitors to the Museum in exploring the many exciting worlds created by the spoken and written word
• Enrich and deepen appreciation for good writing in all its forms
• Inspire visitors to discover, or rediscover, a love of reading and writing
Through innovative and dynamic state-of-the-art exhibitions, as well as compelling programming, the American Writers Museum will educate, enrich, provoke, and inspire the public.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose Of Coffee Tables and Books from November 20, 2014 because coffee table books make wonderful gifts for special Mothers and Fathers – and the history of coffee table books makes for interesting conversation!
My husband used to chide me when I referred to the low, square-shaped table in our living room as a coffee table. “The (low rectangular) table in our family room is a coffee table,” he would say. “A square table is a cocktail table.” Well, the joke is on him. Purists say that a cocktail table can be square or round; a coffee table is round or oval. Whatever you call the low table you place in front of your sofa, if you keep a large, attractive, illustrated book on it to look at casually or inspire conversation with guests, it is a coffee table book.
The concept of books meant for display dates back to at least the 16th century. An essay by Michel de Montaigne refers to “a book to lay in the parlor window….” This was a putdown of a book that had little literary merit but might impress those who did not take the time to read it.
Some credit David R. Brower with introducing the “modern coffee table book” to the U.S. market in 1960. His first effort in a series published for the Sierra Club was This is the American Earth, a stunning collection of Ansel Adams photos with text by Nancy Newhall. Brower may have been inspired by British tomes using the term “coffee table books”; they appeared there as far back as the 1800s.
Coffee table books have become so popular that some consider them a genre or sub-genre. Most of them feature high quality photography but some highlight art or interesting subjects. They make great gifts for people you care about … including yourself. You’re sure to find a favorite among these:
400 Photographs – Ansel Adams The Family of Man – Edward Steichen Life 70 Years of Extraordinary Photography – Editors of Life The Art Book – Phaedon Press DIGNITY: In Honor of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – Dana Gluckstein At Home with Books – Estelle Ellis, Caroline Seebohm, Christopher Simon Sykes Gnomes – Wil Huygen 1,000 Places to See Before You – Patricia Schultz Star Wars: The Blueprints – J. W. Rinzler Echoes of Earth – L. Sue Baugh Atlas Obscura – Joshua Foes, Dylan Thuras, Ella Morton In Full Flower – Gemma & Andrew Ingalls
Go dust and polish your coffee table (no matter what size or shape it is) and show off your favorite coffee table books.
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose When Good Words Go Bad from July 20, 2014 because people are loudly debating the difference between what people are saying and what they really mean. The English language has always been fluid. We know what that is doing to political and public discourse today. Rules are different for authors. Here’s what they need to keep in mind with their writing.
William Shakespeare is considered by most literary historians and critics to be the best writer ever in the English language. The fact that his work has endured for four centuries supports the point. Yet Shakespeare is shunned by many readers once they graduate from school. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? Beowulf (author unknown)? Fuggedaboutit! Some of the greatest literature of the English language seems written in a foreign language, with the same effect on readers that garlic breath has on lovers.
Readers don’t like to be stopped midsentence by a word so archaic that a trip to the dictionary becomes necessary. Even trickier is when a word is recognized but misinterpreted and one is left to question the author’s objective. You’ll find an example in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the troubled prince tells Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery!” Most readers interpret “nunnery” as a convent. In Elizabethan parlance, however, “nunnery” could also mean brothel. Shakespeare seems to leave it to the reader to decide Hamlet’s intention.
In today’s vernacular, we find words taking on opposite meanings from their original definitions. One example is “sick”, used to mean “awesome” (“bad” was the stand-in for “awesome” in the ‘80s, but “bad” is now back to being … bad). “The bomb” can be a disaster or a triumph. “Catfish” is something you would rather eat than have one eat you. Hurling “you bitch” is quite different from yelling “you’re my bitch”, although you probably don’t want to be at the receiving end of either phrase, unless you really are a female canine.
You can find more words that have taken on the opposite meaning of their original definition at Mental Floss.
Just as old words change over time, new words are invented every year that may send you to your cyber-dictionary if you haven’t kept up with cultural trends. Have you considered buying a “turducken” with a “bitcoin” lately? Using Twitter to Tweet no longer makes you a twit; now you are a “tweep”. Somehow, “fracking” sounds like an appropriate word for what we are doing to our planet to extract its petroleum resources.
English is an ever-evolving language. That’s its beauty and its challenge, both for authors and for readers. Like interior decorating or clothing fashion, what trends today in language may be outdated or obsolete by next year. Using trendy words to set a period piece is smart. Using trendy words in a timeless piece could end up smarting.
There’s no such thing as bad words; only bad writers (oh, what did she mean by that?).
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose to combine Amusing Muses from April 14, 2013 and Pet Projects from March 22, 2015 because social media is increasingly sharing the close relationships people have with their pets. These days, it seems we humans are getting along better with our pets than with people. This combined post is dedicated to that special bond.
Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.— Anatole France
My daughter, Kenna, suggested I write about writers’ pets. The menagerie in our home has included Katje (my calico cat), Oliver (dwarf hotot rabbit), Tidus (betta fish), Arrow (English Pointer), Dusty (mini-lop), Mucki and Rosette (guinea pigs), Sunset and Triangle (goldfish). All have been amusing, but only one has been a muse for me, resulting in my prose poem, Katje Must Be Fed. My niece, Leisa, also has a variety of pets but it was her first pug that inspired her to write the children’s picture book, Pugsley’s Imagination.
Today, only Katje remains. Each pet’s loss was heartbreaking. The hardest were the euthanizations. I wish I could use the euphemism “put to sleep” but there is no awakening and the loss is permanent. Mercifully, holes in the heart eventually fill with memories. This post is dedicated to all our beloved animal companions, the lovely creatures that are the golden threads in the tapestry of our lives.
One is lucky to love an animal. One is lucky also to have limitless access to animals through great literature. We grow up on fairy tales populated by animals and continue to find them in some of the most enduring literature throughout our lives. Among the best and brightest stories involving animals are:
Fiction for All Ages Black Beauty – Anna Sewell Where the Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls The Call of the Wild – Jack London The Black Stallion – Walter Farley
Fiction for Adults Watership Down – Richard Adams Animal Farm – George Orwell The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein
Non-Fiction Marley and Me – John Grogan All Creatures Great & Small – James Herriot Seabiscuit: An American Legend – Laura Hillenbrand Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds – Joy Adamson Never Cry Wolf – Farley Mowat The Eighty Dollar Champion – Elizabeth Letts Last Chance Mustang – Mitchell Bornstein
Written For Young Children, Loved By Adults Charlotte’s Webb – E.B. White The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter The Secret of NIMH – Seymour Reit The Story of Ferdinand – Munro Leaf Stellaluna – Janell Cannon Make Way for Ducklings – Robert McCloskey
It’s not surprising that authors are inspired to write about animals. Most of them have had pets. Dogs have been favored by the likes of Steinbeck, Cheever, Doctorow, Vonnegut, Sendak, Wharton, Dorothy Parker, Stephen King, Virginia Wolf and Robert Penn Warren (who saluted Tolkien by naming his dog Frodo). Cats were companions to such literary luminaries as Twain, Dumas, Beckett, Huxley, Kerouac, Collette, Eliot, Plath, Sartre (his cat was Nothing) and Raymond Chandler (whose Persian purred while perched on his manuscripts as Chandler edited). Polar opposites Hemmingway and Capote owned both cats and dogs (the progeny of Hemingway’s famous six-toed cats still roam the Hemingway House & Museum in Key West, FL).
As far as I can tell, authors choose cats more often than dogs to share their lives. This may not be a matter of personalities (authors’ or species’) as much as it is a result of lifestyle. An author living in the countryside might like to take thoughtful walks with a canine companion while a city-dwelling author might view dog walking as stealing writing time. Cats tend to be more independent — or less needy — than dogs, depending on how you feel about felines vs. canines.
Then again, look at which authors have chosen dogs and which have chosen cats. Do you see any trends? And what can we imagine about writers with more “exotic” tastes in pets? Those would include some obvious ones such as Beatrix Potter (rabbit) and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (raccoon). But how do you explain Flannery O’Connor (peacocks) or Lord Byron (peacocks, crocodile, crow, heron, fox and bear — oh my!)?
An Associated Press headline earlier this month caught my eye. It said, “Demand booming on college campuses for creative writing.” Reporter Michael Melia noted that while courses in the humanities have steadily lost students to science and technology, creative writing courses have seen a major jump at colleges across our country.
According to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, an industry group based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, only three schools offered bachelor’s degrees in creative writing in 1975; today, you can earn this degree at any one of 733 colleges. Between 2008 and 2013, the number of creative writing bachelor’s programs has grown steadily, but spiked from 161 to 592.
Why? Melia’s article offered a few possible explanations. They include a growing need among students for self-expression, both psychological and also cultural. David Galef, director of the creative writing program at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said “They’re interested in doing something they feel is creative.” Yale’s creative writing director, Richard Deming, credited social media which contributing to the interest, saying, “This act of expressing one’s voice in a public way — some people feel that they want to add craft, they want to hone those skills and take it to a place of more intensity.”
Of course, some students enrolled in creative writing courses want to become professional writers – in advertising, public relations or some other career that requires excellent writing skills. Other students view writing as a means for introspection and personal enrichment.
What concerns some professors is that the increase in creative writing programs is diluting what is offered while creating stiffer competition for those who want serious literature-based writing classes in order to further a career in the literary world. Melia stated, “In some English departments, the boom has created tension between creative writing and those who emphasize instruction of literature.”
English Professor Leslie Brisman, who has taught at Yale for nearly five decades, said “All over the country students are more interested in writing about themselves than they are in reading other people. We are in favor of creativity. We are not in favor of ignorance.” Unlike most colleges, Yale’s writing program requires that all courses include reading in contemporary work of the chosen genre. Despite this unusual requirement, the number of course offerings in creative writing has roughly doubled over the last five years at Yale to meet student demand.
Writing and reading are two sides of the same coin. Interest in one is usually echoed by appreciation of the other. Anything that leads people to expand awareness and understanding through literature is a very good thing. Regardless of what motivates students to enroll in creative writing classes and programs, it is encouraging to see an enthusiastic interest in learning to communicate more effectively… because, as becomes more evident daily, words do matter.
What do Shakespeare and Disney have in common? Okay, all you pranksters, April Fool’s Day has passed. But it’s true that nearly every work by Shakespeare and Disney features a fool as an important character. Why?
In history, court jesters were recruited because of their witty foolishness. In literature, the fool became an archetypal character. The fool may be the wisest person in the room. It got me thinking how important fools are to great literature.
Although the fool injects levity into a situation, he or she (in Disney tales, the fool can even be an “it”, like a fish or a carpet) is often the truth teller. Presenting a ridiculous wardrobe and irreverent garbling – sometimes intentional, sometimes not — the fool can often say what others dare not. The fool may appear to be ridiculous or an idiot but represents liberation from the shackles of cultural rules and expectations.
French Renaissance writer François Rabelais’s description of Panurge, a recurring main character in several of his novels, encompasses many of a jester’s characteristics: “Irreverent, libertine, self-indulgent, witty, clever, roguish, he is the fool as court jester, the fool as companion, the fool as goad to the wise and challenge to the virtuous, the fool as critic of the world.”
Shakespeare populated even his heavy dramas, with fools. As Isaac Asimov comments in his Guide to Shakespeare, “That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.” Some of Shakespeare’s fools include: Feste (Twelfth Night, or What You Will); Touchstone (As You Like It); The Gravediggers (Hamlet); Nick Bottom (who becomes an actual ass in A Midsummer Night’s Dream); The Fool (King Lear); Trinculo (The Tempest); and Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV).
The fool, in one form or another, has existed throughout the history of global literature. The Bible had its Wise Fool. Literature from Ancient Rome and China had their court jesters. Russia’s Leo Tolstoy wrote a short story titled Ivan the Fool.
In contemporary literature, the fool often has a mental or emotional condition that sets him or her apart from the norm but those differences make them endearing as well as honest. Familiar examples include: John Steinbeck’s Lenny (Of Mice and Men); Jerzy Kosinski’s Chance, the gardener (Being There); Winston Groom’s title character in Forrest Gump; and J.K. Rowling’s Luna Lovegood (the Harry Potter series).
In early literature, the fool always played a supporting role. In contemporary literature, the fool is often elevated to a main character. Either way, the fool is a ubiquitous presence in both classic and contemporary storytelling. The fool possesses some characteristic that evokes laughter, even as he (or she) enlightens. As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Ah, if only the fools we meet in real life would be more like the fools we meet in literature!
Note to Readers – Every now and then, I will re-post a blog entry that has withstood the test of time. Whether you missed it the first time ‘round or read it years ago, I feel it’s worth sharing again. I chose A Feast of Fests from April 20, 2014 – and updated it — because we’re entering a new season of literary celebrations that every booklover should know about.
When the mind is hungry, few things satisfy as well as a good book. Fortunately, there are feasts around the country throughout the year to fulfill every taste. From small block parties to massive convention exhibits, in every size and genre, there is a book event waiting for you. With the long winter finally departing, the number of book fests, fairs, exhibits, conventions and all variety of literary celebrations is growing. This is good for writers, readers and the publishing industry.
In the age of Amazon and other online booksellers, you might feel inclined to lounge in your … whatever you lounge in … and simply connect through the internet to someplace in cyberspace for a book you’ve preselected in your mind. It’s fast. It’s convenient. It’s also impersonal, colorless, bland. When is the last time, ordering online, you discovered a book or spoke with its author, experienced the “bookness” of books with all your senses (yes, a book can even inspire a taste on the tongue), felt exhilarated as if you were a guest at a banquet? Book fests can offer all these rewards and more.
Book fests may simply be large book sales, but most combine presentations, workshops, readings, book signings, exhibits and social gatherings, along with sales.
Here’s a great concept every booklover can participate in: READ AMERICA READ. Read America Read was founded to get America reading again. Free books are left in bus stations, trains, cafes and other locations for anyone to take home. It’s a mini book fest, one book at a time, that has been going strong every month since October, 2015. It happens the last Saturday of every month. The next one will be Saturday, April 29th. Many writers, editors, publishers, and the general public who loves books have been doing this… you can, too!
What do authors Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeleine), Robert McCloskey (Make Way for Ducklings), Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Chris Van Allsburg (Polar Express) have in common? They are all recipients of the Caldecott Award for their illustrations in the aforementioned adored children’s books. The annual Caldecott Award is well known. But do you know the man who inspired the award and whose birthday is March 22nd?
Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) grew up with a passion for drawing. A keen observer of his surroundings, the self-taught Caldecott was often seen sketching animals, people, buildings and landscapes. At the age of 15, his sketch of a disastrous fire at the Queen Railway in Chester appeared in the Illustrated London News together with his account of the blaze.
Despite his son’s obvious gift, Caldecott’s businessman father dissuaded his young son from pursuing his passion, urging him to go into banking. During his seven years as a bank clerk, Caldecott took nighttime art classes at the Manchester School of Art. After his bank job took him to London, Caldecott enrolled in the Slade School.
As his drawings began to be accepted by various publications and he felt he could support himself through his art, Caldecott grew confident enough to quit his banking job at the age of 26. He became a prolific illustrator of novels and accounts of foreign travel. He was tapped to illustrate books of Washington Irving’s and other authors. His sense of humor was evident in cartoons, sketches of politicians and other famous people, and drawings of the fashionable hunting society that appeared in such notable magazines as Punch and London Society. His sculptures and paintings were exhibited in the Royal Academy and galleries. Among well-known admirers of his work were Gaugin and Van Gogh.
In 1877, Caldecott was asked to illustrate two children’s books for Christmas. They were so successful, the partnership continued with two books issued every Christmas until Caldecott’s death. Increasingly, Caldecott illustrations began to populate more children’s books, written by himself or others. By 1884, sales of Caldecott’s Nursery Rhymes had reached 876,000 copies (of twelve books) and he was internationally famous. He became one of the three most influential children’s illustrators in the nineteenth century, along with Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane.
A childhood illness took its toll on Randolph Caldecott. After a difficult voyage to the United States in February 1886, he became sick and died in Florida at the age of 40. He and his wife are buried in St. Augustine.
Fifty-one years after his death, the American Library Association honored Randolph Caldecott for his contributions by naming a prestigious award for “the most distinguished picture book for children” published in the United States, beginning with 1937 publications, and giving that award to the book’s illustrator, for the first time in 1938. All Caldecott Medal winners are listed at the ALA website.