If changing your life was this simple, why was he ever concerned about the everyday stuff? Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch

Nothing to it. If changing your life was this simple, why was he ever concerned about the everyday stuff, writing fifteen thousand criminal offenders? He said to Jackie, ‘Okay,’ and was committed, more certain of his part in this than hers. Until she stood close to him in the kitchen and he lifted the skirt up over her thighs, looking at this girl in a summer dress, fun in her eyes, and knew they were in it together.

—Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch, chapter 20

“Fun in her eyes” has to be among the most Leonardish phrases out there. His books are populated largely with women with fun in their eyes. There’s a great bit in Djibouti about how the heroine is feeling, standing on the deck of a cargo ship in the Red Sea, as the plot she’s involved in ravels or unravels, I can’t remember which. She’s cool, curious, slightly excited; she appears in pretty much every Leonard book.

In Rum Punch, the bail bondsman, Max Cherry, gets these lines above, and maybe he’s actually the cool, curious one in this book; Jackie Burke, his love interest, takes more of an active role in the plot than is usual for a Leonard female protagonist.

I like the quote because it illustrates why Leonard’s oeuvre is so attractive to read; instead of a thriller, where the reader is pulled into the story by empathy for the protagonist’s troubles, in Leonard’s books the protagonist pulls the reader along by sharing just how interesting life has gotten. During the course of Rum Punch Max gets involved in heisting several hundred thousand dollars, a vault into the upper middle class that allows him to quit his day job and file divorce papers with his estranged spouse. Max is able to rise above the existential dread that you or I would feel while on such a voyage of self-reinvention, but that’s why it’s a book and not real life. As I’ve mentioned before, people who radically alter their circumstances in the course of 300 pages are a genre of people who you only meet in books.

“They thought these things so that they were not terrified all the time,” Denise Mina, The Long Drop

But Mr Cooke knows what has happened to his daughter. It has happened before out there, in those fields. Girls and women attacked and no one caught. He thought, his wife thought, that women should not be out at that time. He thought and his wife said, they must be peculiar kinds of women to be out there at that time, in a field with a man. They didn’t think these things because they were nasty people, or spiteful or uncaring. They thought these things so that they were not terrified all the time. Otherwise they would never have allowed their Isabella out of the door.

—Denise Mina, The Long Drop

Mina’s entire book is written in the present tense except for this paragraph, which serves as a kind of aside to the reader: this is the way things were, the way that my book describes, I want you, dear Reader, to understand how things differed from the present day.

The entire book, set in a coaldusted postwar Glasgow has a sheen of unreality, abetted by the use of the present tense throughout. As I’ve been realizing lately, the way people think in books is not necessarily the way I think in real life. Mina has intuited this also and tossed the contemporary reader this bone; I read this parenthetical remark and not only the critical distance between the book’s 1950s and the contemporary day but an appreciation of Mina’s reverence for the milieu came into focus.

Aristotle on trolling

Newly translated by Rachel Barney, this little essay is, I believe, now the definitive definition of trolling.

Well then, the troll in the proper sense is one who speaks to a community and as being part of the community; only he is not part of it, but opposed.

I don’t think I’m a troll, but I’m sure opinions can vary. My worry of being misperceived, is great enough, however, to keep this blog going.

Found on Language Log.

Fundamental Attribution Error

We are predisposed to see other people as having enduring characteristics that cause them to behave in predictable ways, and to interpret samples of behavior—even hopelessly inadequate samples—as clues to their characteristics. Our theory of human nature leads us to expect that people will be consistent…
The predisposition to attribute someone’s behavior to something within them that’s relatively stable and enduring—something that nowadays is called personality and that used to be called character—actually causes us to make errors in prediction; we expect people to be more consistent than they really are.

Harris, J. R. (2006). No two alike: Human nature and human individuality. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Definition of fundamental attribution error from Judith Rich Harris.

Bread baking books

Fromartz, S. (2014). In search of the perfect loaf: A home baker’s odyssey. Discursive chapters on bread, French bread, sourdough, artisanal flour, landraces, rye baking, et al. Includes recipes, including his pain de campagne recipe, which I have been trying for a week or two now.

Scherber, A., Dupree, T. K., & Amy’s Bread (Bakery). (2010). Amy’s bread: Artisan-style breads, sandwiches, pizzas, and more from New York City’s favorite bakery. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley. Recipes for bread that use standard U.S. ingredients, Amy also offers videos of her kneading technique. Capsule bios of bakery workers.

Risgaard, H. (2012). Home baked: Nordic recipes and techniques for organic bread and pastry. Nice pictures, hard to find some ingredients. Some of the recipes seem a little sketched out, particularly her basic sourdough recipe.

Forkish, K. (2012). Flour water salt yeast: The fundamentals of artisan bread and pizza. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. Ken Forkish repeats himself a lot in this book, but I like his techniques. Baking inside the dutch oven (inside the regular oven) is a good tip for retaining steam; he also explains how to do baker’s percentages correctly.

Hamelman, J. (2012). Bread: A baker’s book of techniques and formulas. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley. Jeffrey Hamelman worked for King Arthur Flour. This is an encyclopedic book that offers step-by-step instructions to making many different types of baked goods. All recipes are in metric, English, bulk and volume, so it’s easy to adapt them to the size of loaves you want to bake.

‘Why all the oblique loops and feints and ridiculously convoluted travels?’–Mark Sarvas, ‘Harry, Revised’

Harry lies in bed, poking at the carcass of the day. He supposes Max is right. Theirs was a friendship that never ran all that deep. So why does he feel so lousy? Because, one by one, the fixed points in his life are giving way, dissolving, and he’s left wondering why any of it mattered to begin with. Why all the deception? Why all the oblique loops and feints and ridiculously convoluted travels? Looking back at the last few years of his life, he can find no two points connected by a single, straight line, and now an ineffable sadness at the time wasted, the opportunities missed, takes hold, and he’s afraid that this perpetual indirection is all he knows. The direct approach, Max had advised. How might the direct approach have saved him and Anna?

—Mark Sarvas, Harry, Revised, Chapter 13

I do enjoy rereading books, partly because I barely remember what they are about, and partly because it justifies keeping them on the shelf. I remember reading this the first time on the southbound Bx10 bus, dawdling through Riverdale on my way back from the veterinarian. This second time I read most of it on the QM2 bus dawdling through Beechhurst and Whitestone on the way back to Manhattan. Last time I take the QM2 bus, although it’s a good way to catch up on the reading.

Harry, Revised is about a guy in his forties who has been married for eight years, so it seems strangely apropos. Of course, Harry’s wife has died, and my wife is still living, and I actually have only been married for coming on five years. The George Szirtes blurb which I referred to in the comments on the original post brings out the idea that the book is about Anna, Harry’s wife, much more than about Harry. I can support that; the balance of the book between Harry’s flashbacks to life with Anna and his adventures in the present day seems tilted in favor of Anna.

Bearing in mind that Harry Rent is a fictional character and thus needs something to justify himself in the author’s imagination, his regret quoted above seems strange and alien to me. I feel so concentrated on spending time either at work doing the job or at home with the family that the notion of deceiving anyone, of even having a secret, seems like it would take up too much brainpower and time.

I suppose my secret is writing this blog. How about that for a loop or feint?

Galway Kinnell, 1927-2014

I read in the New York Times yesterday that Galway Kinnell has died. I would say that on the strength of his poem, “Why Regret,” he had been my favorite living poet. William Matthews used to hold that title until his particular decease.

Something about that poem made it perfectly memorizable, something perfectly suited to me. Just reading it again now makes me feel all over again the sense of palpable joy I used to feel (not often enough) in the 90s. Cozy apartment, delicious food, warm sweater. It’s some kind of talisman, I swear.

Decision making, Spenser style

From Robert B. Parker’s Cold Service:

You need to know what you know, what you don’t know, and what you have to know. And you need to have it in mind. You need to know what part of what you want to do can be done now, and what needs to wait, and what it needs to wait for. Is there anything you don’t understand in this situation? Anything missing?

From Chapter 34, page 157 in my edition.

Everybody knows Parker’s detective Spenser, and I’ve quoted him before on this blog. I copied out this quote on the back of a postcard and have it propped up on my desk, next to my kid calendar. I appreciate it because it sets out a decision-making process.

I wouldn’t say that I spend my day making more decisions than the average worker bee, but perhaps it’s that I spend more time thinking about the decisions I make than the average worker bee. So any kind of guidelines to decision making are welcome; that’s why it’s propped up on the desk.

More interestingly, Parker wrote the quote, he’s a writer and was focused on putting words together, slapping covers and a generic title on them, and moving on to the next one. But the words come out of the mouth of Spenser, his detective. Consider therefore the research necessary to fully inhabit the world of Spenser. Research is more than just having a sea captain inform you about the tides in San Francisco Bay, as Isabel Allende did for her novel Ripper, which I just finished reading. It also includes research into motivations and styles of work.

Consider wondering how fully does the novel’s protagonist think like the kind of person he or she is supposed to be. This is obviously most applicable to crime novels, as the detective is often a professional detective.

Bridget Jones’ Parenting Advice

‘THEY ARE CHILDREN!’ Mr. Wallaker roared. ‘They are not corporate products! What they need to acquire is not a constant massaging of the ego, but confidence, fun, affection, love, a sense of self-worth. They need to understand, now, that there will always—always—be someone greater and lesser than themselves, and that their self-worth lies in their contentment with who they are, what they are doing and their increasing competence in doing it.’

‘I’m sorry?’ said Nicolette. ‘So there’s no point trying? I see. Then, well, maybe we should be looking at Westminster.’

‘We should be looking at who they will become as adults,’ Mr. Wallaker went on. ‘It’s a harsh world out there. The barometer of success in later life is not that they always win, but how they deal with failure. An ability to pick themselves up when they fall, retaining their optimism and sense of self, is a far greater predictor of future success than class position in Year 3.’

Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy, by Helen Fielding, pages 354-55

This seems like worthy sentiment, and pretty concisely phrased. By complete coincidence (I picked up Bridget off the highlighted shelf at the local Queens Library branch, and this other one I put on hold from the NY Public Library) I was reading Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask by Dalton Conley.

So I asked, ‘How did he score on the rest of the verbal assessment?’

They proceeded to sheepishly admit that [child] Yo had scored eleventh grade on vocabulary (through an oral test, obviously, since the little dude couldn’t read) and at a twelfth-grade level on reading comprehension (again, when being read aloud to). Not wanting to alienate the teachers, I suppressed the sly smile of a proud parent, which threatened to crack my countenance…

Over the course of months and years of practice and refinement, I developed a particular style of reading aloud to them. Call it nerdish. It involves defining words along the way. In this manner, I could read texts to them that would seemingly be way over their grade level, rife with complex sentence structures and new words.

—Conley, p. 50

Conley and I went to the same high school so in some way I can see where he’s coming from. And speaking as someone who had a big vocabulary relatively early in life, I can relate on a personal level to his kids’ accomplishment. And Conley is quite frank about how much he particularly enjoys reading aloud, and I think he wouldn’t deny that he is pleased that his kids too enjoy being read to.

But when I picked up the Fielding book right afterward, I realized how hollow Conley sounds. Preschoolers aren’t judged based on their reading levels. As a parent, I know how the fantasy goes, because I’ve read it in so many Robert Heinlein juvenile novels: at some point in a young person’s life, there is the opportunity to step into a special world where one is recognized as a smart person with certain useful learned skills.

The deflating balloon of this fantasy is that even in that special society, the young person will still have to get along with other people. I will admit to having difficulties getting along with other people at times, and I will even admit to seeing these difficulties as central to several important points in my life. In hindsight, I go along with Mr. Wallaker’s central point: you have to be content with who you are.

I’m not that far along in Conley’s book, but I find his focus on hacking his kids into little superbeings to be a little misguided. Maybe later on in the book he discusses how to make his kids gentler and kinder. But that to me is the important thing in raising children, not their reading scores.

Find somebody who wants to be brainburned and use him, Pohl & Kornbluth, The Space Merchants

Venus

“I say, ‘Find somebody who wants to be brainburned and use him.’ ” 101

The greatness of an artist is in his simplicity, Courtenay. You say to me: ‘Nobody wants to be brainburned.’ That is because you are mediocre. I say, ‘Find somebody who wants to be brainburned and use him.’ That is because I am great.

Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, Chapter 11, 101.

The Space Merchants is some kind of rollercoaster thriller that reminds me of no book more than the Alfred Bester classic The Demolished Man. Except that the sense of peril in that sci-fi thriller is replaced by the breathtaking cynicism of The Space Merchants. Reading this mid–20th Century novel today, in 2013, I couldn’t help feeling that in the world of The Space Merchants, we are all totally screwed.

I read the book quickly, but it rewards quick reading; the Walker and Company edition of 1969 that I borrowed from the local dusty library wraps up at 158 pages, so you can finish it as I did in a single evening.

The above quote is probably not the most representative in the book, but what it does represent to me is the rainforest-like lushness of the book’s conceit, that if ad executives ran the world, the human race would be more miserable and more deluded than at any time in the past. The solipsism, clichéd phrasing, and instrumentality evident in the 43 words are what make me labor over describing The Space Merchants on this blog.