Sunday, March 27, 2011

Faith Healer, by Brian Friel, and Rashomon, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Two books in one post? What will he do next?!

At first, one might believe these two books to be as opposite in character as they are in nationality. The Japanese stories "Rashomon" and "In the Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (also made into a film together called Rashomon) are set in old Japan, and the latter deals with a murder in the woods that the investigator cannot solve because each person's account is equally different and equally plausible. Brian Friel's Irish play Faith Healer lets three characters recount their time traveling together as a team of sorts. (Sidebar: I saw Faith Healer performed in Dublin back in 2006, entirely by accident. It starred Ralph Fiennes, Ingrid Craigie, and Ian McDiarmid. Single best performance I have ever seen. Of anything.)

Yet the stories share, as an integral (and perhaps defining) component, an entire lack of reliability of its narrators. Not just your usual questionable-narrator syndrome that you learn about in sophomore English; no, I'm talking about each of our storytellers contradicting the others in the details and the generalities, in tone and in spirit, perhaps intentionally, but probably not. Perception is reality, my mother always reminded me; these stories remind us of the subjectivity of our own memories.

They also throw into deep doubt what, exactly, truth is.

I read both of these stories recently, but not quite near the date of this post. Like I said, I was familiar with Faith Healer already, but in talking with two of the writers I respect most in this world, I was twice recommended the works of Akutagawa--not just for pleasant reading, but because a story I am working on relies very heavily on perception to interpret fact (if "fact" exists).

Both these stories are small, Akutagawa's especially so. But they pack a punch. What people remember (and how they remember it) says more about them than it does about the events of the past. I think we could all do well to be swiftly reminded that our own interpretations of the world usually won't jive with another's. And if we're lucky, we'll get such reminders through stories that don't end in death and sacrifice.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Naked Pint, by Christina Perozzi & Hallie Beaune

Click to buy the book!

The first beer I ever sneaked a sip of? Budweiser. I was something like two years old, and since then, my tastes have gone nowhere but up.

I proclaimed myself a beer snob well before I was legally allowed to drink in the United States. (Hey, come on. I spent a semester in England when I was twenty. And even then I preferred Nelson's Revenge to the nationally distributed Carling.) But I didn't know the first thing about beer, or the process of making it, or the meanings behind all these different varieties. I just knew what I liked, and what I sort of liked, and what I didn't like. And really, still, that's all that matters.

But I'm seldom satisfied sticking with a "just because" type of answer when it relates to something I'm passionate about. And I am passionate about beer. I've begun attempting to pair brews with meals, with seasons, with memories. I compulsively check the label on the neck of each brown bottle I hold. And yet, I developed these habits without knowing precisely what makes a pilsner different than a blonde, or what Centennial hops even means.

This book helped me decode all those aspects of beer. Am I now an expert? Heck no. But I probably know more than three quarters of my fellow patrons in each bar I enter. And I have to be clear: that doesn't make me more passionate about beer than they are, and it doesn't make me any better a beer drinker. We all still know what we like, and what we don't like. But now I know, for my own self-gratification, much more about the nuances involved in the brewing process--ingredients, temperatures, types of yeast, regional specialties--than I ever could have guessed.

For me, that makes beer drinking even more fun. And that's saying something.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

When I see people—old acquaintances, former friends, ex-teammates, high school classmates—I am always stricken by how much they have changed. Of course, they are still the same in so many ways: they are recognizable, their ways of speaking sounds exactly as they always did, their interests are at least similar to what they used to be. But I never notice those constants in the way I do the differences. An outgrowth of facial hair, a difference in height, a complete reversal of political beliefs. Or I just see the things that have certainly always been present, but I see now cast in a new light: just how long a bridge of a nose is, or how harshly comments are made.

Then inevitably I wonder the age-old question: Who has really done the changing? Is it me? Is that why everything about these people seems so strange?

When I reread The Lord of the Rings this winter, the pages felt more like long-removed friends than local buds. (I hadn’t read the books in four years—my longest stretch since the first time I read them in high school.) The story is perfect winter reading for me, for that is the season of comfort and familiarity. But part of what makes Tolkien such an admirable writer (and part of the very reason I’m one of the thousands, if not millions, of people who have read the books multiple times) is his ability to show his readers something new every time through the texts. Since last reading The Lord of the Rings, I’ve co-taught a class on Tolkien and assisted with the editing of a scholarly volume on teaching his works. I’ve had my own scholarship published, I’ve written more creatively than I had in all my prior years, and I’ve experienced life abroad. Not only have I undoubtedly changed, but my experience with Tolkien’s books has grown, too.

Perhaps for both those reasons, I discovered new facets during this reading. Never before had I paid so much attention to Tolkien’s intricate wording, particularly in his descriptions of natural scenes and features. He writes with an unceasing reverence for the earth that I had not before noticed, and thus never truly appreciated. Never had I read The Lord of the Rings while myself in the primary mindset of an author—always before I was a student, an academic, a fan, but this time I read Tolkien as a palate-cleanser of sorts while working on my own writing. I cannot read Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut or Jonathan Safran-Foer or John Irving while I am writing, because inevitably I will emulate their styles. Yet I hold Tolkien the craftsman in higher esteem than each of them. Reading his words while writing my own motivated me and drove me ever onward—all without leaving his own literary taste in my brain. Rather, I felt the freshness of his passages, the crispness of his scenes, the richness of his writing flowing through my mind in a way that I could not imitate, and so I remain inspired even now by having experienced how a truly beautiful text feels, even after so long apart.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Globish, by Robert McCrum

To the editors and publishers at W.W. Norton:

In my academic career, both as a student and as a personally-driven scholar, I've come to respect the Norton name as a pillar of intellectual credibility, scholarly integrity, and overall professionalism.

Then I read Globish.

I do not intend to be overly harsh. Globish as a book is based on a solid concept and its topic--the growth of English as a useful, adaptable, and already-established basis for world communication--is imminently relevant, perhaps even more so than its author could have anticipated. (I think here of the protests in the Middle East up to this point in 2011, in which the sentiments of placard-holders have been so often expressed in English. Some widely-distributed pictures from Egypt even depicted solidarity with union protesters in Wisconsin--a sentiment expressed, of course, in English.) As a lingua franca, English (or, as Robert Crum might argue it has become, Globish) rears up in relevance in the international news every day. The phenomenon of language in the third millennium develops even more quickly, it might seem, than our technology.

Unfortunately, I feel McCrum fails to discuss just exactly "How the English Language Became the World's Language" until page 275. In a 287-page book. Those thirteen pages are the Epilogue. (Yes, he touches on the subject plenty of times before the Epilogue. But not in the concentrated, analytical matter I expect from a book with the word "how" in the tag line.)

Personally, I love studying the evolution of a language, both culturally and linguistically. And for the most part, I appreciate what McCrum does for the first 274 pages of the book: He establishes the historical settings of the world's English, its initial travels to and transformations in England, its ocean voyages, its contact with foreign words and cultures and ideas, its use in many of the great metamorphoses of the second millennium. But in my interpretation, all those facets (helpful though they may be to a truly full understanding of the English language) amount to nothing more than the very foundation of Globish. Reading Globish felt like reading a book about how Babe Ruth became the greatest hitter in his generation, but which spends ninety percent of its pages discussing his childhood baseball days and his first breakthrough with the Boston Red Sox.

The history of the English language, having had plenty written about it for those interested in such a history, ought to have been the springboard from which McCrum launched his involved discussion of Globish as Globish (rather than as simply English). I'm thinking about a chapter would have sufficed.

I have done editing work, so I understand what it is to approach with criticism an author who has put a great deal of time into a piece. I also know that any time a good editor announces to an author that the majority of a book needs to be scrapped and the remaining portion expanded and developed, the book will be stronger for it. I feel that one of the editors of this book needed to say something similar to McCrum.

Perhaps I could have gotten past my expectations of the book (only enhanced by the title and the tag line) had the book been effectively edited on a technical level. It was not. I will not pull out examples here of where the editing or the typesetting had gone awry, or where it seems that chunks of text had been dragged away from their homes and airlifted into foreign sentences. But they exist. I will not point out in this letter instances of unlinked ideas and random transitions in the text. But they exist. If you would like me to provide any such examples before this book reaches another printing (if indeed it does), I would be happy to do so. (Perhaps you would even be willing to contract the work out to me, as the current editors working with this title did such a poor job the first time through.)

I cannot say that my experience with Globish will prevent me from picking up other titles published by Norton. The track record is too strong. But in this case, I feel that a great pitch for a fascinating topic was made, and beyond that point Norton washed its hands of any responsibility. Please do let me know if another book is ever scheduled for publication that will go into the depth of Globish that I desire. My taste was whetted, even if my mental red pencil was dulled to a nub.

Yours sincerely,

Z.N. Hively

P.S. I see now that Globish has reached its paperback run. I have the book in hardcover. While I'm sure that no substantive changes along the lines I discuss were made, I do hope that the paperback version has been cleaned up in further proofings.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls

The first time I read this book, or had it read to me, I was in the second grade. We finished the final two chapters one morning before school, and I had to go in two hours late because it made me feel so much.

People change. We toughen.

Much has happened since I was seven. I'm a man now, in every external way that counts. And when my lovely partner came home from work and said she had to read Where the Red Fern Grows for class, and would I like to read it with her, I wondered if I would feel as much when I reached the end.

Since the second grade, I've held my dog's head while he died. How could two fictional hound dogs compare?

I've earned a degree learning to analyze literature, and I've become a writer, attuning myself to the way the words in a book are assembled, and the ideas behind the words. What if I find out the book was badly written, or I bog myself down in picking it apart and end up entirely incapable of just feeling?

Last night, we finished the book. I learned from my mistakes, so we read it before bed instead of before work. I'm still fighting the heavy dryness behind my eyes, and I know I look like hell.

If I had written the book, yeah, I would have done plenty of things differently. But none of those things matters, because two little red hounds from the pages of a childhood book are still able to reduce me to tears as I write this.

Those two pups answered a lot of prayers and gave their boy and his mama and papa the love, purpose, and direction they needed. Now I'm not saying what they're doing for me right now is on a par with that, but they've brought me back to this project. They're reconnecting me with my words and thoughts. Reminding me that books are meant to be felt first, and perhaps analyzed second, if at all. Refreshing my soul and my tear ducts. And standing as a testament to love as the ultimate human emotion.

If only we all knew so much by the second grade. Thank you, Little Ann, and you too, Old Dan, for reminding me.