Completing Copperfield

Over the weekend, I finished Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.  Three month, and 882 pages — 882! — of tiny, eye-squinting type later, I completed “Mas’r Davy’s” journey from birth to a happy adult life.

the-personal-history-of-david-copperfield-charles-dickens-first-edition-rare-originalI can’t say it was an easy read, because it really wasn’t, but I’m glad I did it.  It’s pretty clear that reading for enjoyment back in Dickens’ era was a lot different from leisure reading in our modern world.  Following the twists and turns of David Copperfield’s life — which apparently has a lot of autobiographical elements of Dicken’s own life in it — required a significant amount of focus and attention to detail to follow the different characters and the arc of the plots and subplots, and it wasn’t always easy to accept, or understand, the motivations of the characters living in a long-ago time.  David Copperfield is definitely not a “beach read.”

I confess that there were times, especially during the middle part of the novel, when I came home after a long day at work and just couldn’t face another encounter with the execrable Uriah Heep or another exposure to the elaborate manners and curious conversational gambits of people in Victorian England — which is one reason why it took me more than two months to finish the book.  (That tells you something, incidentally, about the demand for Dickens’ novels these days; I was able to renew the book multiple times without the library advising that I needed to return it because someone else wanted it.)  And yet the story was interesting enough that I kept at it, and as the novel progressed I found that the momentum of my reading increased because I wanted to see whether the plot ended the way I thought it would.  (It did.)

So now we’ve reached May, and I can check off one of my New Year’s resolutions.  There’s some satisfaction in that, but my next bit of reading is going to be something a little less taxing.  I’ve concluded that I’m not done with Dickens, however — his writing is intriguing, and after a detour into some recent fiction I’m going to tackle Great Expectations.

Waiterspeak

I was a waiter once, back in the day.  I feel a certain kinship with waiters, and always give them the benefit of the doubt.

But when I’m by myself in a restaurant, please . . . just leave me alone to read my book and eat my dinner in peace.

Sure, it might just be the milk of human kindness– or it might be a desire for a tip.  But every time I eat alone these days, the wait staff annoyingly gloms on to me, asking what I’m reading and making irritating chitchat when I ‘m just trying to read and eat my dinner.  It makes the dinner intensely irksome.  I don’t want to hear what waiter  X has to say — I just want to read my book.

Here’s a tip for the wait staff.  Sometimes, at least, the solitary diner with a book isn’t lonely and craving your company.  They just want to read.  Leave us alone, already!

Comma Trauma

Look, I admit it.  I care about the Oxford comma.  In fact, I care enough to call it the “Oxford comma” rather than the “serial comma.”  Oxford comma makes the comma sound sophisticated and worldly, whereas serial comma makes it sound like the poor comma is getting ready to join the ranks of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.

For those who don’t care passionately about this important topic, the Oxford comma is the comma that should come before the conjunction when you list three or more words or phrases.  So, if you’re talking about greatness, LeBron James, and how Cleveland bashers can go pound sand, the Oxford comma is the little guy that follows LeBron James.

the-oxford-comma_52c855ed979ed_w1500Some style guides, like the AP style guide that most American newspapers follow, say that when the sentence involves just a simple series, you should get rid of that comma and go directly to the conjunction.  I think the AP’s reckless and inexplicable decision in that regard is almost certainly solely responsible for the general decline of newspaper circulation in the United States over the past 50 years.

Why do I care about the Oxford comma?  It has nothing to do with dueling grammarians, punctuation prissiness, or trying to trace commas back to the English of Chaucer.  Instead, I think the Oxford comma is essential because writing and reading is all about cadence and the little voice in my head.  When I’m really reading something, and not just scanning a sign or an internet pop-up ad, a little voice in my head is reading the words along with me.  When I write something, that little voice is there, too, writing along with me.  The little voice cares about punctuation, and flow.  And when I write about sadism, Ramsay Bolton, and starving dogs, the little voice wants to pause for a moment after Ramsay Bolton, to savor his richly deserved demise, before moving on to the agents of his destruction.  The alternative is an unseemly headlong rush to the end of the sentence.

The Oxford comma is the literary difference between a cool walk on a spring morning, where you’ve got time to admire the tulips, the budding greenery, and the sun’s warming rays, and driving by in a stuffy car.  That’s why I’m a proponent of the Oxford comma.

The Uncomfortable Verticality Principle

It’s kind of pathetic, really.  It’s gotten to the point that, if I want to do some reading after dinner on a week night, I have to sit in the most uncomfortable, upright, hard-on-the-behind chair in the house.

IMG_1003My search for the optimal week night reading seat is based on the principle of uncomfortable verticality.  Expressed it in the form of a mathematical equation, the amount of uncomfortable verticality in my reading posture is inversely proportionate to the likelihood that I will nod off after a few pages.  The converse also is true.  We’ve got lots of inviting chairs and plumply pillowed sofas in the house, just begging for seating, but if I plop down into one of them with a book, forget it.  After a few minutes I’ll put my feet up — hey, it is the end of a long work day, after all — and then a few moments later I’ll make a small adjustment to assume a more horizontal attitude, and the next thing I know it’s 11 p.m. and I’ve got a sore neck and Kish is gently shaking my shoulder and telling me its time to stumble upstairs.

Fortunately, we’ve inherited some furniture that is well suited to the uncomfortable verticality principle.  Our stern Midwestern forebears knew how to design fundamentally incommodious seating, let me tell you.  And don’t be deceived by the modest needlepoint padding on the seat either.  Wooden, narrow, and creaky, this chair inevitably forces you into a stiff-backed, non-fidgeting, feet-planted-firmly-on-the-ground posture that would get an approving nod from Emily Post or any other paragon of deportment.  Indeed, even a slight attempt to shift into a more natural position, or for that matter the first slumbering nod, would produce a cascade of creaks and send you tumbling to the ground.  In short, this is a chair designed to create a perpetual state of maximum reading alertness.

So, it’s my new reading chair of choice.  I’ll finish the night’s reading with a numb behind, to be sure, but at least I’ll get a few chapters done before it’s time to really hit the hay.

2016 Ohioana Book Festival

This Saturday will be the 10th anniversary Ohioana Book Festival. It will be held at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Columbus and, as always, it’s free and open to everyone.

I went to the first Ohioana Book Festival, and it’s amazing how the event has grown over the past ten years.  This year, more than 120 authors and illustrators will participate, Ohioana is expecting more than 4,000 attendees.  The scope of the book festival has grown, too, with outreach activities, library visits, live readings and media appearances that start today.  You can find the schedule of outreach events and the order of panel discussions and roundtables at the Ohioana Book Festival itself here.

John ScalziI think this year’s Festival lineup is one of the best yet.  I’ve always liked to listen to writers talk about writing, and this year I get a special treat:  one of the writers I’ve discovered and enjoyed during the past year, John Scalzi, is on the program.  I first became aware of him in December, when I felt the urge to read some science fiction, and I so enjoyed Old Man’s War that since then I’ve compulsively and greedily read through every book he’s written and even wrote a blog post about the hilarious Redshirts.  His stuff is just terrific, and it will be fun to get a sense of what he’s like in person.  (I’m also hoping, incidentally, that he’ll say a new installment in the Old Man’s War series is at the printer.)

The doors open at 10 a.m. on April 23, with the first break-out discussions beginning at 10:15.  It’s a fun event, and a great place to buy books, too.  I hope to see you there!

Selling Reading

IMG_0854Schools are always trying to come up with things to make kids want to read.  I’m not sure any of it works — kids either pick up the love of reading or they don’t, and the summer reading clubs or painted signs or gold stars don’t seem to make much difference one way or the other — but I had to hand it to the unknown artists at the school down the block who came up with a flying saucer, a space shuttle and boosters and representations of all of the planet in the solar system.

One question:  does anybody use the phrase “out of this world” anymore?

“Read It Again, Daddy!”

When your children are long grown and out of the house, as ours are, you tend to cherish the memories of the days when the entire family was together and under one roof.  One of my favorite recollections from those days was of reading to the kids when they were toddlers, right before their bedtime.

Of course, the child-rearing experts will tell you that reading aloud to your children is an important method of establishing a strong connection with your kids, as you spend time on a common activity, sitting close together on a sofa, with no TV noise in the background or other distractions.  And the educational experts would tell you that, by reading aloud, the parent was directly showing the importance of reading and incentivizing the child to learn for himself how to decipher those words on the page.  All of those are no doubt true, but in reality we did it because . . . well, it was fun, and it became a family ritual, and human beings of all ages tend to like rituals that are enjoyable, besides.

slobodkina_caps_for_saleIn our household, as I suspect is true in every household, there were perennial favorites as the kids grew up.  Goodnight Moon.  The Runaway Bunny.  Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  Corduroy.  Caps for Sale.  Green Eggs and Ham.  Stone Soup.  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  And, when the holidays came, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Carol.  We sat side by side and slowly turned the pages, looked at the beautiful pictures, and heard, once again, the familiar stories.  And as we read, and reread, these books that are written to be read aloud, our inner thespians emerged, and Moms and Dads would give the characters different voices and act out the stories, too.

I’m confident that you could hand me a copy of Caps for Sale — one of my favorites — and I would immediately fall back into reading it with the same rhythm and cadence and voices that I did 25 years ago, with the brown caps, and the blue caps, and the red caps on the very top.  There was a lot opportunity for a Dad to ham it up, too, with the angry, foot-stomping, fist-shaking cap seller saying, “You monkeys, you!  You must give me back my caps!”  And the naughty monkeys high up in the tree that went “tsst, tsst, tsst.”  The actors among us got immediate gratification when the audience inevitably said, “Read it again, Daddy!”  Of course, whether that enthusiastic response was due to the quality of my performance or a desire to avoid going to bed for just a while longer was never entirely clear.

A Book At A Bar

Last night I got to my hotel at about 9:30 p.m. after a terrible travel day.  I hadn’t had dinner and it was raining cats and dogs outside, so I decided to just take my book and stick to the hotel bar for a bite to eat before turning in.

At this point, alarm bells should have been sounding.  Normally I won’t eat a late meal at a hotel bar because it almost always is unpleasant.  People go to hotel bars to drink.  They don’t need to drive home, and they often rationalize an extra drink as helping them to sleep in a strange room.  So if you get there late, you’re likely to encounter people who have been overserved.

IMG_20151029_075612Taking a book to a hotel bar is also a mistake.  Hotel bars aren’t well suited to quiet reading.  And there is something about a solo traveler with a book that seems to provoke other bar patrons to unwanted interaction.  Whether they feel sorry for you and think you are crying out for human companionship, or are liquored up and believe their conversation with you will be the highlight of your evening, they’re inevitably going to pester you.

Sure enough, when I arrived last night and sat at the bar where the light was best, it didn’t take long.  I read my book, and then a boozy woman nearby became intrigued.  She was one of those types who seemed to laugh at everything and whose braying howls had already intruded on my mental space.  “Hey, how can you read when the World Series is on?  Whatcha reading?”  Curiously, I didn’t feel like having a deep discussion about my book with a braying stranger, so I said I wasn’t much interested in the Series this year.  Fortunately, the conversation petered out quickly and ended when my food arrived, and I gratefully went back to my book.

With the Mets getting pounded, the couple went reeling back to their room soon after, to be replaced by another couple — who asked exactly the same questions.  That discussion also was blessedly brief and ended when the woman had an incredibly loud cell phone conversation, apparently heedless of normal tenets of civilized behavior that suggest that a personal phone call shouldn’t occur a few feet from strangers who simply want to be left alone.

So here’s a tip for hotel bar patrons everywhere.  The readers among us are perfectly content to enjoy our books.  We’re not sad or lonely or pining for human interaction — we just think our books are likely to be more interesting than a conversation with someone who’s had a few belts too many.

The Libraries Of New England

IMG_2552They say you can know the value a town assigns to an activity by looking at the building where the activity occurs.  If that’s true, it’s obvious that the folks in New England love reading.  Every town we visited — from tiny Tamworth, New Hampshire, to bustling Woodstock, Vermont, to the transitional city of North Adams, Massachusetts — had a very memorable library that seemed perfectly suited to the town it served.

In Tamworth, the Cook Memorial Library, pictured above, dates back to the late 1800s.  It’s a beautiful little white wooden structure with a white picket fence located right in the center of town.  The library’s clock tower, with its beautiful design elements, still keeps good time.

IMG_2747The North Adams Public Library, shown at left, finds its home in former mansion.  In 1896 the first mayor of North Adams, Albert Houghton, bought the striking brick residence and donated it to the city for use as a public library in memory of his brother; he also donated $10,000 — which was real money in those days — to renovate the building for use as a library.  (Isn’t that the kind of mayor every town really needs?)  With its turrets and towers and chimneys and graceful windows, the library beautifully anchors one end of the North Adams downtown area along with neighboring churches and an art museum.

The Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock, Vermont, pictured below, is a stunning  structure found at one corner of the village green, with a stone marker to the Revolutionary War dead in its front yard.  Built in the 1880s, the library features a pink sandstone facade and an entrance through curved stone arches.  Inside a visitor will find shelving on the first floor and a terrific open and airy reading area on the second floor below the library’s vaulted ceiling.

The histories of these libraries shows that people still care deeply about books and learning; each library has undergone recent renovations and improvements that demonstrate that it remains a valued member of the community.  The beauty and continued vitality of these wonderful libraries says something very positive about their towns.

IMG_2709

Should We Show The Door To Common Core?

These days you hear a lot about “Common Core” — a set of national math and reading standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states and are supported by the Obama Administration.  One recent article described a “populist uprising” against the standards.  In Louisiana, the state board of education and Governor Bobby Jindal are suing each other about whether that state can nullify its agreement to participate in Common Core.  This week, in Ohio, House Republicans have introduced a bill to replace Common Core standards, which could set up a clash with Governor John Kasich, who has supported the Common Core initiative.

The stated goal of Common Core is to develop critical thinking and better ready students for college and careers and — as its name indicates — establish a common set of standards between states.  Supporters say the Common Core approach to learning about math and reading are better, and in any event it would be foolish to retreat from the standards after the participating states have spent years developing and implementing them.  Common Core opponents object to “federalization” of education and raise questions about costs.

Richard and Russell are long past learning math and reading, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I’m not automatically opposed to trying new approaches or promoting standards that ensure that kids learn the basics; I remember taking “The Iowa Test of Basic Skills” when I was in grade school in the ’60s.  At the same time, I’m often skeptical at claims that new approaches are better, particularly when it comes to subjects that have been taught for centuries.

With respect to Common Core, I’m more interested in the human element in these changes — which, I think, often get overlooked when huge national forces and politics enter the process.  I became aware of that human element when I had lunch several weeks ago with two colleagues who have youngsters in grade school.  Neither is a Republican or a reflexive opponent of “federalizing” standards, but both had serious concerns about Common Core.  One related a story in which she sat down with her daughter to look at her math homework, which involved addition and subtraction problems.  When the mother started to use the familiar right to left process, “carrying” numbers from column to column, the daughter said:  “Mom, we don’t do it that way!”  The Mom was embarrassed, and wondered why we are making this kind of change.  NPR recently carried a report that raised that same issue of disconnect between parents and their kids that Common Core presents.

I think parental involvement helps to encourage kids to work hard in school, and homework assistance can also be one way of strengthening the parent-child bond.  Those of us who learned the “carry” method have somehow managed to balance checkbooks, perform the basic math skills needed to function in modern society, and contribute to the economy.  Why change the basic approach to addition and subtraction in a way that shuts parents out of the homework process even in the very early grades, and suggests to young children that their parents are old-fashioned and out of it?  Isn’t it at least possible that there is an ultimate social cost in such a change that outweighs whatever incremental learning benefit the new approach is supposed to realize?

Starting A New Summer (Book) Series

Summers are made for reading, and summer vacations especially so.

I like to use the summer reading season to discover and dig into books that have already become a series featuring the same characters.  When you make such a discovery you can read the books in sequence, letting the characters and their lives unfold before you and become more familiar and, sometimes, beloved.  There is a particular joy in the initial discovery, too, because you know that you’ve just filled lots of your leisure time — often extending well into the autumn months — with what is sure to be very enjoyable activity.

IMG_4203Over the years I’ve read lots of literary series, and it always seems to happen in the summer — and usually at the recommendation of a friend or family member whose judgment I trust.  It was during the summer that I first enjoyed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (at Richard’s recommendation), Patrick O’Brian’s terrific Jack Aubrey-Stephen Maturin Master and Commander novels about the British Navy during the Napoleonic era, James Lee Burke’s two-fisted Dave Robicheaux crime fiction (suggested by the Wrestling Fan), George R.R. Martin’s fabulous Game of Thrones books, and Stuart Kaminsky’s wonderful (and unfortunately too-soon-ended) Inspector Rostnikov and Abe Lieberman series.  I loved them all and hated reaching the end.

Recently the Philosopher King of the Fifth Floor recommended Michael Connelly’s books about Detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch.  I’ve begun with the first book, The Black Echo, and it’s excellent.  I can tell I’m going to like following the exploits of the (in the first book, at least) chain-smoking Harry as he struggles with his personal demons and deftly solves crimes along the way — even if it means skirting the edges of the law and breaking a few departmental rules to bring the wrongdoer to justice.  Having made the discovery, I’m especially pleased to learn that the series currently includes 19 books, which probably means number 20 will come out as I am happily working my way through Harry’s story.

Don’t expect much from me this summer:  I’ll be reading.

Embarrassing Sex Scenes In Action-Adventure Novels

I’m 56 years old.  I’ve been very happily married for 31 years.  I know about the birds and the bees.  Yet still I squirm with embarrassment when I’m reading an action-adventure novel and come across a sex scene.

It’s all very trite and predictable.  If the fiction you’re reading features a lead female and male character, chances are they’ll exchange a few deeply meaningful glances in the early chapters and then by chapter 18 they’ll be doing the nasty on some desolate Turkish hillside.  And then you’ll quickly flip through the pages of heavy breathing and soul-baring disclosures, hoping to pick up the main thread of the plot again and find out what the Nazi general’s secret was — which was why you decided to read the book in the first place.

Why do so many action-adventure authors insist on including these awkward sex scenes in their books?  It’s not like the movies, where “adult situations” get included to ensure an “R” rating because no one will go to PG-13 rated films.  It’s not like the books are romance novels or bodice-rippers with a bare-chested, long-haired Fabio look-alike on the cover, either.  It’s an action-adventure novel, for crying out loud!

And let’s face it . . . just like most authors can’t write believable conversations, most authors can’t write sex scenes without lapsing into cliche territory.  This is particularly true for practitioners who specialize in the ripping yarns that I like to read.  They may be able to construct elaborate plots about the mysteries of the Masons, but their sex scenes seem so awkward and phony and forced you can’t help but groan in dismay.

So, I’ll be happy to never again read of him “pulling her close” or “two bodies melting together as one.”  I’m happy to take my action-adventure tales straight and unleavened by the sex scenes, thank you very much.

Trapped Mid-Tale

Help!  I’m trapped in the middle of George R.R. Martin’s monumental A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels!

I started reading the books after Kish and I enjoyed the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.  We got the first four books in paperback, and I read them at a good clip.  It took a while, because the books are huge — almost 1000 pages each.  Then I got the fifth book from the library and read it with pleasure.

I’m not a big fan of the fantasy genre, but these books aren’t your standard fantasy fare.  They are vast, sprawling, richly charactered, carefully plotted epics that drench you in the reality of this strange world where the seasons are out of whack and human development seemed to stop in the medieval era, where it has remained frozen and unchanging for millennia.  The books are fascinating just as works of fiction and are well worth reading.

But here’s the problem — the fifth book ends mid-story with cliffhangers galore, and the sixth book is nowhere in sight.  What’s more, the sixth book won’t be the end of the tale; a seventh book will follow.  And to give you an idea of how long I might be waiting, consider the publication dates of the first five books:  A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), and A Dance with Dragons (2011).  It may be optimistic to think that the next book will be out before the next presidential election.

So I sit, with countless characters and subplots and storylines fresh in my head, knowing that I will lose the golden thread by the time the next book in the series appears.  I’ll have to go back and re-read those thousands of pages to get refreshed and ready for book six, and then when I finish the sixth book I’ll have to do it all over again when the seventh book appears sometime after I become eligible for Social Security.  O, sweet misery!

It’s ridiculous to pine for years for a book, but it’s the reality.  Martin has set the hook so firmly I can’t walk away.  I want to know how the story ends.

What To Do On A Bright, Sunny Sunday?

Normally my autumn Sundays are pretty regimented.  I play golf in the morning, get home and have lunch, then watch the Browns.  By the time the Browns have lost — again — it’s just about dinner time, and the day is close to being done.

Today is different, however.  The golf course is closed for a special tournament.  The Browns have already played — and lost — so four hours that would have been spent in speechless rage and agony are now available for more pleasant pursuits.  As a result, a day that is typically heavily scheduled has no schedule at all.  The sense of liberty is exhilarating.  It’s a free day, one where I can do whatever I want.

So far this morning I’ve done some chores and caught up on various tasks that have piled up during the busy period.  Now the chores are done, the tasks are completed, and it’s time to enjoy myself.  Nothing sounds better than camping outside, enjoying the cool weather, bright sunshine, and autumn colors, sipping on a steaming cup of black coffee and digging into my book.

The patio beckons, and its allure is irresistible.

Road Reading

When you’re traveling along on business, a good book is crucial.  The book will be your companion and entertainment at dinner, in airport gate areas, and on the plane itself.  If your book is great, it blunts the loneliness of life on the road.  If your book stinks, on the other hand, it makes your tedious time away from home seem immeasurably longer.

Lately I’ve been reading the Games of Thrones books by George R.R. Martin, and they are great road reads.  If you’ve watched the show, you know about the Game of Thrones world.  If you haven’t seen the show, envision a world of knights and kingdoms and dragons and magic where things haven’t changed for thousands of years.  The world is captivating and seems very real; the books are long and the length allows for subplots and back stories that the TV series can’t hope to match.  The books are full of surprises, and no character is safe from a sudden, unexpected demise.

I’m on book 3, called A Storm of Swords.  So far, all of the books have been real page-turners.  In fact, they might be too good — you want to stay up and keep reading late into the night.  When you’ve got a flight first thing in the morning, that’s not a good thing to do.