On Wizards

Harry Potter

As a follow-up to yesterday’s tirade about the importance of encouraging children to become readers, I dug back into my files to locate a piece I wrote in my newspaper columnist days.  It ran on Sunday July 30th, 2006, ten years ago yesterday.  The complete original text is in a compilation of some of the columns titled Sundays with Ron Rozelle (TCU Press, 2009).

Here’s part of the article:

Many people – what pollsters would label a “significant demographic group” – find young readers’ fascination with the Harry Potter novels to be dangerous, disturbing, and indicative of a societal slide into regions dark and dire.  And most, if not all, of their conclusion rests solely on the fact that Harry, the baby-faced lad in the large eyeglasses, is, in fact, a wizard.

My first inclination here is to suggest that this group find something more important to worry about.  But what people choose to worry about isn’t any of my business. Also, I’m well aware that their concerns are, in many cases, born of deeply held beliefs, religious and moral, and who am I to trample around in that field?  I harbor pretty deep religious and moral beliefs myself, and I don’t take kindly to any such trampling.

So what I would suggest is this: consider the fact that kids, millions of them, are spending time, when enjoying the Harry Potter adventures, reading big thick books.  And that, I have to believe, just can’t be all bad.  After all, they could be up to no good on the internet, or watching hours and hours of reality shows on television, or racking up body counts in video games, or yakking on the cell phones that seem, these days, to be surgically attached to their heads.

To my last breath I will be an advocate of the importance of reading.  Even about wizards.

Before Harry, wizardry didn’t seem to have been viewed as such an evil enterprise.  The Wizard of Oz, remember, wasn’t a bad man (just a bad wizard, as he told Dorothy upon being found out).  And many venerable ladies who find great fault in young Mr. Potter and other fantasy tales wouldn’t, I suspect, at all mind being called a “wizard in the kitchen.”  One of the most famous science teachers of all time was television’s Mr. Wizard, who stirred things up in test tubes and captured the attention of American children at a time when sparkling clean programs like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best were the standards for home and hearth.  Nobody, even in that Eisenhower utopia, objected to Mr. Wizard or to his title.

Several years ago, a student in my high school Creative Writing class wrote a story in which the central character was an old wizard complete, I think I recall, with a pointed hat (perhaps with stars and slivers of moons on it; I can’t remember), a dark robe, a wand, and scowling features.  The old fellow’s name was Ellezor.  A name which, I thought at first reading, flowed smoothly on the page and was an altogether fitting name for a wizard.  I probably scribbled that in the margin, since I am a constant margin scribbler. When students started giggling during their silent reading of the piece, I asked what I had missed.

Ellezor, it turns out, is my last name spelled backwards.

It stuck.  And I even began signing occasional memos to my independent studies writers as Ellezor.  I never donned a robe or a pointed hat, but I’m sure that at least a few taxpayers would find something to carp about in my identifying myself in a public schoolroom as a wizard.

So, to anyone who might be concerned, I will say this:

I am not a wizard, though I do sometimes play one in class.  If I were one, I would use my powers for good, and would turn the world into a better place, with no war, no murders, no prejudice, no starving children. I would wave my magic wand around enough times to make people tolerant of other viewpoints and supportive of their children’s’ interest in reading, as long as the reading material is not truly harmful. I would conjure up long, productive, happy lives for every student I teach, and would make the Texans win the Super Bowl and the Astros win the World Series.

But I am not a wizard.  So be not afraid.  And have a nice day.

Respectfully,

Ellezor  (occasionally)

The person who does not read books has no advantage over the person who can’t read them.

child reading

I can’t take credit for the title today.  Mr. Mark Twain came up with it.

An old friend told me in the grocery store the other day she was enjoying this blog.  But she wondered why I had chosen literacy as its theme. She went on to say that, while she certainly saw the importance of reading and writing, our nation has fallen dangerously behind others in math and science.

I was quick to tell her that we would be in even greater danger if I were to blog about math or science. And, since I know she enjoys reading for pleasure, I said I hoped she will benefit from responses about what folks are reading.  Which I hope you all will start providing.  (That’s a hint; more of a prod.)

When I’d had time to think about my friend’s question I formulated what I should have told her.  That happens to me all the time; does it to you?  In point of fact, the reason you’re about to read is one that I’ve been shouting from the rooftops for years. Metaphorically, of course, since I can no longer get up on rooftops.

It’s simple really.  People who are good at reading and writing will likely end up being good at any number of things.  Plus readers have access to countless more ideas and windows on the world than nonreaders.

Here’s perhaps the major reason.  It’s a personal opinion, but I think I’ve lived long enough and taught enough kids to have seen it proven correct many, many times.

People who grow up in houses that contain books and adults that read them – and read them to their children – have a far greater chance of becoming lifelong readers.  And those people begin with an enormous  advantage on a growing segment of the population.

Let me know what you think about this – on the blog, not just on Facebook or in an email.  And if you’re a mathematician or a scientist, watch your language please.

 

 

Traveling backwards

 

King

I’m a sucker for time travel novels and movies.

The notion of somebody from today slipping back into the world of yesterday has been mighty appealing to me since I watched the movie The Time Machine when I was eight or nine, which led me to check H.G. Well’s novel out of the school library. A couple of my more recent reading experiences were If I Never Get Back, a novel by Darryl Brock in which a bored reporter finds himself transported to 1869 as a member of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team, and Time and Again by Jack Finney, widely considered the best time travel novel ever written.

I enjoyed “Somewhere in Time”, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, and I keep my eyes open for any new book or film that has any zappage-to-yesteryear potential.

I get disappointed regularly in this odd quest.  But I hit the jackpot occasionally.

Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 is about a high school English teacher – the stuff of a true hero, if I might say so – who stumbles upon a worm hole in time that sends him back to the late 1950’s.  Once there, he buys himself a used ’54 Ford Sunliner convertible and heads out across a nation that is racially segregated and full of newly constructed bomb shelters and roadside diners with blue plate specials. Finally he cooks up a plan to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy.

It should be obvious by now that I liked the novel very much.  But here’s the deal: if it hadn’t had to do with time travel, I wouldn’t have read it.  Because I had sworn off Steven King. I very much enjoyed his early stuff like Salem’s Lot, The Stand, and The Shining.  But when he started churning out fantasy sagas like the Dark Tower series, my interest waned.  Then a few years ago I gave him another chance and read Full Dark, No Stars, his collection of four novellas that plunge awfully deep into situations particularly horrible and grotesque.  After that I figured I was done with Mr. King once and for all.

Until I bought the Kennedy book and lugged the hefty tome home.

It’s a definite page-turner, over 900 of them in fact.  I’ve recommended it to a good many people, and everybody who read it tells me they couldn’t put it down.  And believe me, putting that colossal volume down is preferable to holding it up.

Much of the story takes place in a small Texas town between 1958 and 1963.  Since I was located in just such a town during that span of years and was upright and paying attention, I can attest to the fact that King, who has lived his entire life in Maine, did his research and did it exceedingly well.

In fact, reading “11/22/63” was like being back there again.

The author, who is a master of the art of fiction, is at his very best here.  And the section of the book that takes place in that little Texas berg is a swift-flowing river of details that perfectly captures that time and place:  Coca-Colas in thick bottles that have to be opened with what we all called church keys, big black and white television sets without remote controls, attic fans pulling in fresh air through billowing thin curtains, big pitchers of sweet iced tea sitting on stainless steel breakfast dinette tables with bright yellow Formica tops, and tiny one screen movie theaters that everybody calls picture shows.

Ironically, King’s novel is not only about time travel, it actually provides it.  At least it did for me.

So.  Who has a good time travel yarn to recommend?

(some of this is from an article I wrote in 2012)

Pardon me if I repeat myself

Here’s a quick lesson if you want to look for evidence of some effective writing in whatever book you’re reading, or if you want to provide some in whatever you’re writing.
Example 1:  “Very soon after she sat down she determined that she was very hungry when she watched the person at the next table bite into a very big hamburger.”
Example 2:  “She thought of him when he awoke each morning and thought of him again when she watched the children playing in the park as she walked to work.  She thought of him countless times as she went about the routine business of her day and when she ate her dinner in a restaurant. Finally she thought of him every night when she closed her eyes and waited for the blessing of sleep.”
Both examples contain repetitions.
In the first one the writer  screwed up and used “very” much too often.
In the second the writer uses “thought of him” even more often.  But this time it’s obviously for effect, to show us that this woman misses someone constantly.
The first writer is repeating himself, having failed to wordsmith or edit sufficiently.  The second is using cadence, the intended repetition of words or phrases to show something he wants his readers to “get” without bluntly telling them. Showing (proving) is almost always better than telling, in writing and in life.
I teach my writing students a simple mantra to chant (silently I would hope) as they write or do yoga or the laundry:  “Cadence is good; repetition is bad.”

 

 

The Thing and the Bigger Thing

Good writers have to be concerned with more than just the specific story they are telling, because good readers expect the world they are entering into to be larger than a simple plot that affects only a few characters.

I call this the thing and the bigger thing.  When I write, be it fiction or nonfiction, I try to keep both in mind.

Here’s some examples.

In the fat middle section of Huckleberry Finn  – the travel motif, or the “on the river” part – the thing that Mark Twain had to be concerned with was two characters, Huck and Jim, and their actions.  But he also had to set that little scenario in a much bigger thing that included the Fugitive Slave Laws and the social customs and prejudices of  mid 19th century America.

The thing in The Summer of My German Soldier would just be another boy meets girl yarn if not for the fact that the girl was an American lass during World War II and the boy was a German prisoner of war.  Romeo and Juliet would just be two kids falling for each other without that looming feud between their families and The Grapes of Wrath would be little more than a Joad road trip without the whole Dust Bowl business.  None of the Post-Apocalyptic fiction that is all the current rage would work at all (if it works at all) if the world hadn’t crumbled away. 

In other words, good stories can’t be just basic plots and subplots. They have to reflect the much bigger world and its problems that affect not only a few people but a great many.  Old Homer knew that way back when he set Achilles and Odysseus afloat. Their adventures, while interesting, wouldn’t have made any sense without the raging Trojan War and a cadre of angry gods to fuel them.

When you write remind yourself constantly to think big.  And I’m not talking about dreaming of sitting down to discuss your novel on the Today show.

Do you re-read books?

I know the old saying about so many books and so little time.

Still, I read some of my favorites again from time to time. I justify spending all that time in territory where I’ve already traveled by following a strict rule when starting new books: if the author’s voice or the story’s flow doesn’t pull me in pretty quickly, I find something else to read.

Now, don’t go thinking I re-read books constantly.  Whdunits just aren’t as much fun if you know who done it. And I’m not to the point yet where I can’t remember who done it.

But books that are crafted particularly well are fair game for another visit.

I’ve read Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast and Flannery O’Conner’s stories “Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” no telling how many times.  One summer I re-read Gore Vidal’s American Chronicle series of novels [Burr (1775-1840), Lincoln (1861-1865), 1876 (1875-1877), Empire (1898-1906), Hollywood (1917-1923), Washington, D.C. (1937-1952) and The Golden Age (1939-2000)].  And Daniel Silva’s brilliant Gabriel Allon spy novels, all sixteen of them lined up on my shelf, will get another visit if I live long enough.

If you’re a re-reader I have a suggestion.  Think of a novel you read years ago that you really liked, one of the all-time best books that ever came your way. Read it again  and see if it holds up.

I tried that with two books.

Earthly Powers, a novel by Anthony Burgess, blew me away years ago.  And when I read it again it blew me away again.

I wasn’t as fortunate with the next one.  I liked Inside, Outside, by Herman Wouk -whose The Winds of WarWar and Remembrance are two of my favorite reads – but on second reading Inside, Outside didn’t work as well.

My friend Mary Beth Blankenship told me once that she’s re-read Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford so often that her husband Larry asks her every so often if it isn’t time to pull it out again.

Now, fess up.  Do you re-read? Which books?  Are there any that you’ve re-read more than once?

 

 

 

 

OMG, LOL and BFT in the OED; wassup?

 

words

Ernest Hemingway once said that he looked at words as if he were seeing them for the very first time.  Since  new words emerge constantly he was, at least part of the time, literally correct.

Lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary add a certain number of new words and phrases to their already enormous list every few years and grant them official sanction.  Then nitpickers and Scrabble players can utter the sacred validation: “it’s in the dictionary.” Or, more impressively, “it’s in the OED.” Back in 2011 I perused the new batch in my weekly newspaper column.  Here’s some of what I found.

“Sheeple” made the list; it’s a noun meaning unquestioning followers, a combination of sheep and people. And “flyover states” got in.  That’s a derogatory designation for the central region of the nation, the states that don’t matter nearly as much demographically as, say, California or New York.  Times do change; don’t they? Those states in the middle used to be called the heartland, which was a good thing.

Other nouns that got the nod in 2011 were “zombie bank” (an insolvent bank that survives through government support), “locavore” (one who primarily eats locally grown food), “buzzkill” (a person or thing that has a depressing effect), “toxic debt” (debt that has a high risk of default), “frenemy” (a friend with whom one has frequent conflict), “bromance” (a close platonic male friendship), “gal pal” (a female friend), “LBD” (the famous and essential little black dress), and “hater” (a negative person), and “staycation” (vacationing at home).  Gas prices in 2011 made that last word a handy one.

Some words that were already in the dictionary got additional definitions.  “Friend”, one of the most ancient and meaningful of nouns, became – thanks to social networks like Face Book –  a verb.  And, since we often changed our minds about who we friended, we needed another of the newly sanctioned words: “unfriend.”  Then there’s “viral”, which used to just mean a type of infection.  Now it became an adjective meaning something that circulates widely and rapidly through the internet. “Cougar” used to be just an animal; now it was also an older woman who dates younger men.  “Pimp” used to mean – well, you know what it meant – but then it got another definition: to make something more showy or impressive.

A big bevy of verbs made it in .  “Chillax” means to calm down and relax, and “riff” is to expound on a particular subject. “Hypermile” means to alter a car to maximize its fuel economy. And there’s “rock”, one of the oldest of nouns – and things, come to think of it – and now it’s officially also a verb, meaning to do something in a confident, flamboyant way.   Another noun that  crossed over into verb territory was “heart.”  It’s always had a dual meaning: the literal pump that keeps our blood flowing (as in “heart attack”) and the more metaphorical sense of concern or affection (as in “you’re in my heart”).  But now it’s also a verb, meaning to like or love someone or something. Now you can heart someone.

Another old standard, “own”, has always been a verb.  But in this modern dog-eat-dog age it doesn’t just mean to possess something but to “utterly defeat or humiliate someone.”

Modern communication technology was represented by “microblog” (to post very short entries on a blog) and several snippets commonly used in texting, like LOL, BFT, OMG, and “wassup?”

I’ve always found words, new and old, to be fascinating.  I heart them.

My personal favorite of the new batch that showed up in the 2011 edition of the OED is “automagically”,  meaning something being automatically done in a way that almost seems magical.  Like  GPS . Or the word-count button on my computer.

Feel free to share new words that have been born since 2011. But I’d best stop here, lest this become a macroblog.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable it’s because you’ve got a book in you

darkandstormy_5013

It wasn’t a dark and stormy night.

It was a hot, still night.  I was sitting in an upper level English literature class halfway listening  to an old professor who spent the entire hour and a half every Tuesday and Thursday leaning on a lectern casting his pearls of wisdom in a sluggish, low monotone voice.  The clock on the wall ticked slowly away like a momento mori in one of Poe’s stories. I wondered if the Astros were winning; in that era that long predated cellphones I couldn’t even check the score.

In the midst of my misery the old professor’s voice, which usually lulled me into a groggy stupor, fell into an interesting and inviting cadence.  I glanced over at my neighbor’s notes and saw these three words: James, Joyce, Dead.

I was a senior English major and was well aware that James Joyce was dead.  So I knew that something else was going on.

It turns out the professor was reading the last paragraphs of Mr. Joyce’s short story titled “The Dead”, from his book Dubliners.  The lazy river of that fine writing, drifting along in the professor’s deep voice, provided a very real epiphany for me.

I was still spellbound by that perfect assembly of words as I drove across town without turning on the car radio to see how the baseball game was going. I remember wondering how a human being could have possibly reached down in themselves and come up something that magical.

My goal to become a teacher of English expanded that night.  I wouldn’t just teach about good writing; I would take a stab at creating it. I decided to become a writer.

So I went into my little apartment determined to start immediately on my new road, totally committed to this new life of letters and wordsmithing.   I sat down at the table with a bologna sandwich, a beer, a long yellow legal pad, and a pencil.

And I didn’t write a word of anything of a creative nature for twenty years.

The obvious moral of this little saga is  to not put things off. If you’ve got a story to tell, you have to be the one to tell it. Get yourself into a creative writing course or find a good book about how to write or just sit down and win the faceoff with the blank page or screen and write a first sentence (which should not be “It was a dark and stormy night.”)

Carpe Diem.  Get the lead out.  Get to it.

Daydreaming about writing is not writing.  Intending to write is not writing.

Only writing is writing.

Gatsby Redux

The-Great-Gatsby-facts

I’m betting this has happened to you.

You’ve read a book that you enjoyed very much and you learn that a movie version is in the works.  Part of you hopes that the story you loved will transfer well to film, but another part, the part that has been disappointed many times, expects it to be a mess.

Usually that dubious part is proven right.

But sometimes, much too infrequently, you get surprised.

A few years ago some of my students encouraged me to see the new film version of The Great Gatsby.  I was determined not to like it and refused to go see it for a couple of reasons.  First, Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, widely considered one of the best ever written, is one of my favorite books, and I’m almost always disappointed with efforts to translate beautifully written novels to the screen, especially ones like “Gatsby”, which relies so heavily on the poetic descriptions and observations of the narrator. And second, I had seen the trailer for this film, a flashing mishmash of frantic images set to horrendously loud rock music, a pulsating kaleidoscope nowhere close to the insightful novel I had read and taught.

So I was dead set against having anything to do with it.  But there was one insurmountable obstacle:  my wife decreed that we were going.

And once I saw it, I had some crow to eat.

The fact is that everything in the new film adaptation – direction, editing, costumes, set decoration, and all the rest – came together perfectly to capture both the bittersweet plot and the razzle-dazzle of the Jazz Age.   If any of the blaring rock music was there, I was so completely captivated that I missed it.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s and Carey Mulligan’s Gatsby and Daisy made quick work of breaking through my old allegiance to Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in an earlier film.

But for my money it was Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway that stole the show.  And I’ll bet Scott Fitzgerald would have been happy about that.  In the book Nick tells the story in first person and has been, since its publication in 1925, perhaps the best example in literature of the uninformed narrator, a minor character in a larger story who, though clueless about other characters and situations at the outset, solves the mysteries behind them as the reader goes with him. Maguire is absolutely spot-on as Nick, from the wide-eyed innocence of his first fresh-faced grin to the sad truths he discovers at the conclusion.

The true genius of director Baz Luhrmann’s new take on this classic is his inclusion of an abundance of voiceover narrations by Nick, thereby letting Fitzgerald’s amazing wordsmithing carry the story, just as it does in the book.

This whole experience taught me two things that I should have already known.  One: listen to my wife.  Two: have an open mind about new twists on old things.

So I have a new rule:  Any new versions of Gatsby that come along in my lifetime, if any, will get a fair assessment by yours truly.  Because that novel would be hard to ruin, and is always worth a new visit.

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir about his early years in Paris as part of the “Lost Generation”, he recounts an unpleasant road trip with Fitzgerald, having to suffer his whining, caustic comments, and mood swings.  By the time they got back to Paris, he was ready to dump him at his doorstep, brush him off, and never see him again.  At home he found a package from Max Perkins, his and Fitzgerald’s literary agent in New York.  It was a new book. Here’s what Hemingway wrote:

“When I finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could and try to be a good friend.  He had many good, good friends, more than anyone I knew.  But I enlisted as one more, whether I could be of any use to him or not. If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one.”

Unfortunately, Papa Hemingway was mistaken.  Fitzgerald would go on to write more books and short stories, but none would hold a candle to his masterpiece.  Maybe it was because he had to deal with not only his own demons but those of his wife Zelda, who went insane.  Maybe he drank his talent away.

Or maybe Gatsby was just so great that it couldn’t be bettered.

 

(Some of this is from one of my newspaper columns)

 

Captions

Research

 

I’m off to the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Texas, today to select photographs and illustrations from their vast archive for a book I recently finished writing about the General that will be published next year.  Then I’ll have to perform a tricky chore that I never anticipated when I penned my first narrative history several years ago: the writing of captions.

Those little snippets that appear under graphics have to be concise bullets of information that must give precise information without conveying things I want the reader to find in the text of the book.  They should be teasers, but not to the extent that they become puzzles.  I enjoyed reading John Dos Passos’ Mr. Wilson’s War: From the Assassination of McKinley to the Defeat of the League of Nations, but his captions to the photographs were perplexing to the point of frustration. “The Beguiling Widow”, “The Faithful Physician”, and “Kingmaker from Vermont”, to name just a few, helped me not a jot in determining who I was looking at.

The old, good rule of writing having to do with not giving your readers too much too soon, to make them work some things out for themselves, should not apply to the writing of captions.

This goes for the labeling of personal photographs as well, if people even print, frame, or paste photographs into albums any more now that scrolling through pictures on telephones is all the rage.

There is a large, very old photograph hanging in the rogues’ gallery in my wife Karen’s and my hallway that was taken almost certainly in 1906.  I know that because my father was born that year and he, surely before his first birthday, is held on the lap of his great-grandmother.  If my late Aunt Georgia, my father’s sister, hadn’t taken the time to write down the identities of the thirty or so somber people in that faded, scratchy black and white photograph all those souls, long gone from this world, would be enigmas.

The lesson: provide information for people who will gaze at photos in the future and, just as important, make it useful information.  If not, somebody will be looking at a picture a long time from now with the caption “Charlie.  Good old Charlie, who stepped in and changed our lives” and they’ll ask, of no one who can any longer provide an answer, “Who the hell was Charlie?”