The air up there


It would be a pretty safe bet that in all the English IV research papers I’ve graded in my career roughly half of the citations – quoted, paraphrased, or brazenly plagiarized – came from a literary scholar named Harold Bloom.

In addition to his teaching duties at Yale, NYU and Harvard, Dr. Bloom has in more than twenty five books and countless academic journals delved into, analyzed and picked apart every major writer from the Apostle Paul on. He leaves no stone unturned, no possible symbol or metaphor undissected, whether the author intended them or not.

The professor and I had a falling out some years ago, though he certainly didn’t know it since he doesn’t know me from Adam.  When Stephen King was inducted into the American Institute of Letters, the society of the crème de la crème of this country’s authors, Bloom wrote a scathing dissent that was widely published, maintaining that the author of novels of no real literary merit aimed only at general readers had no place in such lofty company.

I happen to think Mr. King is a gifted story teller and wordsmith – not to mention an enormously popular and prolific one, having written over fifty best sellers.

I also believe that Professor Bloom, on that one occasion, was a snob.

In fact, Bloom’s elitist attitude regarding great writing and the requisite intelligence of its readers has always rubbed me the wrong way.  Critical analysis certainly has its place, but literature shouldn’t, at least as I see it, be always mined for great and essential truths. It should be read, and hopefully enjoyed.  What Bloom seems to want to do is set the great writers and their works on so tall a pedestal that most of us can only gaze up there and wonder what all the fuss is about.

This is especially true in a fat book that Bloom wrote some years ago.  It’s titled Genius and it is not, as I first suspected, about its author. In that hefty tome he lists who he considers to be the 100 most exemplary creative writers in all of  history, in order, and goes into considerable detail about what those famous authors actually meant in their novels, plays and verse. All I could think as I flipped through one lecture after another was that surely all those men and women must have suspected their readers could sort such business out for themselves, without a guide to do it for them.

I was no more surprised that Shakespeare came at the top of the list than I was that Stephen King wasn’t on it at all.  Bloom and I are is as complete agreement about the Bard of Stratford and his place in literature as we are in disagreement about the Horror Master of Maine and his.

Harold Bloom seems to have so thoroughly safeguarded his sacred catalogue of geniuses that I couldn’t download it from the internet to share with you.  But it’s worth a look, and a used copy of the book is currently available from amazon for one cent plus postage.

I have to wonder if Stephen King hasn’t sent off for his copy of Genius with a note to the author that goes something like “a penny for your thoughts, Professor.”



Walking, strutting, marching and John Wayne


Have you ever considered how one little word can ignite a search for a whole slew of better ones?

Take “walk” for example.

Amble is a better word than walk. So is strut. And meander.  “Walk” is too generic. It’s like that drawer in your kitchen where everything ends up; it’s a utility player, the general practitioner of words meaning to put one foot in front of the other. Amble and strut and meander are specialists. So are totter and march and stroll and stagger and saunter.

Walking is what somebody you can’t bring clearly into focus does. It is just movement, with no regard to character or detail. Ambling, on the other hand, is what your fifth-grade teacher used to do when she moved down the rows to watch her students work. She took her time. She strolled. And strutting is what that prissy girl that works at the diner does. The one who pops her gum while she struts out with your blue plate special. She infuses even that simple range of movement with an attitude. She prances.

When that fifth-grade teacher told you to march yourself right down to the principal’s office, you knew what she meant. She didn’t say to meander, and she certainly didn’t say to strut, which would mean that you would have to do it with an attitude, which was probably the very thing that got you into hot water in the first place.

She wouldn’t have said to run or rush down there, because that would imply that it might be a pleasant journey, that you might actually enjoy the trip. What she wanted was for you to move in a direct and straightforward manner. No nonsense (a good word). No shenanigans (a better one). March! She knew precisely what she wanted. And so did you.

There are plenty of better words than walk, precisely because there are plenty of different types of walking.

Let’s use John Wayne as proof positive of that. If you are of a certain vintage you might have smiled just then, as a big man moved into your thinking. If not, you should ask your father or grandfather who John Wayne was,  and you’ll find out quick enough.

Sometimes John Wayne floated as he much as he walked. Wobbling off course like a gyroscope gone berserk. Ambling.  His big arm pushing forward, like a swimmer caught in a strong current. His legs taking almost impossibly tiny steps. Sometimes he was like a dust devil, like a sudden whirlwind drifting along in a field, tilting this way and that, finally playing itself out. The major difference being that when he stopped he might just wallop somebody.

Watch him swagger off toward the little cottage where Maureen O’Hara is waiting for him in The Quiet Man, listing so far to port that it seems, for just an instant, that he might lose his balance altogether, crashing heavily into the earth like a felled oak.

He doesn’t, of course. Falling isn’t any more of a possibility than flying. Then sometimes he moves so resolutely forward that there’s no swagger at all. No ambling. Watch him eat up the ground in the climactic scene in Red River, like a locomotive in full steam, dead set on making short work of Montgomery Clift when he gets to him.

Now watch him move, exhausted, down the gangplank in an early scene of the WWII epic In Harm’s Way. He’s slouching along now, nearly used up. His warship looms gray and massive behind him in the dark night, in port to be knocked back together after a fight, welders’ sparks exploding in little bursts along her side. His arm is in a sling; his brow is low over weary eyes that are no more than slits. He’s beat up, like his ship. But both of them are still here, needing just a little rest before hitting another lick.

Watch him cross the cabin’s threshold from darkness into light in The Searchers. He’s darn near limping now, out into a new day. Out into yet another screwed up situation that he’ll have to fix.

There were as many variations of John Wayne’s walk as there were situations the characters he played found themselves in. And — guess what? — the same is true for you and the situations you find yourself in.

Thus endeth the lesson on the action verb “walk” and its proxies. Your assignment is to, when tempted to use that word, pick yourself a better one. Because specificity is one of the things that separates interesting people from boring ones, and true wordsmiths from lazy communicators.

There are way too many of those.

(Part of this  is from Sundays with Ron Rozelle,  Texas Christian University Press: 2009)


Under full sail


Ahoy,  Mateys!

In an earlier post I confessed that I was rereading Moby Dick for reasons that I put forth with not some little shame.  Several of you responded that you were set on joining me in my quest for the white whale.  So, what I want to know is … how goes it?

As for me, my progress has been determined entirely by the mood I’ve been in when sitting down to read.  It’s a challenging book, no doubt, as the great books almost always are. Les Miserables proved to be a veritable Mount Everest. But, the summit finally reached, it was worth it; Victor Hugo’s descriptions of the streets and sewers of Paris alone were reason enough to make the climb.

When I came to Chapter 32 of Moby Dick I’d just waded through a slew of English IV essays and was in no mood for a catalogue of the various varieties of whales that traverse the world’s oceans.  So I put it aside and read something more fun.  But when I went back to it I found that long index of leviathans not only readable but full of foreshadowing  of things to come.  And for a reader given to scanning – skipping over unpromising or channeling parts (like “Cafeteria Christians” following the convenient rules and sliding past the hard ones) which I doubt anyone picking up Moby Dick would do – I hope they won’t flip past Chapters 38 through 40, which provide a fine Greek Chorus of the officers and men of the Peaquod, giving voice to their inner feelings during a stormy night at sea. Those voices breathe life into the overall story and sing out their collective fears regarding the first hints of the depths to which the madness of Captain Ahab has plummeted.

Stay the course, ye fellow graspers of the sharp harpoon.  Let’s have a progress report.


To the stars


In 1932 a twelve year old boy, already mesmerized by Buck Rogers comic strips and space travel stories by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, went to a magic show in a carnival tent in Waukegan, Illinois.  The magician, billed as Mr. Electro, touched him on his shoulder with his magic sword and said “Live Forever!”

By the time he died, eighty years later, the little fellow had found a way to do just that.

I bought my first Ray Bradbury novel at the PX at Fort Ord, California when I was in Army boot camp in 1972.  I figured that the scant free time I was allowed by the drill sergeant who was the bane of my existence would be wisely spent in pure diversion and escapism.  So The Martian Chronicles was the first science fiction tale I ever read.

And it’s still the best.

That nicely strung together collection of fictitious stories about mankind’s first attempts to colonize the red planet isn’t about spaceships and space aliens as much as it’s about human persistence, integrity, ego, and morality.  In short, it shows what we’re capable of, both good and bad.  And as a work of fiction it’s perfectly paced and wonderfully told.

Whenever one of my writing students whines about not being able to describe a setting because they’ve never been there, I remind them that Bradbury never set foot on Mars.  But his descriptions of Martian landscapes and cities provide some of the most beautiful images we have.

I once attended a big conference in Fort Worth with some other teachers where Mr. Bradbury was the keynote speaker, so the Will Rogers Coliseum was filled to capacity.  The balconies were crammed with school students bused in from all over the area. Those kids, many of whom were probably cutups in their classes, sat as quietly enthralled as the rest of us as the old man talked about his life and work.

He told us about how as a young writer his small children wouldn’t stop pestering him to come out and play with them, so he had to write Fahrenheit 451 on a rental typewriter in the basement of a Los Angeles library.  They charged ten cents for every thirty minutes and, being on an awfully strict budget, he wrote the entire final draft of the novel in nine days.

He told us how the legendary, gruff director John Huston telephoned him out of the blue one night in the early 50’s and asked him, in an alcohol-induced slur, if he’d read Moby Dick in college.  Bradbury told him he hadn’t gone to college.  “Well, read it,” Huston snarled, “and write me an outline of how you’d do the script for the movie.”  So Bradbury checked the big novel out of the library, sequestered himself in his bedroom, and told his wife Marguerite he had to do a book report.  He ended up writing the screenplay of Huston’s classic film starring Gregory Peck.

He told us how Marguerite, when he’d asked her to marry him, said her father insisted on knowing where he, just a writer with no education and no steady job, meant to go in his life.

Bradbury told her he was going to the stars.  And he wanted her to go with him.

She did.  They’d been married for nearly sixty years when she died in 2003.

Lots of us went along on that ride to the stars.  Bradbury’s fiction is all still in print in most of the world’s languages, many of his short stories are anthologized in textbooks and have been read by countless millions of students. And it’s a safe bet that he’ll be read as long as people continue to read.  NASA astronauts named a choice piece of real estate on the moon Dandelion Crater in honor of his novel Dandelion Wine.  And he gave us our first glimpses of portable radios,IPODs, televised police chases, and electronic surveillance in his fiction long before those things became commonplace in reality.

When that magician tapped that little boy’s shoulder with his sword so long ago and told him to live forever, he surely had no idea that his prophecy would be so brilliantly fulfilled.

If you’re a reader, find a Bradbury short story (I recommend “All Summer in a Day) and enjoy a master yarn spinner weaving his magic.

If you’re a writer, take notes.


To quote Hamlet, “Tis but our Fantasy”


On the subject of fantasy Dr. Suess, an authority on practically everything of any importance, said this: “Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.”

Many of my Creative Writing students would be in complete agreement with the good doctor.  Since I’ve been teaching that course they have submitted stories by the hundreds set in imaginary locales peopled – or creatured – by giants, fairies, sprites, trolls, and sundry other odd folk. They’ve created their own laws of physics for their tales, involving going invisible, taking flight, teleporting, spell-casting and such.

And even after having waded through all those sagas – some good; some not so good – I still agree with Dr. Seuss.  I always do.  On the last day of class every year I send my graduating seniors off into the world with one of his best quotes: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

I’ve gone on record – in the public press, in this blog, at cocktail parties, and from (metaphorical) rooftops that young readers shouldn’t be denied access to fantasies with plots more light than dark; in fact they should be provided with them.  Because I have to believe that youngsters reading big fat well-written books has to mean there is at least a bit of hope left for civilization.

I’m talking about the classics in the field, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s hairy-footed hobbit adventures, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series,  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and – for my money the best of them all – T.H. White’s grand retelling of the Arthurian legend The Once and Future King.  I’ve often wondered if the top echelon of fantasy writers took some sort of secret oath to use initials rather than their first names.

Regarding the plethora of fantasy paperbacks that bulge out of bookshop shelves – with titles like Zugia, Avenger of Troggin or The Lords of Bloodlustia, Book IV – I know nothing.  I haven’t ventured into those realms, and don’t intend to.

But I do know that fantasy is in the literary DNA of most serious readers.  And writers.

Who didn’t fall into the fantastic clutches of the film version of The Wizard of Oz in their youth?  And who – if of a certain age – didn’t, whether they will confess it or not, sit in front of a black and white television set as a small child and clap along with Peter Pan (via Mary Martin) to bring Tinker Bell back to life?

There is something inherently wonderful about reading a story set in a place that doesn’t exist in the real world.  Settings which are, as Herman Melville once wrote,  “not down in any map; true places never are”.

In the world we actually occupy that often offers only grim reality, a bit of fantasy, a tad of magic, is essential.

So let the kids read some good fantasy.  They’ll graduate to other genres, it will keep them off the cell phone and the video game for a while, and a bit of pure magic will transpire.

Lord knows we could do with a bit of magic.



Call me Ishmael’s prodigal son


I’m currently rereading Moby Dick.  For my sins.

A couple of weeks ago I encouraged my high school senior English students to make themselves unique in their college application essays.  Set yourself apart, I told them, make your pitch memorable in the big pile of compositions that are usually much the same.

I told them if they write to the popular prompt about the single book that most inspired them to avoid giving their readers, who hold their fates in their hands, a less than truthful answer.

“Don’t tell them Moby Dick is the book that turned your life around”, I told them.  “You haven’t read Moby Dick.  Nobody reads Moby Dick. I read it in college because I had to in an American Masterworks class and had to pass a quiz on every few chapters.

When I’d had time to realize my folly  I told my classes that Melville’s masterpiece is one of the greatest novels ever written and that Nathaniel Hawthorne called it “America’s Epic”.

Which let me off the hook.  Until one of them asked if I’d ever read it again since I’d had to chase those quizzes in what she probably perceived to be the misty dawn of time.

My truthful answer set my course.  Like Ahab, I would again seek the white whale.

That Saturday I located a paperback copy in Barnes & Noble that would set me back twelve bucks.  While waiting in line to make my purchase the fellow behind me showed me a handsome bound hardback edition he was about to pay for.

“I’ve read it twice,” he told me.  I was beginning to think God had a hand in all this.

So I returned the $12.00 paperback to the shelf, picked up a copy of the $20.00 hardback and felt some sense of atonement.

That night I opened it up, read that short first sentence, “Call me Ishmael”, that is perhaps the finest invitation in all of literature.  And I was hooked.

Melville’s vivid descriptions, his narrator Ishmael’s witty observances, and the slowly developing sea journey toward the ultimate rematch between the single-purposed captain of the whaling ship Pequod and the vengeful behemoth all make for a mesmerizing yarn.

I dread finishing it, which is the true litmus test of a good read.  But I already know it is a book I will read again sometime. And I have a student putting me on the spot to thank for it.

If you haven’t read Moby Dick in a while, or never, splurge for the twenty dollar copy. Treat yourself.  You deserve it.


See you in the funny pages


I’ve been reading comics for as long as I’ve been able to read, both in the newspaper and in booklets, which we called “funny books” when I was a kid. Some of them are called graphic novels now, which never would have flown when I was a boy. Dirty books were called graphic novels back then, and I’d have gotten into all sorts of trouble for even having one, much less reading it.
My interests ranged widely in those days. I liked Superman and The Phantom, but those were the only two superheroes that held my attention for long. Except for Mighty Mouse, who came into my black and white television every Saturday morning to “save the day”. Archie was a particular favorite because I had a crush on Betty, and Jughead reminded me of Maynard G. Krebs on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” on television.
And there were some fat special editions of Dennis the Menace that I wish I’d held on to. I’ve tried to locate them on the Internet, but they’re as hard to come by as old Phantom comics. So if you have any that you’re going to toss out, feel free to toss them my way.
In one of those Dennis sagas, he and his family went on vacation to Hawaii and in another to Yellowstone National Park. One Christmas they traveled to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to visit Dennis’ grandfather. I had just finished reading the one about the Mitchell family’s trip to Washington, D.C., when President Kennedy was assassinated, and all of the government buildings that I saw on television during those several sad November days were already established in my mind. Because I’d just been there with the Mitchells.
Even though my education was definitely helped along by those travels with Dennis, my mother wanted me to step it up a notch or two. So she bought me copies of “Classics Illustrated” off the rack at Presley-Crook Pharmacy in downtown Palestine, Texas, whenever I went to the doctor, whose office was upstairs. But I found Dennis and Archie much more to my liking, so she packed them away in the top of a closet, where I found them a year or so later and steamed through them in short order. Those fine volumes, with some of the greatest stories in fiction splashed out on their pages, were pretty instrumental in my becoming a reader. In fact, I was so taken with Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” that it led me to read the actual novel. Which is, I suspect, what the editors of “Classics Illustrated” intended. Not to mention my mother.
Real books soon replaced funny books, but I’ve never broken the habit of consulting the comics sections in the papers every day. Mostly because I enjoy them but partly, I think, because they provide a sound anchorage in a world that is too often changing.
In a world full of turmoil, stress and frantic flux, the characters I read about every morning are pretty much ageless and static. Dennis the Menace first appeared in 1950, two years before I made my grand entrance. But, even so, he’s still 6 years old. And Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead have been married for 75 years, and look pretty much like they did in 1933. Their children, Alexander and Cookie, have been teenagers all that time. All of them are locked in a time warp that, in reality, would probably be downright monotonous. But, in the comics section, that stability is a comfort zone, a buffer between the imagination and the real world.
Even so, reality does sometime pop up, even in the funny papers.
There was, over several years, a heavy storyline in Funky Winkerbean, where a character lost her battle with cancer. Those strips are collected in a book called “Lisa’s Story” which I highly recommend.
Now, you might say that terminal cancer has no place in a comic strip. But I would disagree. If the comics are an artistic genre, then the artists who create them have as much right to infuse them with real-life situations as novelists, playwrights or soap opera scribblers. In fact, if they see their efforts as art, they have something of an obligation to do so.
So, if you’re a parent of a child that you want to become a lifelong reader, don’t put comics and graphic novels out of bounds.  And if you’re a writer who wants to get better at plots and chararacterization buy them for yourself and pay attention.


An special day for bibliophiles


In case you didn’t know it, today is National Read a Book Day.

So my very brief advice today is to … no surprise here … read a book! Of course, if you follow this blog you’ve probably got one or two already going.

If you’re an author you might try to find a particular book that will help you grow as a writer.  Think of a movie that was based on a novel with an interesting storyline and characters set in an inviting setting.  Now comes a two step process: 1) imagine how you would have written the novel that conveyed that story and 2)read the book and see how the actual author did it.  What point of view did he or she use? Was it in present tense or past? How was that beautiful scenery on the screen first captured in only the author’s words.

Personally, I have to find a copy of The Light between Oceans.  Karen and I saw that  film yesterday, and its story has latched on and won’t let me go.  So I have to read the book and see how it was written.

Now, get busy.  And happy National Read a Book Day.






Strictly for the birds


A little bird named facebook told me that today is my friend Jim Renfro’s birthday.

Which is reason enough to address a subject and make a book recommendation that I’ve had on my to-do list.

Jim is a retired engineer, a current (I guess; we haven’t visited in a while) member of a chain gang (not in a penitentiary but on the Houston Texans sideline) and a bona fide nature lover.

He was also, nearly twenty years ago, a valuable resource for yours truly.

When I was researching and writing The Windows of Heaven, a historical novel set in Galveston during the famous 1900 hurricane, I needed to know about the behavior of birds when mighty storms are about to make landfall. The obvious guy to call was Jim, and the result of our visit was my writing like I knew what I was talking about rather than winging it (pun intended).

My wife Karen is very much into birds also, keeping a big pair of binoculars close to her in the back yard to watch for a pair of hawks that swoop over occasionally and for any other feathered friends that flock to feeders that she keeps filled with sunflower seeds.

So we have several books about birds and field guides at Casa Rozelle. I must admit that while I have no objection to birds my interest in them isn’t anywhere near Jim’s or Karen’s. I enjoy counting hawks with Karen when we’re driving during those handsome raptors’ traveling seasons, but I wouldn’t be interested in doing a “big year”, the apparent zenith of diehard birding where you spend a full year finding and identifying as many varieties of birds as you can in as many places as you can get to. My big year would have to be confined to our patio I’m afraid.

But in honor of Jim Renfro’s birthday I’ll recommend a book that Karen likes about one person’s big year. It’s Extreme Birder: One Woman’s Big Year by Lynn E. Barber (Texas A&M University Press, 2011). While I’m at it I’ll also recommend a good movie called The Big Year with Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson, who play globetrotters in pursuit of the highest number of sightings.

By the way, I looked up the origin of the phrase “strictly for the birds”. The most commonly given definition is that it was originally used to identify something that was as meaningless as horse manure, since birds were the most frequent partakers of that particular substance.

But the title of today’s entry – which might in fact be for the birds – is in no way indicative of birding, an admirable pursuit, or of birders, observant souls who see beauty and poetry where many folks only see birds.

Happy birthday, Jim. May your skies be full of birds.

Stepping into a setting

Dublin 2

If you are a reader – I mean a constant, meticulous reader who savors good writing like good food – then you’ll recognize the experience I’m about to try to describe.

It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2008, and my wife Karen and I were at my sister and brother-in-law’s house . While Karen was getting herself and our luggage ready for our flight home, I spotted an inviting wing-back chair in the corner of a bedroom down the hall from ours. So, I went downstairs and perused the bookshelves, finally deciding on an old copy of Dubliners, by James Joyce. I’m a big fan of some of his short stories, and I’ve started reading his novel Ulysses three times. It keeps popping up as the Best Novel Ever Written on various lists, but I’ve never been able to get very far into it; the challenging syntax and confusing plot make me slam it shut after not too many pages and search for something more user-friendly.

Back upstairs, I settled into that chair, adjusted the slats of the wooden blinds in the window so that enough gray morning light could come in so that no electric lights were necessary, and found what looked like a short enough story in Dubliners for me to finish before time for our hosts to drive us to the airport.

I settled on “A Painful Case”, which I think I read in college. But the distance, in years, between my college era and now is something like the earth to the moon. So reading this fine little tale about one Mr. James Duffy stumbling, late in life, upon his true soul mate – who was unfortunately married, unhappily but faithfully, to someone else – was like enjoying it for the first time.

And enjoy it, I did. Joyce’s description of Dublin a century ago, of the soot-covered streets, smoke-filled pubs, and corned beef and cabbage with strong black tea is the work of a master wordsmith. Mr. Duffy, the central character, has “neither companions nor friends, church nor creed.” He’s completely alone. So one reason I liked it so much is probably because I, unlike him, have both companions and friends, both church and creed, not to mention a very real soul mate who I am fortunate to be married to. Characters unlike ourselves are usually fun to read about.

But my total reading immersion went far deeper than that. The story’s setting is a rainy, cold November, mostly in badly lit rooms. Just like the room, the weather, and the month in which I happened to be reading. The only sound was a steady patter of light rain, barely a drizzle, outside the window.

It was as if I was actually in the story. Or maybe with its author while he composed it. I could almost see James Joyce sitting in just such a chair as the one I occupied, in just such a room, his eyes squinting behind the tiny round eyeglasses he favored. I could almost hear the nib of his pen scratching across stiff paper.

Later, as I sat in the airport leafing though a newspaper, I couldn’t get that brief story out of my head. Karen showed me pictures of room arrangements and holiday decorations that caught her attention in a magazine, and I nodded and looked at them and thought of Dublin. When our plane lifted up over the Dallas suburbs, not even the abundance of gold and yellow trees, glorious in their finest autumn attire below us, could pull me away from Mr. Duffy and his sad dilemma. An hour later we floated down over Houston in bright sunlight, and those colorful trees were replaced by blue FEMA tarps spread out over countless roofs which were victims of Hurricane Ike. And I was still in Ireland, in a dark, cold rain.

I tell my students who want to be writers that literature is a 50/50 proposition. The author can only provide half of the effort; the reader has to come up with the other half. A writer might create something that is an absolute masterpiece, but unless the reader gives careful attention to it, it will fail. Not because of the writer; because of the reader.

My reading, that cold morning in McKinney, of that short story was so close to a hundred percent that it was downright eerie.

The whole experience reminded me how very powerful the marriage of good writing and careful reading can be. It was enough to make me promise myself to have another go at Ulysses sometime.

Which will be my fourth attempt to make some sort of sense of it.