Yet another example of the power of storytelling

history-book

Do you like history?

Your answer will more than likely be “yes” or “no”.  Not “sometimes” or “not so much” or “it depends on the era”.  Having asked that question of a lot of people for a lot of years, I’ve determined that there is very little middle ground here.  It’s almost always black or white, with very little gray area.

I’ve also determined, if the person I put the question to elaborates a bit, that the reason he or she either likes or dislikes history is almost always traceable to a particular history teacher in their past.

The reason for that is simplicity itself.  History teachers usually come in only two models. One makes students memorize dates and events. The other – I suspect you’re already predicting that this is my strong preference of the two – tells stories.

That’s right.  They tell stories.

Rudyard Kipling, who was certainly no slouch in the storytelling department, maintained that “if history were taught in the form of stories it would never be forgotten.”

I’m proof of that.

I took my first stab at college back when we were still sending men to the moon and “Gunsmoke” was still on television (you use your chronological landmarks and I’ll use mine; okay?). I had an American History professor that first semester that never smiled and never looked anything but bored with his daily task.  The chances of him cracking a joke were right up there with us locating Jimmy Hoffa.  Who, I just realized as I wrote that sentence, had not yet gone missing at the time.

Anyway, that fellow gave us the dates of battles, wars, coronations, deaths, treaties, and other such goings on with about as much emotion as he might have employed to recite a grocery list. And I guess he assumed that we would determine their relevance from the pages he assigned in a textbook that was about the size of a shoebox.  Then, on quizzes and examinations, we were asked to regurgitate those dates and answer tricky questions designed to see if we’d actually done the reading.

I hadn’t.  Partly because I was not yet mature enough to realize that oftentimes we have to do things we don’t really want to do.  But mainly because that dry-as-toast teacher had failed to spark any interest whatsoever in me regarding American history. In fact, he did just the opposite; he made me think that the past was as dry, dusty, and useless as his delivery of it.

When I dropped out of the university it caught the attention of a relative I didn’t even know I had – an Uncle Sam – and I spent the next two years, per his request, in the army. When I mustered out I went back to college and signed up for a full load of courses, one of which was American History.

The professor this time didn’t lecture.  He told story after story, making long dead generals and presidents come fully to life in my imagination.  I wrote frantically in my notebook to keep up with him.  He assigned probably the same pages in the big textbook that my previous teacher had, but this time I couldn’t wait to read them every night, because I wanted to know as much as I could about the things we were studying.

That man didn’t so much teach me history as he invited me into it. And in doing so he proved to be what I now consider an excellent educator: Someone who not only knows a lot about his or her field, but loves it.  And, most importantly, is able to share it.

The theme of today’s harangue is twofold.  First, teachers – of history or anything else – would do well to follow the example put forth by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales when he described the Oxford Cleric, a young fellow who would forego much to buy more books.  “For gladly would he learn,” Chaucer wrote, “and gladly teach.”

Second, and this  won’t come as a surprise if you’ve dropped in here before,  the very best way to communicate, to convey information that is essential, informative, or simply entertaining is to make it palatable and – just maybe – enjoyable.

In other words, tell a story.

 

 

When you’ve got a story to tell, you’ve got options

breaking-home-ties-by-norman-rockwell

I spent a fine time yesterday at the Alton C. Allen Historical Conference in Halletsville, where this year’s topic was “Texas Disasters”.

Before some of you go thinking I was invited because of my writing being disastrous I was asked to speak about the 1937 New London school explosion.  A book I wrote in 2012, My Boys and Girls Are in There, is about that horrific day when over 300 students and their teachers died when a vast pool of natural gas exploded beneath their school building.

One of the folks at the conference made the comment that a nonfiction account like mine was likely the only possible way to relate a story so horrible.

But she was wrong.

My friend Zack Kibodeaux, whose father Logan was my research associate on that book, told the New London story through a completely different medium.  Zack is a singer, musician and songwriter extraordinaire and his Blue Water Highway Band is constantly on the road with gigs all over the place.  “A Voice in Rama”, one of the songs on their album titled “The Things We Carry”, is Zack’s take on New London.  It’s a haunting ballad, beautifully written and sung, which manages to be sad and uplifting at the same time.  I highly recommend you listen to it, letting the beautiful orchestration and the carefully crafted lyrics take you to another time and place.  And I’ll bet you’ll agree that the emotions it will elicit and the setting it evokes are as strong as anything I could have written about that tragic day.

Writers of prose, be it fact or fiction, don’t have a monopoly on yarn-spinning; a story can be told in any number of ways.

A fat novel about the sad life of Eleanor Rigby couldn’t possibly be any more effective than the Beatles’ scant 208 words in the song.  And by all accounts the musical “Hamilton” (I haven’t seen it; I’m waiting for the ticket prices to come down and a production to come closer than New York) captures that founding father’s unique life in a different, though not necessarily better, way than author Ron Chernow did in his excellent biography.

And nothing – not a shorty story, novel, play, song or poem – could tell of a son leaving home better a single painting by Norman Rockwell titled “Breaking Home Ties”.  When I teach my writing students how to interject details into their writing I show them that picture, which is at the top of the blog today.

Look hard at it.  The boy and his father, surely waiting for a bus,  are looking in different directions – the man to the past, the boy to the future. The old dog senses something is up, and is already missing the boy that probably grew up with him.  The boy is off to college, which is a world unknown and a little scary for the father.  And amid all those details notice what’s not there: the mother.  Which makes the imminent separation of these two all the more important.

That one canvas is a short course in storytelling.  In fact, most of Rockwell’s paintings are.

The old adage about there being more than one way to skin a cat might be true, though I’ve never seen the logic of such an enterprise.  But this I do know: there are many more ways than one way to tell a story.

 

 

 

A place for everything, and everything in its place

card-catalogue

Do you know what I miss?

Other than coffee served in real cups with saucers, newspaper pages that when opened up spread out to a wingspan of a full yard, talk shows with hosts like Johnnie Carson and Merv Griffin, lunch counters in drug stores and S&H Green Stamp redemption centers?

In addition to those things and a good many others, I miss card catalogs.

You know, those big, bulky chest-of-drawer type contraptions in libraries with dozens of narrow, long drawers full of index cards.

I wish I’d paid better attention when libraries jettisoned all their card catalogs and moved in computers to replace them.  Because I’d have tried to end up with one of those unique pieces of furniture.

And what, you might ask, would I do with one if I had it?

Here’s your answer:  I’d organize.

I used to be a great organizer.  When I was a boy in the East Texas piney woods I fancied myself a fisherman, and my tackle box was a wonder of perfect organization. Down to a perfectly oiled filet knife, which I never used except to constantly untangle my Zebco reel. Alas, I was considerably better at arranging lures, hooks, and bobbers than I was at catching fish.

Over the years I’ve let that “everything in its place” philosophy backslide, and an old card catalog might set me right. I’d store knickknacks in its drawers, things that now reside haphazardly in my desk, my dresser, and especially in one kitchen drawer – everybody has one, I think – where stuff goes to die.  Like old measuring tapes, open packs of chewing gum, odd screws and nails,  bits of picture wire, and some things that are unrecognizable but might be important.

I’d carefully print labels for the little metal window slots on the front of each drawer.  “Rubber Bands” would go on one, though it’s unlikely we’d ever accumulate enough rubber bands to fill up a 3 inch by 5 inch space nearly two feet long.  Another card would proclaim “Safety Pins”. We have hundreds, many hundreds, of safety pins in one corner of a drawer in our bathroom, and every time we come home from the dry cleaners we add several more. Though I can’t, at the moment, remember when I’ve taken one out and used it. Other labels would read “Bank Statements”, “Receipts”, “Insurance Stuff”, and any number of other categories representing things that I never seem to be able to locate when I need them.  A couple of the drawers would surely be the repository of pennies that now fill up a couple of shoe boxes.  Then, after all that sorting and placing, anything left over but not deserving of its own cubicle would be relegated to several “Miscellaneous” drawers.

At the high school where I’ve taught for a long time we used to have a handsome quartet of card catalogs in the library.  They were about four and a half feet tall and were butted up against each other so as to point their drawers in four different directions.  Their purpose was, of course, to provide a reference guide for every book in the library.  But, since they were just the right height for leaning, they came in handy for something else.

For years the good ladies who ran that library and I leaned over those catalogs and talked about all manner of things every morning when we had our coffee.  It was our gossip fence.  Since I’d been sequestered in my classroom for a couple of hours before that, they sometimes caught me up, in those pre-cell phone days, on what had happened in the outside world that morning.  I learned that the Titanic had been found while standing there, that President Reagan had ordered the invasion of Granada (whereupon we pulled down a big atlas and found Granada), and that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded shortly after takeoff.

So, I have a real fondness for card catalogs, and I wish I owned one. One reason might be that I, as I already admitted, am oftentimes not as organized as I once was.  And a piece of furniture with multiple cubbyholes seems a perfect place to herd some of my stuff into their proper places.

That, and the fact that it would look darned nice in my home library with a potted plant on top of it alongside some books that I intend to get to. One of them would be Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son, all 800 plus pages in nearly infinitesimal print that’s been staring patiently at me for decades.  If that book weren’t so darned huge, it would go in its own drawer behind a label that reads “Someday”.

(Part of this was in a newspaper article in some yesteryear)

 

A little Homer should be in every writer’s DNA

homer

One of the absolute requirements for becoming a good writer is to be an avid reader of good writing.  In fact, one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of a writer is “a reader who has spilled over.”

I tell people who want to get serious about writing, or reading for that matter, they’d do well to get a good grounding in the true bedrock of all literature.  They’d better visit, or revisit, The Iliad and the Odyssey.

No works of literature have had as profound an impact on stories and storytelling over the last three millennia than those two epic sagas about the Trojan War and its aftermath.  Shakespeare himself filled his plays and poems with allusions to them, and the didactic warnings they put forth about human behavior (and misbehavior) have been proven true in every succeeding generation, up to and including our own. But I swore off politics when I started this blog, so I won’t let the enormous current examples of “Pride cometh before a fall” lead me astray from that vow.

I’ve taught the Homeric sagas, have reread parts of them over and over, and watched how countless writers of books and movies have woven elements of those ancient stories into newer ones.  I’ve even done that myself of late.  My next book, about Sam Houston’s final dozen years, will be out next year. And it would be difficult not to see the old general as something of Odysseus reborn, facing his hardest battle near the end of his life after his glorious youthful victories.

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott’s verse novel Omeros transplants the characters and events of the Iliad from ancient Greece to an impoverished Caribbean island in modern times. And Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” finds the old hero back home with nothing more to do after his full life of battles and adventures than stare out at dark, brooding seas.

Margaret George, my favorite historical novelist, won fame as the author of hefty tomes about Henry VIII, Mary of Scotland, Elizabeth I and Mary Madeline. But I think my favorite of all her books is Helen of Troy. Which is somewhat ironic, since her subject in that one probably never actually existed in history.  But she certainly did in legend. Margaret’s novel is written in first person narrative, with Helen telling the story herself, taking us completely into the world of her husband King Menelaus, her lover Paris, of Priam and Hecuba, Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, and all the rest. They, and the ancient world they occupied, come fully to life on every page.

Margaret and I have the same literary agent.  When she wrote to tell me her next novel will focus on Nero, the fiddling emperor of Rome, I replied that I’d hoped she would finally get around to Cicero. She may yet, and I can promise you that Nero will be amazing.

I highly recommend you put Helen of Troy on your reading list.  But if you haven’t read the Illiad do that first.  It’s best to start things at the beginning.  And Homer’s tale is the beginning of everything when it comes to storytelling.

 

If you’re looking for someone you lost, try reading the books they read

quinda-shelf

Let me tell you about the three linear feet of frayed hardbacks in one of my bookcases.  I call it Quinda’s shelf.

Quinda, you see, was my mother.  And her love for books and reading fell happily down to yours truly.  So did this little collection that she chose to keep from the thousands of titles that she read in her lifetime.

I set myself a goal, some years back, to read those volumes that ended up with me.  One reason was I thought it would be interesting to explore some different narrative voices of other eras, stories set in bygone days, and written according to the conventions and moral guidelines of those times.  The other reason was of a more personal nature.  My mother was sick for much of my childhood and adolescence, and she died when I was barely out of my teens and stationed overseas in the army. So I hoped that reading the books that made enough of an impression on her for her to keep them would help me know her better. None of them are important literary epics; they were simply things that caught her fancy.

One of my favorites is New Song in a Strange Land, (Houghton Mifflin:1948), Esther Warner’s memoir of moving to Africa with her husband when he was named manager of a rubber tree plantation owned by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company.

Sounds downright fascinating, doesn’t it?

But it is.  I’ve taught some workshops on memoir writing since I read that little book, and I always put Mrs. Warner’s opening paragraph in front of my students.

“As I approached my house in Liberia for the first time,” she wrote, “it looked to me like a giant animal that had crept out of the bush.  Against the backdrop of low hills and jungle, it reached high and anticipatory on its front legs, ready to jump.”  In that first glimpse of her writer’s voice and her setting, this talented wordsmith employed an old trick: she showed us one thing by showing us something completely different.  Those front legs on that house turn out to be brick piers, and the house, which will be ground zero for her story, is instantly visible and alive for the reader, who is probably sufficiently hooked to keep reading.

It certainly hooked this reader, and I enjoyed every page of it.

Which wasn’t the case, unfortunately, for London Pride, a 1941 novel by Phyllis Bottome.  It’s a predictable tale of two children left to wander around in London during the German blitz, rattling off Cockney dialect so exaggerated that it’s very nearly a foreign language.

It was intended at least partly as propaganda, I’m guessing, tugging at the heartstrings of American readers to make them jump into the already raging world war. But I doubt that this slight yarn had much of an impact.  No matter; Pearl Harbor was attacked shortly after London Pride was published in the States, and no more encouragement was required.

A couple of other wartime novels are on Quinda’s shelf.  The Journey Home, by Zelda Poppin (I swear I didn’t make these names up), is about a soldier returning home at the end of the war.  So is Glory for Me, a verse novel by McKinley Kantor which is by far the better of the two.  It’s a compelling tale of three soldiers who have to adjust to civilian life again, and was made into an outstanding movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives”, which won seven Academy Awards in 1946, including Best Picture.

I enjoyed Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams (1944), who stole his title from Hamlet.  It had a beautiful, scheming heroine who was easy to hate, and that’s always fun.  And Amaru: a Romance of the South Seas by Robert Dean Frisbie (1945) was interesting. It’s one tart little tale, I can tell you, with Polynesian girls and lusty tribesmen running rampant on sun-splashed shores.

But I could have done without several other books that are completely outdated, and understandably out of print. The jacket blurb for A Fair Wind Home by Ruth Moore (1953) says “finally the author of Candlemas Bay has written her first historical novel.”  And, after reading it, I’m betting it was her last.

I enjoyed the project, and at the very least I now can say that I’ve read Poppin, Bottomes and Frisbie.  Not many people can say that.

The whole experience was also helpful to me as a writer, seeing how skillful authors told their stories and how bad writers missed the mark in theirs.

And turning all those pages – faded and brittle now – that my mother once turned when they were crisp and white felt good, and right.

Bookshops, again

bookends

My request for responses regarding favorite book stores brought some fine feedback via this blog, Facebook and email. And much of it was about the much-missed Book Ends Bookshop in Lake Jackson.

So I dug out a column I wrote when it closed and to post  here.  It was also included in a collection of some of those Sunday morning columns in a book published by TCU Press.  I didn’t get to pick the title of that anthology by the way, and I don’t care for it. Sundays with Ron Rozelle makes it sound like a weekly devotional.  Which it is not.

 

            One Less Bookstore

 

A fairly miraculous thing happened a few summers ago.

During a little short course I was teaching on the writing of fiction, I was giving an example of irony — or conflict or resolution or character description or some other thing from the bag of tricks that every writer has at their disposal — to my captive audience that was installed comfortably on the chairs and the sofa of Book Ends bookshop. I was using some story from Oakwood, my little hometown in East Texas, to make my point and one of the participants pointed to something behind me and smiled.

And there, on one of the many brimming shelves of the store, was a small volume with this title on its spine: Oakwood Methodist Women’s Club 1962 Cookbook. And there, in the soups and salads section, was my mother’s recipe for corn chowder.

Oakwood is several hundred miles from Book Ends bookshop, you understand. And 1962 is a long time ago. Which is the miraculous part.

Yet, when I think about it, it really isn’t all that miraculous after all. Because Book Ends is the kind of place where such treasures can be found in abundance.

And Becky Dorroh, who runs the place, makes sure the treasure chest is full.

The bad news is that Becky is closing Book Ends on the last day of May, after years of trying to compete with amazon.com and the big chain stores.

I won’t turn this into a diatribe about the national demise of the independent bookseller, or the slow gobbling up of small, friendly, local businesses by corporate monsters. But I will make a prediction: It won’t be too long until a locally owned and operated bookshop will be as hard to find as an S&H Green Stamp redemption center. Because they’ll be gone with the wind, if I may employ a particularly heavy literary allusion.

And that will be a sad day, indeed. Not only because such stores are likely to have copies of old books that are out of print or hard to locate, but because they almost always have somebody like Becky, who knows about books, cares about them, reads them and likes to help her customers find them.

The kids they hire at some of the big bookstores don’t have any more interest in or knowledge of what they’re selling than a check-out clerk at a grocery store has of a can of corn they push under the electronic price reader.

If you ask Becky for the latest P.D. James whodunit, she’ll probably either tell you what she thought of it or give you a summary of a review she’s read. Then, if she has it in stock, she’ll walk you over to it, stepping over several kids sprawled out on the floor reading in the children’s section, around one of the two cats — Fia (short for Ophelia) and Princess Buttercup — that live in the store, and past a couple of old friends on the sofa who are catching up on each other’s news.

Historians tell us that Abe Lincoln, during the bleakest days of the Civil War — when his generals were losing too many battles, members of his own party were railing against him and his wife was slipping into severe depression — would sometimes walk down the street from the White House and go into a hardware store. Where he would just stand for a few minutes. If a clerk asked if there was something he could do for him, the president would wave his big hand and tell him “No, son; I just like the smell of the place.”

The aroma of leather and metal and musty bins was a comfort to him. Just like the smell of a store containing lots of old books is to me.

So I’ll miss Book Ends. And Becky. Though she won’t be gone completely, she tells me. She’ll maintain her inventory online for internet shoppers.

But she’ll be gone, and so will her fine bookshop.  When I need to go down there and get a little therapy by smelling the books and handling them I’ll probably feel like old honest Abe without a hardware store to stand in.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your favorite bookstore?

book-store

Asking a true lover of books – not only the stories they carry but their smell and feel – to name a favorite bookstore is like asking a parent to identify their favorite child.  It’s a loaded question.

I’m not talking about Barnes & Noble and amazon.com, though I trade with both of them frequently.  I’m talking about those wonderful, tucked away little shops with enough character to be a book themselves. I’m talking about temples of reading, sanctuaries for readers. Usually with a few comfortable chairs that invite you to sit down and thumb through a book, new or used, which is as fine a therapy as I know.  The best shops, to my way of thinking, are the ones where books sit haphazardly on tables, stair steps, in stacks on the floor, and bulge over the edges of shelves.  And if there is a bookstore cat or two, curled up asleep among the merchandise or prancing regally though the disorder like the master of the house, then the shop is perfect.

It’s autumn now, a perfect season to visit bookshops that are old friends and find new ones.  I’m interested in knowing what some of your favorites are.

Back in the days when I organized overseas trips for students and got my passage paid for the trouble I found little bookshops in England that I would aim my group toward.  Oxford had a couple of truly good ones and there was one in Canterbury that offered not only books but hot tea to sip on as we wandered through the stacks.  But my absolute favorite was Shakespeare & Company in Paris, which for almost a century has been the mecca for English speaking bibliophiles in that city. Situated across the Seine from the handsome flying buttresses of Notre Dame it is a cathedral itself, its countless volumes spilling out into carts and baskets in the little plaza outside. I always encouraged my students to buy a paperback copy of Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, about his years as a starving young writer in Paris, and get the title page stamped with the distinctive logo of the store, a portrait of Shakespeare circled by “Shakespeare & Company, Kilometer Zero, Paris”.  One of Hemingway’s chapters is about the store and its original owner, who loaned him books when he couldn’t afford to buy them.

Closer to home I’m a frequent browser at several of the many Half Price Books locations. And I’m a big fan of Brazos Bookstore on Bissonnet in Houston and, for whodunits, Murder by the Book, which is just down the street.  Galveston Bookshop, on the island on 23rd  Street, is one of my favorites, as was Midsummer Books around the corner, before Hurricane Ike put an end to it.

I miss Bookends, in Lake Jackson, and I miss Becky Dorroh, who owned it before she moved away.  Now that was a true bookshop, with shelves full of treasures, a comfortable couch and chairs, a knowledgeable friendly owner, and a couple of bookstore cats.

So, let me hear from you.  What are your favorite bookstores?

The rest of us might want to visit them.  It’s autumn, the best time to venture forth and find good reads to settle into by the fireplace this winter.

Remember, if you post on Facebook, blog followers who don’t do Facebook won’t see it.

Have yourself a fine October.