Crime Doesn’t Pay; Neither Does Writing

Dear Reader, today we mark a solemn anniversary. On this day in 1942, William Faulkner, whose works to date (The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!) were not lucrative enough to keep body and soul knit together, embarked upon his screenwriting career. Yes. This happened.

Humphrey Bogart was the biggest box-office draw of the day and Warner Brothers thought the two would be unstoppable. But consider: Bogart was a chain smoker (hence, the eponymous rude habit of “bogarting” [don’t act like you don’t know what I mean]). How was he ever going to make it to the end of a Faulknerian sentence? In a phrase no one has ever used before: Hemingway to the rescue! WB put Faulkner to work doing film treatments of To Have and Have Not and then Chandler’s The Big Sleep. This was a boon for folks like me, who would otherwise never have endured Faulkner’s work in any form.

Surely, though, this was an aberration. Our society does not hold the written word in so light esteem that we’d make authors work for a living. Right? The sad truth follows:

1. Herman Melville, bank clerk

melvilleWhether he would prefer not to or no, Melville toiled at a bank in Albany, New York, beginning in 1832. Subsequent stints as English teacher and cabin boy proved equally unsatisfactory, so he boarded a merchant ship and went properly to sea. During his five-year voyage, he explored strange new worlds (including living with some cannibals in the Marquesas), sought out new life and new life forms (literally selling sea shells by the seashore in Tahiti), and was boldly imprisoned by mutineers.

Look how happy he is in this photo. Wearing a tie. Sitting in a chair. Having a table at elbow. He has landed the white whale of Indoorland. Well done, Herman.



2. George Orwell, policeman


The man TIME magazine would awkwardly hail as “Big Brother’s Father” one day enlisted (yes, that’s the correct word) in the Imperial Police at the age of 19 and went off to merry Mandalay, where he would be haunted by Mister de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, (not true) and eventually catch a nice whiff of dengue fever (sadly, true).

Known for perfectly serviceable works such as 1984, Orwell most importantly crafted the definitive guide on the making of tea, lauded (properly) as among the mainstays of civilization. He was also a linguist and spoke 9 languages, including the Tibeto-Burman tonal language, Shaw-Karen.

So cruel was life to this man that he retreated to an abandoned building in the Inner Hebrides after the death of his wife (and after many unsuccessful attempts to replace her). Fortunately, he eventually contracted tuberculosis, which was extremely fashionable at the time. Do it to Julia, indeed.

In this photo, he is doubtless wondering why he was not posted to Japan, where he might have picked up the proper technique for hara-kiri.

3. Kurt Vonnegut, car salesman


Did you really think these would get better? No Disney ads on this blog, Friend. (Dear Mr. Iger, I can make you a competitive offer.)

Kurt Vonnegut opened (not just sauntered into one Saturday morning, but opened) a Saab dealership in Barnstable, Massachusetts, five years after his first novel, Player Piano, was launched. He credited his lack of success at selling Saabs with the prejudice the Swedes displayed in withholding the Nobel.

This is a photo of Kurt visiting the air-raid shelter where he waited out the fire-bombing of Dresden as a POW, trying mightily to catch a little of Orwell’s complaint.

4. J.D. Salinger, your activities director


Nobody’s fool, J.D. tried to go about things the right way. But when his relationship with Oona O’Neill (daughter of Eugene O’Neill) went south, he had to get an honest job. I’m not sure he had to go whole hog and become the activities director for the MS Kungsholm, but it was a Swedish ship (seems he and Kurt were working the same angle).

Hard to imagine this fellow setting up the shuffleboard tourney. I’m seeing swaths of rye around the courts. And then, then, ohmygosh, people are just running off the edge of the ship! And no one can catch them, because J.D. has been so busy with the pinochle seatings that Holden Caulfield hasn’t been written yet. The horror!

There are more, many more: Agatha Christie as druggist’s assistant, James Joyce running a movie theater, Kerouac washing dishes and Burroughs killing bugs. Virginia Woolf may have had it worst of all. She became a publisher and it made her so cranky she rejected James Joyce. Not a date with Joyce, mind you, but Ulysses. She sold out eventually and killed herself three years later. Dangerous work, this writing life.

So, next time you breezily bypass some Great Work and think, “I’ll get it at the library,” remember: You are a party to this grave injustice. Writing is hard and writers need to eat—dust and cocaine, at a minimum. Go treat yourself, some lucky author, and the world and support your local bookstore (or massive online retailer).

The weekend’s coming. What will you read?




July 22nd is International Ratcatchers’ Day. I didn’t even know there were international rats. Ah! The learning never ends when books are involved. “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” is the obvious choice, but we decry the obvious. Let’s find some more reclusive rodents.

1. The Wind in the Willows


There is, apparently, no shortage of people who will argue that Rat (aka “Ratty”) is not a rat. I say to them both P and shaw.

Kenneth Grahame‘s motley crew of vermin is so wonderfully British and polite and concerned for one another that our future robot overlords will be able to recreate the best of our civilization from reading this tale.

There is a weird story surrounding the publication of the novel which asserts that it had been rejected by a number of publishers until a certain Theodore Roosevelt made a plea on the author’s behalf. I can’t find a reputable source for this and it seems wildly improbable. Yes, there was Teddy’s thing with the national parks and the Great Outdoors in general, but there were also the Rough Riders. What happened to him on San Juan Hill?

2. King Rat


James Clavell was a POW in a Japanese camp for three years. Before his breakout hit Shogun, he debuted with this tale of survival in the camp. My father was a WWII vet of the Pacific theater and he told few tales, but one grew up with the distinct impression that few fates were worse than finding yourself at the mercy of the Japanese.

Clavell tells lots of tales. Most historical accounts paint his prison, Changi, as among the better run. The survival rate was significantly better than average; most camps had a 27% mortality rate. Some of this was due to the, let’s say pluck, of the prisoners, who caught and bred rats as livestock. Clavell tells the story of what happened when the camp was liberated and the soft-hearted detainees freed the rats from their cages, but I won’t spoil his revelation for you. I will spoil the bare facts of it though, because there is a lovely cinematic treatment of it featuring Javier Bardem teasing an oh-so-calm Daniel Craig in Skyfall.  If you’d prefer to see to the stark movie version of King Rat, it’s up on YouTube in its entirety. But Daniel Craig is not in it, so…

3. A Matter of Rats

matter ratsI have tried so many times to dig into India. The British loved it. They have all that tea. Gandhi and Mother Teresa are great. I could even learn to like the Nehru jacket. But I have failed to get into:

  • Midnight’s Children
  • The God of Small Things
  • White Tiger
  • The Inheritance of Loss
  • The Interpreter of Maladies

I think each of the authors for these books is brilliant. The writing is enchanting. But India is just so different, in ways I can’t even articulate, that it’s hard to break into their reality bubble.

The same is true of Amitava Kumar‘s portrait of a hometown. It’s a skillfully crafted biography of place (I love that sort of thing). If you like any of the authors of the above works (and you must like at least one), you will probably love this. There is one tangent I found intriguing about the East India’s use of Patna to produce the opium they were using to hornswoggle the Chinese. [Marginalia: How is capitalism still legal?] Of all my efforts to conquer India, this vehicle came closest to carrying me to victory. Really, very close. Just not quite there. But this book does have rats—truly amazing numbers of rats. Don’t take this one camping with you.

You will have noted, I hope, the restraint I have applied in resisting the easy jump to mice. Mice are virtually everywhere in literature, and I don’t mean just in my overstock shelves in the basement. I’m sure there is some sort of mouse day (when is Mickey’s birthday, anyway) and we’ll do our due diligence then. Here’s hoping all your smelled rats are metaphorical.


Junk Squad

Today, the rest of the world celebrates Junk Food Day (I’m not sure if there is a day when this is not celebrated, but I tangentialize). I thought of recommending all the yummy finger food you can mindlessly consume while paging through your latest, but the pitfalls were deep and many: the meltitude of bonbons, the Trumpian stains of Cheetos, the venerable leavings of cheese and crackers, and the risk of wine stains that lend too-authentic a cast to your favorite mystery.

Instead, I offer you junk as the main course: Books which are “junk” by some reasonable standard, but that I still managed to read and even (in some cases) enjoy.

1. Twilight


Shame me if you will, but I read this. And every one of its sequels. And I watched the movies at their premier-night midnight showings. My Meyer game is strong and, if you must know, Team Edward, of course.

It started as a responsible-parenting episode. I had a teen daughter, she was obsessively reading this, yada. But what red-blooded American girl can resist the charm of an immortal, chaste Edwardian with R.Pat’s looks and a century of practicing Debussy under his belt? None, I assert.

I won’t defend the writing, and many make a strong case about how this codependent mess of a relationship is the worst possible thing for teen girls to read. But the idea that someone would wait a hundred years for you? Game, set, match Meyer.


2. The Shack


I can say one nice thing about this book: They nearly got the title right. In that it should start with an “SH,” have one syllable, and a short vowel, and give one a sense of purgation upon utterance.

Twenty million people bought this (No, there’s no link. I will not be a party to this.) That’s roughly the equivalent of those killed by Stalin. I’m not sure whom I pity more.

The writing contravenes the Geneva Convention, the plot is a slo-mo reel of the Hindenburg disaster, and the theology is an abomination unto the Lord.

Eugene Peterson blurbed it and, as a result, I am going to burn the one Eugene Peterson book I own (relax, it’s not the Bible).


We don’t have a rating system here at Bibliophenia, but if we did, this one would get five of these:mines

If you haven’t yet forked over your money for this one, go buy yourself six McDoubles and be the better for it.

3. Atlas Shrugged


Oh, it’s horrible. But I did read it. Twice.

Here’s the thing: If you ever feel as though you just can’t make a difference in the world, as though you have no control over your own life, as though there is no evidence of free will in your sphere of influence, Atlas Shrugged is the one and only antidote.

Have yourself a big, cold drink of Dagny Taggart. It’s like Red Bull for your soul—powerful, instantly effective, and possibly the source of long-term damage. You will be sure that your world is YOUR WORLD. You will own it. You will be all powerful. You will be an unmitigated jerk.

After about three weeks of ceaseless dominance over your life, you’ll regain your senses, recognize that other humans are not mere props in your solipsistic one-man show, and settle back down to normality. But your closets will still be super clean and your boss will have already decided to give you a raise.

[Extra credit: The “Ayn” in Ayn Rand is properly pronounced like the German word for one: Ein. Or like the first syllable in Einstein. Or like the sound you make when hit your knee on a table whilst standing up. Or that bit that Ozzy sings in the intro to “Crazy Train.” If you forget and some fanboy gives you a hard time, remind him that her real name is Alice Rosenbaum and that she’s a Russkie. That usually throws some cold water on misplaced fervor.]

4. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

lincolnI had a new Kindle. This was a 99-cent promo. I was on vacation. There was nothing else to read.

I loved it.

Bonus: I loved my new Kindle, because no one could see what I was reading.

This is a well-written, tightly plotted novel that explains Lincoln in a way that Doris Kearns Goodwin cannot. Here’s a wee taste:

Abraham Lincoln would never take another life. And yet he would become one of the greatest killers of the nineteenth century.

The deliciousness does not stop. Need a break? Get yourself one of these.



And that, my friends, is our tour of junk food for the mind—some of it dangerous, some OK in moderation. I hope that you will try one, especially when you are feeling rebellious, but dare not rebel against reading. What will you read next?

The Solemnity of the Night Sky

June 20 is Space Exploration Day. Since we’re (oh so sadly) in something of a post-Space Age here in the United States, we’ll have to explore it using the rocketry of literature. The title of today’s post comes courtesy of Victor Hugo. Where in Hugo, I cannot say, because the Internet is peopled with crusading anti-academics, but I salute them for having curated this quote:

It seemed to be a necessary ritual that he should prepare himself for sleep by meditating under the solemnity of the night sky… a mysterious transaction between the infinity of the soul and the infinity of the universe.

At this time in the sweltering Midwest, getting outside in the evening is a necessary ritual for even the soulless, but it is generally always a good idea. Here are a few thoughts to keep you company on your nocturnal sojourns:

1. Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.

220px-LettersFromTheEarthIf you know Mark Twain, you likely know him for his folksy, gentle humor. If you stopped at Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, this quote might seem like the darkest thing Twain has ever written. It’s not.

I invite you, with some trepidation, to take a tour of the dark side of Twain with Letters from the Earth. Following the death of his wife and daughter, Twain turned his pen against the author of his miseries, God. The result is a diatribe in the voice of Satan, fairly effectively damning adherents of all faiths, especially Christians. It is theologically dark, but also a sad reflection of the state of Twain’s mind just before his death. Apparently much of his grief was not the result of bereavement but of the inconveniences of age and infirmity, particularly as they affect the recreational habits of gentlemen. Some things are better left in the dark.

2. The contemplation of celestial things will make a man both speak and think more sublimely and magnificently when he descends to human affairs.


Indulge me while I relate the jubilance [here resisting the urge to insert a .wav of a giggle of delight] resulting from a recent acquisition: Some sixty volumes from the Loeb Classical Library, including this tasty bit of Cicero. Having been subjected to many years of the Latin (Ah! The perfect passive!), I can now look upon it with a joy largely absent from my first encounter. Cicero, especially, is a fondly remembered friend.

Oratory, the subject of this letter (hardly the only time Cicero treated the topic), has three aims: docere, delectare,  movere—To document your thesis, to delight your audience, and to move your listeners.

Rhetoric was once an essential staple of any proper education. Along with grammar and logic, it formed the foundation for all other knowledge. Today, the collective term for these three is a derision: trivia.

Fallen, too, from so great a height is astronomy. Once the parent of all the natural sciences, it is now a hobby for those who can afford telescopes and don’t have to be at work in the morning. With the extent of urban light pollution, we’d not know there were stars at all, were it not for Neil DeGrasse Tyson (gratuitous shout-out).

Having thus documented the importance of astronomy, delighted you with the prospect of staying up well past your bedtime, we’re on to the movement: This week, I urge you to free your inner astronomer. Grab some binoculars (yes, you can see heaven with them) and a starter guide and look up. The stars have something to say to you.

3. We ran as if to meet the moon…

frostThere is no good reason not to have a bit of Robert Frost ready to hand. Amazon will let you pick up used copies of his work for a penny. A penny, people!

This line is from “Going for Water,” from Frost’s first collection, A Boy’s Will. It conveys the excitement of childhood, that idea that you really  could catch the moon if you just ran fast enough. Far enough. Long enough.

On one long car journey in my childhood, I stared out the back window for hours on end, watching the moon. It must have followed me for hundreds of miles, sometimes ducking behind a hill or peeking from a stand of trees. Shakespeare being still many years in my future, I felt there could be nothing in the universe more certain, more dependable than the moon.

My parents, in the front seat, were too busy with driving, navigating, and planning to turn around and look at me. But the moon—the grand, important moon—had all the time in the world. It watched me all the way home, never fading, never blinking. Robert_Frost,_1913

I found this photo of our young poet, taken in the year he first published A Boy’s Will. It’s hard to see the grizzled old Yankee we’ve come to love in this jaunty boy.

But that old man is in this young boy, just as the full moon is in the new, and the sunset in the sunrise.





I hope you’ll explore some space of your own today. If time and liberty are insufficient this evening, at least recite Goodnight, Moon on your way to dreamland. The moon and stars will still be there tomorrow, and forever from now. Happy reading!


La Fête Nationale (aka Bastille Day)

Congratulations, France! You are well entitled to the high esteem in which many of the world’s denizens hold you. I always start this day with the first few lines of La Marseillaise. Then we get to the bit about letting impure blood soak our fields and the enthusiasm ebbs ever so slightly. Lest my efforts to promote your culture succeed only in insulting you (which, alas, can be too easy to do), today we will feature books about…prison.

1. Darkness at Noon

darknessDue to the haphazard way in which my childhood library was formed (i.e., books that came with the house), selections were few and disparate. I, being of few years and desperate, picked this up when I was 10 or so. Someone really ought to have been supervising me.

The exciting adventures of Rubashov are informed by Arthur Koestler‘s own experience of arrest and imprisonment under Franco. Impending death seems to impart a great clarity (though that’s a steep price), and Koestler presents this story with a gray sense of the powerlessness of the individual and the inevitability of the state’s agenda. It is not a good book for young people, nor for those condemned. It is good for the vapid or self-absorbed, and I’m sure you know someone like that. (Don’t bother, I already have a copy.)


2. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

onedayNot usually remembered with nostalgia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s first book left two lasting impressions on my life:

  1. I named my eldest after Solzhenitsyn (the first name, not the last). I wanted him to grow up to be thoughtful, politically informed, and courageous. He did.
  2. Despite hailing from a long line of smokers, I never got the habit. You may have to spend ten years in a Siberian labor camp, thought I, and tobacco will be really hard to get and that will be the single worst part of the experience. Best not to start. Eternal gratitude, Solzhenitsyn.

These were likely not among the goals the author had in mind when setting pen to paper, but good books, I contend, have a way of creating their own good in the world. This one is great for getting out of your own skin and seeing the world from another perspective. It’s also a terrific way to put a chill on a hot summer day.

Bobby Sands reprised it, to powerful effect, during the Blanket Rebellion at Long Kesh in the ’80s. He wrote his version on toilet paper (hey, he wasn’t using it) and stored it well out of the guards’ reach. His book is just brutal. I can’t recommend you read it yourself (just to avoid damage to your soul), but it would be a thoughtful gift for that Irish Republican or Ancient Hibernian in your life. Or someone British you really dislike.

3. Different Seasons


Tucked in this Stephen King collection of three excellent short stories (and one vile tale/literary virus that should be contained and used only in the event of alien invasion) is “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”

As prison stories go, this one is a charmer, featuring an unjustly convicted man who uses his talents to improve the lives of everyone in the prison and manages some fairly astonishing feats. If you need a prison story that’s short (maybe you’re just waiting to plead guilty to that speeding charge) and has a happy ending, here’s your ticket.

Do not, under any circumstances, read “Apt Pupil.” Do not. Also, make sure your basement floor is properly paved and sealed.


4. Native Son


This might be the best time to read Richard Wright‘s masterpiece about crime and race. It is always encouraging to see gifted writers tackling difficult subjects. It is less encouraging to recognize that, with very few revisions, this story could take place today.

I read a host of reviews before posting this and the conflict there tells its own tale. Those who like the book tend to be literary types, social activist types, and students. Those who don’t? I can’t be sure, but they seem to be some angry, privileged people.

“This book would be OK if Wright didn’t have such an agenda.”
“Maybe good for understanding a time when black people were not treated the same as white people.”
“The school board needs to rethink what students should read.”

I can agree with that last comment, both on general principles and on the basis that rape and murder are not easy to read about. But when should our children find out about crime, or inequality, or addiction, or genocide? When is someone old enough to read Night? (NB: No one is ever old enough to read Night.)

I’ll absolve you if you choose to read the abridged version and by all means feel free to skip the author’s long intro if it doesn’t work for you. But give the 250 or so pages in the middle a try. Whatever your race or politics, you’ll learn something.

For those of you who have found this just too depressing, here’s a cheery note: Today is also the birthday of British comedian David Mitchell. If you don’t know him, allow me to make an introduction: He has written books, too (not those books, that’s another David Mitchell), about which more in a future installment.


It’s “Cheer Up the Lonely” Day!

Caveat: Not all who are alone are lonely. So all you extroverts who somehow stumbled on a book blog, just take a deep breath before you sneak up on some “poor” loner with his nose in a book. However, if you see a forlorn face behind the pages of one of these, maybe smile and say hello.

1. The Bell Jar

belljarSylvia Plath seems like a person with a truckload of problems unless you learn something about Ted Hughes. It’s easy to point the finger at mental illness, but when both your wives opt out? There’s a dark, dark Sesame Street jingle waiting to be composed.

A person carrying this book is likely an English major. This is OK, because the life of an English major is riddled with disappointments, but he can always fall back on “At least I’m not Sylvia Plath” and feel pretty good about things.

An otherwise happy person who picks this up (due to an interest in the French intensive method, let’s say) will face one of two results: Either the book will be put down or the reader will wish he were.

Sad people, people going through breakups, people dating people named Ted, and all teenagers should avoid this book.


2. The Remains of the Day

remainsThis Ishiguro fellow is going to get a post all his own one day. He does loneliness like Phelps does water—effortless, smooth, and really fast. He wrote this one in four weeks. If you’ve seen the film, you may be thinking this is one where the book can’t possibly be better. Oh, but it is.

“I try to write unfilmable novels,” Ishiguro told the Economist. I would swear he succeeds, but there are filmmakers afoot who seem equal to the challenge.

If you don’t know the book or the film, imagine what it’s like to live a life of such structure and rigor that you never reveal your feelings, even to yourself.

Then you’re old.



3. White Nights

whitenightsIf you ever see a non-Russian person under the age of 80 reading Dostoevsky, you should do your best to separate the two of them. I was working on a Russian minor (as in secondary course of study, not as in underaged Belarusian) when the Russian realists drew into my crosshairs. “Do your worst!” I spat at the spectre of their chill threat. I powered through Karamazov. I held firm through Karenina. Dead Souls was just a bit of bureaucratic fluff. Rounding third and heading for home, I dusted off some of Fyodor’s short stories. “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man” hurt. It hurt bad, I won’t lie. Then this. I thought our man was tackling the same project, with a gentler hand. I thought I heard the distant strains of human resilience. Was that…hope?

No. It wasn’t.

Still today, I react to every disappointment—traumatic or trivial—with this line in my head:

“My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”

Extra tip for world leaders: Need to get the upper hand on Putin? Whip this line out on him. There’s no way he can stand the army of regrets that will rise to defeat him on that day. It’s his own personal Polonium-210.

4. The Dead


Feeling uncontrollably chipper? Need to take that spring out of your step before you hurt your back? Is your day just too dang sunny and there are no Russians about? James Joyce to the rescue!

This, too, is a short story because it is, apparently, too easy to depress humans. Take Victorian Dublin, a snowy feast of the Epiphany, a man named Gabriel, and his wife Regretta…er, Gretta, that is. Blend thoroughly, decant into a shotglass, and then plunge the whole thing into a foamy pint of “September 1913” and you get an exploding car bomb named the Death of Romantic Ireland.

Joyce plucks your innards out so beautifully, you’ll think you hear angels singing to the airs of a harp strung with your own catgut. Yes, Furey is buried, but the snow is never very deep on the old sod, is it?