The Good Soldier

October 22nd, 2011

Recently, FD started noticing repeated references to a novel by Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, usually in reviews of other novels when the review wanted to draw attention to an unreliable narrator.  The number of references and the assumption that every reader of the novel in English is familiar with this work began to make FD nervous.  There are many, many “classics” that FD has not read.  Lists of “100 Best” often leave FD sighing, but usually do not move FD to actually reading such books.  But as FD came across more and more such references, it began to feel as if it really was important for FD to read  The Good Soldier. Fortunately, FD’s excellent local public library had a number of copies available; FD chose a Penguin British edition, with and introduction and notes. Serious reading was clearly ahead!

Julian Barnes, who knows a great deal about writing, provides a good overview of the novel in this piece published in the Guardian in 2008. Reading it after having finished The Good  Soldier helped FD to realize the different ways in which a reader and a writer might experience the novel.  A reader like FD might find the novel amusing, well-written, but ultimately slight:  one of those books that are “realistic” without being “believable” — at least not without a huge “suspension of disbelief.”  A writer, on the other hand, might be completely enthralled by the novel.  As Jane Smiley noted (also in the Guardian), “There are those who believe that The Good Soldier is one of the few stylistically perfect novels in any language…”

The fervor of writers and critics about Ford Madox Ford has made FD curious, and the fact that The Good Soldier was a “good read” has made it possible that FD will read something else by Ford.  Perhaps The Marsden Case — that’s a title with appeal for a mystery reader like FD.

The Drinking Detective

October 17th, 2011

FD recently read a mystery novel by Jo Nesbo, a highly acclaimed Norwegian writer.  FD read number four in the series, The Devil’s Star (capsule summaries of all of Nesbo’s mystery novels are available here). Perhaps FD should have started with the first in the series.  Read in order, perhaps one would develop more sympathy for the character.  The mystery was, as serial killer mysteries go, well-done, and there’s an appealing subsidiary character, one Beate Lonn, who is another in the growing field of crime scene investigators and could probably carry a novel by herself.

However, FD was ultimately unsatisfied.  The protagonist, Harry Hole, is presented as a seriously alcoholic person (yes, who makes a successful attempt to stop drinking during the span of the novel).  And yet, he is seemingly un-touched by his drinking — every brain cell working better than the brain cells of those around him, great physical condition enables him to take on significant challenges and his appeal to women totally intact, etc, etc.

FD has always felt that most mystery novels are too “easy” on the reader  and this seems another case in point.  Perhaps that’s explains the greater appeal of Henning Mankell’s Wallender series.  Wallendar is, in contrast to many other detectives, really affected by the bad choices he makes, by the difficult life situations in which he finds himself.  FD isn’t really looking forward to reading the last in he Wallender series, but does feel that more mystery writers would do well to follow Mankell’s example of realism even in what is ultimately completely escapist fiction.

Charles Baxter and Neo-Luddites

May 3rd, 2011

FD is reading a new collection of short stories by Charles Baxter, Gryphon.  Baxter is perhaps better known as a novelist than as a short story writer.  In 2000, his novel The Feast of Love was nominated for a (US) National Book Award, but lost to Susan Sontag’s In America (the National Book Award folks have a nice website, here).  FD has read The Feast of Love, and now a decade later remembered it fondly enough to pick up this collection of short stories from the public library. I am enjoying Baxter’s short stories more than I did the novel.  In Baxter’s stories sometimes things happen, sometimes not too much happens, but all the characters, even the crazy and those who are not very nice, are treated with the same gentleness that we all crave from life.  Bad things do happen in Baxter’s world, but there’s a sense of kindness and gentleness that seems larger than any particular person or event.  The world Baxter creates is a wonderful place to visit, and makes one look around one’s own world hoping to find an equal amount of compassion, or at least to be able to extend that compassion toward others.

Like all(?) modern writers, Baxter has web site.  Sigh. FD is also reading a book about our relationship to technology, Nicols Fox’s Against the Machine. FD is attracted to many of the strands of Neo-Luddite thought, and wants to think carefully about how much of life one gives up to technology.  Of course there is a whole genre of books in this vein, all of which — like Fox’s own — probably have a web site!  But somehow, it feels a little sad that writers have to participate so energetically in the wired world.

Geoff Dyer and Jigsaw Puzzles

March 28th, 2011

Geoff Dyer is a very interesting writer (as usual, a great place to start finding out about him is at the Complete Review‘s author page).  Like most of us, he knows a little about a lot of things and a lot about a few things.  And like most of us, some of what he thinks he knows may not be as unusual as he thinks.  I was surprised to see this in a recent essay from the Threepenny Review:

My mother had a particular way of doing jigsaws: we sorted out the side pieces and made a hollow, unstable frame, then filled in the middle. Our approach to jigsaws was, in other words, methodical, rigorous.

Doing the frame first — isn’t that the way everybody does jigsaw puzzles?? I remember reading in Margaret Drabble’s jigsaw-infused memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet:  A Memoir with Jigsaws, a discussion of sorting pieces by color (and I’ve been tempted at times to sort by shape, but usually don’t) — now that seems methodical and rigorous, but doing the frame first, that just seems normal, not especially “particular.”

From The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore

March 8th, 2011

On why people like mysteries (from pages 255-256):

“I think I love the idea that problems have solutions.  I think that’s the appeal of  mystery stories. . . .  As opposed to  a world that’s random. . . . Not knowing is the worst outcome for any mystery story, because we need to believe that everything in the world is knowable.  Justice is optional, but answers, at least, are mandatory.”

FD wonders if these attitudes are colored by the studies of the author, who has a degree in religious history.  Anyway, he also says (page 287),

“He’d read thousands of  happy endings and thousands of sad ones, and he had found himself satisfied with both.  What he had not read, he now realized, were the moments after the endings. . . .     . . . he had never before thought that find one [an answer/solution to a mystery], and then having to go on living with it, might be worse.”

Conversations in the Supermarket

March 5th, 2011

FD and Mr. FD were at the supermarket today, as they are every Saturday.  Actually, at two supermarkets, but that is another story.

At the supermarket, FD met someone FD and Mr. FD are having dinner with tomorrow night.  That was a brief conversation and everyone simply moved on.  But a few minutes later, in the soup aisle, an old and seldom seen acquaintance appeared.  Someone FD really likes.  So, of course, there was a fairly lengthly conversation, though not completely unlike many other conversations going on around us.  It’s not a big city, and one often runs into friends and acquaintances.

But, what was interesting was that, after all, one is trying to buy the weekly groceries, and it’s a task one does want to get on with.  And of course one doesn’t want to impede anyone else’s completion of the task.  So, after a few minutes of happy chat, FD and Mr. FD continued on, as did the friend.  Usually that would be the end of the event.  But today, all the participants ended up a few minutes later sharing another aisle.  At which point the friend made a good joke about “shadowing” FD and Mr. FD (well, it was funny at the time).  This is not what happens in most other situations.  Ordinarily, if you meet a friend out in the world while doing errands, you may have a happy chat and move on AND YOU WON”T SEE THE PERSON AGAIN.  But in the confines of the supermarket, multiple meetings, or at least passings, aren’t unusual.  And yet, FD isn’t sure what is the etiquette, or even the common custom, for such meetings???

One Book Wonder

February 1st, 2011

FD is reading an interesting book, Cain’s Version (published in 2008 by the small press imprint, Iroquois Press of Turner Publishing . This is the only novel by Frank Durham, who for many years worked as a physics professor at Tulane University.  So far, FD is enjoying the novel, which is an ambitious effort.  First, it combines a kind of magical realism narrative thread about the character Cain, the world’s first murderer according to Genesis.  Then, the protagonist of the more realistic narrative in the novel is a woman, as are several important subsidiary characters. It is of course not unusual for a male author to focus on a female character, but few male authors are Flaubert.  Finally, there’s a child who may be autistic, or developmentally challenged.  FD generally gravitates toward women authors, dislikes children, and is an atheist.

But FD is enjoying this book.  The idea that everyone has “one book in them” is undoubtedly a myth, and in Frank Durham’s case perhaps there would have been many more good books if he had lived long enough to write them.

FD found a copy at her local library, while skimming the fiction shelves.  Your library may also have a copy, and others are available from Turner Publishing and used books stores on-line.

Sentences and Spaces

January 14th, 2011

FD is old enough to have learned to type on an Hermes manual typewriter.  FD did not really learn to type in the high school class where the typewriters were even older.  However, the idea that one should put two spaces after the period of a sentence was probably learned in class.  And, despite changes since then (well described by Farhad Manjoo in his recent Slate essay “Space Invaders:  Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period”) FD is still using two spaces after a period.

Manjoo says typographers don’t like the two-space idea, and say it is not esthetically pleasing.  It’s an artifact, they/he say/s, based on the way in which old fashioned manual typewriters functioned.  In an age of variable type fonts, no extra space is needed.  But FD finds another reason for using two spaces to indicate the end of a sentence.  If one uses one space to show the end of a word, why not use two spaces to show the end of a sentence, which is a larger unit of thought.

But it seems to FD that the whole question is one of habit or custom.  The ways in which written words are displayed has changed a lot over time.  Many Ancient texts have no space between the words, which must have made reading challenging and perhaps could lead to some interesting misreadings.  Using a “capital letter” at the beginning of a sentence isn’t so old, either — and some languages do not even have different two different forms of each letter, as we do in English.

So, despite Manjoo’s distress, FD will be keeping the FD Blog full of “extra” space.

Reading the Constitution & Mark Twain

January 6th, 2011

This morning, FD listened to the House of Representatives reading the US Constitution.  Or so they said.  Actually, the house read a version of the document, leaving out things they didn’t want to read, including both the 18th and 21st amendments (those that adopted and then repealed Prohibition) and the “3/5ths clause” and so on.  The argument made was that portions of the document that had been changed are no longer part of the document.  But that doesn’t seem true.  The wording of various amendments does not say “we strike out” X or Y.  The document is not a palimpsest — the original words haven’t been scraped off.  If you want to read and understand the Constitution, you need to read it all.

Today’s reading wasn’t rehearsed, as far as FD could tell, and readers didn’t seem to have gotten clear instructions.  There wasn’t consistency in whether or not readers read all of the material (some amendment readers included dates of proposals and adoption, some did not) and the division of the readings was a bit weird — some readers didn’t even get to complete a sentence, just some phrases, which made for some strange sound bites.

Similarly, a recent decision to issue a version of Huckleberry Finn that makes changes to the wording of that novel seems also to ignore historical accuracy.  When is that a good idea?

G. B. Shaw on Christmas

December 24th, 2010

Here’s one of FD’s favorite quotations.  It used to reside on a yellowed piece of newsprint, which was kept in a corner of FD’s desk blotter and was a great comfort during the office “Secret Santa” event.  FD has not tried to track down a citation for the source.  Shaw’s writings are so voluminous, it may be that he also said something nice about Christmas and at Cafe Press one can buy Christmas stockings and ornaments for the tree with quotations (though not this one!) from GBS.


Christmas is forced on a reluctant and disgusted nation by the shopkeepers and the press:  on its own merits it would wither and shrivel in the fiery breath of universal hatred; and anyone who looked back to it would be turned into a pillar of greasy sausages.