Author Archives: Stan Deaton

What I’m Reading Now: August 14, 2018

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962, Penguin Books, 277 pp.)

John Steinbeck is considered to be one of the foremost authors of the 20th century, keeping company with Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Most of us make our first (and perhaps only) contact with Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men (1937) in high school, or in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), for which he won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In 1962 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, though many thought his best work was decades behind him. He died in New York five days before Christmas in 1968, nearly 50 years ago, at age 66.

Long before “On the Road” with Charles Kuralt, and three years following Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name, Steinbeck set out in the fall of 1960 to re-connect with America and its people. Having lived and worked for so long in New York, he felt he’d lost touch with “real” Americans.

In order to travel anonymously as much as possible so that people would talk freely with him, Steinbeck bought a three-quarter-ton pickup truck, had a camper built for its bed, christened it “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s famous steed, and set out on the highway with his French poodle Charley on a trek that took him from Maine to California. The camper kept him from signing hotel registers, and he claims never to have been recognized by sight.

Along the way he met and talked with ordinary people, slept in Rocinante under the stars and found that the America of his youth and that he had always believed in was still out there. He visited New Hampshire farmers and Yellowstone National Park, always with Charley as his faithful companion: “It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?”

He published the results in 1962 as a work of non-fiction, and critics raved that it was his best work in years. It’s great fun to read, and you can still see the truck and Rocinante at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.

But is it really non-fiction? A few years ago a dedicated researcher uncovered that most of it wasn’t, that Steinbeck slept many nights not in Rocinante but in luxury hotels, that the characters and dialogue were largely fiction, and that not only Charley but also his wife Elaine accompanied him much of the way.

This may all be true, but I’m not sure it really matters. What Steinbeck describes—and what he claims that he found universally among the people he met along the way—is a longing and a desire to get away from where we are, to go elsewhere, to be somewhere, anywhere, rather than where we are. “They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something.”

That still seems as true now—for us an individuals and maybe for the country as a whole—as when Steinbeck wrote it nearly 60 years ago. Even as I read, I fell into the trap of thinking that the early 1960s seemed preferable to the times in which we live, that Steinbeck’s America wasn’t filled with hyper-wired know-it-alls who are divided hopelessly into partisan tribes.

But of course I know better. The past always looks seductively more understandable and simple than our own times, just as another geographic space seems to offer more or less, depending on what you want, than where we stand now.

Travels with Charley—be it fiction or non-fiction—confirms that humans as individuals and as nations are universally restless and unsatisfied, that we always want to go someplace else—in time and/or space—that promises either to bring something back that’s missing or to offer a more fulfilling life than the one we live now. Isn’t this why I play the lottery every week?

As Steinbeck wrote and acknowledged himself, “our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.”

 

What I’m Reading Now: August 7, 2018

Paper or Plastic?

Once again this week we take a break from discussing a particular book to examine other literary topics of interest. This week: printed books vs. the electronic version.

Philip Leighton, a consultant on library design, said that “books are for reading and computers are for research.” Without going quite that far, I’ll say that if any long-suffering reader of this blog needs to be told which version I prefer, then you haven’t been paying attention. This isn’t really about which is best but what is particular to each and the joys they bring.

There is of course a great deal of difference between reading the printed word and reading text (like the words you’re reading right this red-hot second). The experience of holding a tactile object in your hand, with pages that must be turned, is very different from holding an electronic device with a screen that one scrolls through and plugs in when the battery runs down. Both of them offer words but in very different ways. And let the record show, I’m heartily in favor of both.

Breaking news: I love books. Real books. I love the smell and the feel of them. I have several thousand in my home, over a thousand more in my office at GHS, and several hundred in a mountain cabin. Some people see books as clutter, as something to be gotten rid of or to be periodically “pared down.” People who say things to me like, “you need to get rid of all these books” are subsequently banned from the premises, if not out of my life altogether. What utter rubbish. No, I don’t have room for them all, but if I did then I wouldn’t have enough. See how that works? Augustine Birrell put it best: “An ordinary man can surround himself with two thousand books and thence forward have at least one place in the world in which it is possible to be happy.

Still, as incomprehensible as it might be to me, some people love e-readers like the Kindle precisely because it makes all those physical objects—and finding room for them—unnecessary. If you simultaneously love to read but don’t like walking into a room and seeing the majesty of rows of books displayed on a shelf (besides obviously being a candidate for psycho-analysis), then the e-reader is for you.

The e-reader brings its own joys. As I’ve written elsewhere, one of the beauties of the Kindle is the ease with which one can find the complete works of some great authors and their otherwise scarce books and purchase them for practically nothing.

My Kindle has the complete or collected works of the authors you’d expect to find like Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, but also the complete works of writers whose work I’ve never come across in a bookstore, such as the masters of horror fiction like Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Arthur Machen; great crime masters such as Sax Rohmer (creator of Dr. Fu Manchu), Baroness Emma Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Austin Freeman (Dr. Thorndyke mysteries), Clayton Rawson (The Great Merlini series), along with the exploits of Pulp-era detectives Bulldog Drummond, Average Jones, and Craig Kennedy (“the scientific detective”); childhood favorites like Tom Corbett (Space Cadet) and the Rick Brant Adventures; timeless reads such as Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Joseph Addison’s Spectator, as well as the complete works of nearly forgotten authors Edith Nesbit, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Love Peacock, Tobias Smollett, Ann Radcliffe, Samuel Richardson, Kenneth Grahame, Horace Walpole, and many others. It’s all at my fingertips, cost virtually nothing, and takes up no space.

It goes without saying that I could never lug such a variety of genres around with me in such a compact and convenient way, even if I lived long enough to find these books in print. The e-reader is obviously perfect for the waiting room and the airport, while having the Kindle app on your phone is the perfect antidote to those interminable DMV visits or any unexpected long delay anywhere.

The only drawback is that you can’t impress anyone around you by reading War and Peace on your phone. Not to mention, if you’re reading anything with that many pages—trust me on this—you’re going to need to see yourself making real progress in a real book or you’ll feel like you’re trapped in digital hell.

The e-reader then is yet another wonderful tool for bringing more reading into our lives. This blog stands decidedly in favor of that. May it continue to thrive and offer readers the chance to discover or re-discover authors whose works have been sadly forgotten or those whose books grace the best-seller lists, whichever you prefer.

Book lovers used to despair that e-readers might one day replace the real thing. As I watch vinyl records make a strong comeback (while CDs and places to play them disappear), and the sale of e-books stagnate, I no longer worry. I’m confident that printed books aren’t going anywhere.

Where will the books I bought on my Kindle be in 30 years? I have no idea. But the real things will still be waiting on the shelves, companions of a lifetime whose friendship never grows old. Pete Hamill said “there are 10,000 books in my library, and it will keep growing until I die. This has exasperated my daughters, amused my friends, and baffled my accountant. If I had not picked up this habit in the library long ago, I would have more money in the bank today. I would not be richer.”

However we read, we can all agree with Matthew Price: “Books, in all their myriad forms, are necessary equipment for living.”

What I’m Reading Now: July 31, 2018

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, translated by G.H. McWilliam (Penguin Classics, 1995, 909 pp.)

The latest entry in the “100 Greatest Books Ever Written” is Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Written between 1349 and 1352, it’s one of the most important works in Renaissance literature. This is a big book, with enormous influence on everything that came after.

Don’t be put off by the size of this book, however, or the fact that it was written over 650 years ago—it’s great fun to read. With the Black Death—the bubonic plague—rampant in Florence in 1348, ten young people (seven women and three men) flee to a country estate and settle in to wait out the scourge. To entertain themselves, and with no Wifi, they each tell a story with a different theme every day for ten days—hence the title.

The Decameron is a group of tales united by a frame story, a literary device familiar to anyone who ever took a high school lit class and had to read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written forty years later. Chaucer’s pilgrims, like Boccaccio’s young folks, each take turns telling a story on their journey.

One of the most famous examples of a frame story is The Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights), which precedes both Boccaccio and Chaucer by centuries. This collection of largely Middle Eastern and Indian stories is told by Scheherazade, married to a king who puts his wife to death each night. The heroine avoids death by telling him a different story every night and leaving her tale incomplete till the next day, thus avoiding her cruel fate.

The one hundred tales that make up The Decameron are by turns funny, bawdy, tragic, heroic, and of course romantic. The work was first circulated in manuscript until the invention of printing in the 15th century with Gutenberg’s press, and the first printed edition appeared in Florence in 1469. It’s never been out of print and influenced humanist Renaissance scholars for centuries after.

As with all books like this, the proper translation is everything. If you’re reading Homer’s Odyssey, try the translations by three classical scholars of towering reputation: Robert Fagles (1996), Robert Fitzgerald (1961), and Richmond Lattimore (1967), all still available and all elegantly written. Better yet, check out the newest translation by Emily Wilson, who made history in 2017 as the first woman to publish an English translation of the Odyssey after more than 60 translations by males since the first appeared in 1615.

G.H. McWilliam’s translation of The Decameron in this Penguin Classics edition, first published in 1972 and updated in 1995, is perfectly pitched to entertain and delight. The tales are translated into modern English, and though he no doubt takes some liberties, the result stands as a modern classic. It’s little wonder they’ve been continuously read for six and a half centuries.

What I’m Reading Now: July 24, 2018

John Dickson Carr, The Case of the Constant Suicides (Harper, 1941) in A John Dickson Carr Trio: The Three Coffins, The Crooked Hinge, The Case of the Constant Suicides (Harper & Bros, 1957, 472 pp.)

Angus Campbell lived in his family castle in Scotland, with his bedroom on top of a 50-foot tower. One morning his body is found on the ground below the tower, an apparent suicide, since the bedroom door remained locked and bolted on the inside, the only window inaccessible from the ground. A mysterious suitcase is found under the bed that wasn’t there when the door was locked. How did it get there after the door was locked, and more importantly, what was in it? As other family members arrive to settle the estate, a brother sleeps in the room and meets a similar fate—again with the door locked from the inside.

John Dickson Carr was the master of the fabled “locked room mystery,” the classic whodunit that featured a seemingly unsolvable crime that took place inside a locked and otherwise inaccessible room. His 1935 novel The Three Coffins (or The Hollow Man as it was published in Britain) was selected as the best locked-room mystery of all time. Carr was one of the best mystery writers of the Golden Age of the pulp mystery magazines. The Unionville, Pennsylvania, native published under his own name as well as the pseudonyms Carter Dickson and Carr Dickson.

The man who invariably solved the mysteries was Dr. Gideon Fell, to my mind one of the great fictional amateur detectives in literature. A mixture of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, Sherlock Holmes, and Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen (“the Thinking Machine,” created by Georgia’s own Jacques Futrelle), Fell was an overweight curmudgeonly British scholar who wore a cape and a shovel hat and carried a cane. Like Holmes, he observes everything and reveals nothing until he has the mystery in hand, though the reader is given exactly the same clues that he is. When he’s not solving murders, he works on his history of the beer-drinking habits of the English people. What’s not to like?

The hardest part about reading Carr is finding his books; they are largely out of print, though some are available as E-books online at the usual places. As with so many great reads, I learned about Carr through Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda and was lucky enough to find this book at Second Story Books in Maryland. Whenever I go into any used bookstore, I scour the mystery section in search of Carr’s books and have struck gold several times.

Carr died of lung cancer in 1977 at the age of 70 and is buried in Springwood Cemetery in Greenville, South Carolina. Like so many writers who enjoyed widespread fame during his lifetime, he is largely and undeservedly forgotten now. But if you love mysteries, put John Dickson Carr on your list.

What I’m Reading Now: July 17, 2018

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, by Neil Sheehan (Random House, 1988, 861 pp.)

“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds.”

So begins Robert Fagles’ elegant translation of Homer’s Iliad, the 3,000-year-old account of the Trojan War, and from that day to this, humankind has sought in vain to understand the tragedy and futility of war.

Few armed conflicts seem more futile in retrospect or more difficult to understand now than the Vietnam War. It took Ken Burns 18 hours to attempt to explain it in his recent 10-part documentary, though it’s well worth watching.

Even if you’re interested in military history it can be a difficult thing to wrap your mind around, as the names and geography are unfamiliar and the fighting unconventional. Behind it all lurks the geo-politics of the Cold War and the turmoil of 1960s America, which is why many written accounts of the era are doorstops as well: check out David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) and Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (1983).

More recently, in the June 7 New York Review of Books, Robert Kaiser reviewed Max Boot’s new account of the war, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam. He praised it as masterful but called Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, written 30 years ago, “still the best book on the Vietnam War.”

Few wars ever had a better scribe than Neil Sheehan. His account of America’s “great clash of arms” in southeast Asia that killed more than 58,000 Americans and several million Vietnamese is epic indeed. Sheehan was awarded the 1988 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his achievement.

In order to explain the gargantuan struggle, Sheehan focused on the conflict through the eyes of one man, John Paul Vann, himself a tragic figure. Vann was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army voluntarily sent to Vietnam as an advisor in 1962. He became convinced early on that America’s strategy of a big war fought in the style of World War II, with a focus on body counts and bombing runs, would never work against such a dedicated foe as the North Vietnamese.

Every attempt Vann made to send back a true account of the war met official censorship from higher-ups who denigrated all negative reports as bad for homefront morale that would stymie the brass’s call for ever larger numbers of American troops. By 1967 Vann was advising his superiors that the war as fought would never be won, but no one in authority—from General William Westmoreland to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to LBJ himself—wanted to be accused of “cutting and running.” If we didn’t stop the Commies in Saigon, President Johnson warned, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of Hawaii and then California.

So the war went on and on, with the draft and social unrest, more Americans fighting in a place many couldn’t find on a map, more bombing, more atrocities, more civilian casualties, more POWs, and little sense of what victory would ultimately mean against a foe that would not surrender. The imaginative military thinking that had defeated the Nazis and Japanese in three and a half years had become complacent and arrogant, unwilling to believe that such a crude people in an underdeveloped country could resist the greatest military power on earth.

The most interesting part of the narrative is John Paul Vann himself, a man driven to succeed at the highest levels while haunted by personal demons that would have crippled lesser men. He died in a helicopter crash in 1972 and was buried at Arlington, his sacrifice and those of thousands of his comrades seemingly in vain.

It’s impossible to read this book now without the shadow of America’s 16-year wars in Afghanistan and Iraq looming large in the background. There is no draft now, thus no social unrest at home and no urgency to end them. These two seemingly endless conflicts, in which final “victory” still cannot really be defined, goes on and on, exacting “countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds.”

In three thousand years, has very much changed?