Tag Archives: language

584. The Old Man and the Sea

Back when the Great American Read was happening I promised my own best list. I tried for a long list and settled for fifteen, of which I have presented twelve so far. Looking at that list, I find that only three were written by “classic” authors. Today’s entry is one of them; Stevenson and Dickens were the other two. The other twelve choices just write better than most of those old guys.

I once said that Hemingway is the greatest writer who ever wrote a novel where the hero won a fight, made love to a woman, caught a fish, and died on the final page. I wasn’t referring to Santiago’s fish, but to all the fish his heroes caught in a sporting fashion in nearly every book he ever wrote.

Hemingway was the master of a small set of circumstances, but those did not represent all of the human condition — not even a significant chunk of the human condition. Shakespeare wrote about all of mankind. Hemingway wrote about roughly 1%.

What he wrote was wonderful, if you thought like he did. But it didn’t have much depth or breadth, and it certainly never tackled a situation where there were two ways of looking at something. There was only one way — his way.

I have to be a bit careful here, so you don’t think I’m trashing him. I love to read Hemingway. He is a fine writer, within his limits. He isn’t a great writer. He isn’t even close. His focus is too narrow and his reach is too small. But I still love to read him.

Hemingway won a Nobel prize for literature. If he had won it for The Sun Also Rises or For Whom the Bell Tolls, that would bother me, but he won it for his masterpiece, The Old Man and The Sea.

It’s likely that you have read The Old Man and The Sea; most people have. Hemingway’s style was minimalist, which makes him easy to read, so he ends up on a lot of high school required reading lists, and The Old Man and The Sea is his shortest book.

In case you haven’t read it, Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, hasn’t caught a fish in months, but he still goes out every day. We see him first in preparation for another trip, then we spend the day with him. Eventually, he hooks and lands a giant marlin. This amounts to too much success; he can’t get it into his small boat, so he has to lash it alongside. Then he spends painfully long hours bringing it in, while sharks tear it to bits. He reaches shore, with only a small portion remaining. The next day, he will have to go out again.

It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but that is the point. It isn’t about what he does, but about how he does it.

I think there are two reasons that The Old Man and the Sea worked so well, one minor and one major. The piece is short. It is not a novel by any reasonable reckoning, but a novella. Hemingway is a man with a few ideas which he presents well. The Old Man and the Sea let him say everything useful he had to say, without padding or repeating.

More importantly, Santiago spends most of the book alone. He does not have to be a man before women. He also does not have to be a man before other men. He can simply be a man.

He didn’t have to win a fist fight. He didn’t have to have sex with a woman. (The term “make love” does not really apply to anything Hemingway wrote.) And when he caught the fish, it was a real fish to sell for pesos, not some allegorical event.

He also didn’t cop out by dying on the last page.

Let’s look at a short passage. Santiago is alone at sea in a small boat, so he his talking to himself.

Don’t be silly,” he said aloud. “And keep awake and steer. You may have much luck yet.”

“I’d like to buy some if there’s any place they sell it,” he said.

What could I buy it with? he asked himself. Could I buy it with a lost harpoon and a broken knife and two bad hands?

“You might,” he said. “You tried to buy it with eighty-four days at sea. They nearly sold it to you too.”

The first time I read The Old Man and the Sea, in high school, I missed that passage. That is, I read it, but I read it wrong. I read it like it was something from television.

Let me I tell you what I heard on TV this morning, so that will make sense. The pitch woman for a self-help book said, “You won’t get your dream job right out of college. But if you work, you will get it eventually, when you find the job you were meant for.”

She actually said meant for! This is Christianity turned up a notch, and given a bank loan. It was also, by actual count, the five millionth time I had heard that particular load of crap.

“Everything happens for a reason,” is the pure quill version of this notion. And floating in the air, unsaid but understood, is the implication that the reason will be for your own good. Work hard and you will succeed. If things don’t seem to be going right, it is just life’s way of getting you ready for better things to come.

The Great American Lie.

The flip side of the GAL is that, if you don’t succeed, you weren’t trying hard enough, because “Everything happens for a reason.”

Hemingway knew better. Santiago knew better. He knew that 84 days of trying wouldn’t buy you any luck. When I was in my teens, I read that it did, even though the words on the page were clear enough. When I read Santiago’s statement a few years later, I read it like Hemingway wrote it. I had learned a few things by then.

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Running From President 6

Leap Alan Hed is on the run, not from any crime, not from angry criminals, but from the insatiable news media. When Billy Joe Barker proposed him as a write-in candidate for President, they descended on his house and he fled. Now a couple of weeks have passed.

He went north at first, toward the Canadian border, but he couldn’t find a way to pass over without being spotted. He turned south-west and tried to lose himself in the Rockies, but things have changed there, too. Where every cirque and valley used to be filled with old-time prospectors, broken down cowboys, and overly hopeful hippies, now every mountaintop is capped by a mansion with a movie star living inside.

I’m not sure where he went after that. He didn’t confide much to me, and after the paranoia set in, I don’t know how much of what he said was true. Being on the run will do that to you.

The media was hot on his trail and they have almost infinite resources. They would have found him in no time if they had cooperated. Instead, they guarded their sources, set misinformation rumors afoot, and generally got in each other’s way.

Leap stayed one step ahead of them, but it wasn’t a life worth living. He finally decided to give an interview to satisfy the world’s curiosity, and get everyone off his back. Poor fool. Giving one interview was like the old story of the man who reached for a bucket of water to put out a fire, and found out too late that it was gasoline. But Leap was an innocent, and innocents are doomed.

He wrote a letter to G. S. at —BC news, proposed a time and place. They met secretly in the home of a distant relative (who was himself harassed for the next three weeks).

==========

G. S. spoke to the camera, briefly outlining events to date, then asked, “Why did you run and why have you agreed to this interview?”

Leap described the siege of Dannebrog, and some of the things that had happened since, then said, “I’m hoping that telling my story will convince the American people that I am not someone they want to write in for President, and that I can just go home and get my life back. That would be a miracle.”

G. S.: “I’m not sure that is a miracle we can provide, but go ahead, tell us why you think Americans have become so fascinated by your candidacy.”

Leap: “I’m not a candidate. I’m not running for President. I’m running from President.”

Foolish Leap. He still didn’t understand the phenomenon he had become. Those three words –- Running From President –- which his farmer friend had said in Grand Island, became the stuff of a thousand headlines and a million tweets.

G. S.: “Why do you think America has embraced your non-candidacy, then?”

Leap: “Look at the alternatives. We have three hundred million people in America, and this is the best we can put up for President? There must be a thousand Democrats that would make a better president than Hillary, and a hundred thousand Republicans who would make a better president than Trump. But I am not one of them.” The interview continues Monday.

Running From President 5

Leap was born in 1952, on Leap Day, which was the start of all his troubles. He made his run from the media in his 64th year. That isn’t an age to start running.

Leap didn’t drink much, had never smoked, and had never had a wife, so he wasn’t too broken down. Still, 64 is 64.

Leap followed the genetic pattern of the American species. He headed west. That wasn’t hard in Nebraska where all county roads are routed by compass. He was in the middle of nowhere, half way to Rockville, when a pickup ground to a stop beside him and the driver motioned him to get in. The cow manure crusted on the wheels and fenders was reassuring; this was not a TV person. Besides, the sun was coming up, Leap was tired, and an old man walking down an empty road would be easy to spot from the air. Paranoia, or whatever you call it when they are really after you, had set in.  Leap had no problem imagining a horde of drones fanning out across the landscape, looking for him.

True to form, all Leap got from the driver was a nod and a grunt until they were back up to speed and a mile had passed under the tires. Then the driver said, “You’re Hed.” Leap admitted that he was. “Saw your picture in the newspaper. Heard about the ruckus in Dannebrog.” Then he called the newsmen a word that two men in a truck might use, but would never like to see written down. Leap agreed with him.

Another mile passed. The driver said, “How did you get into this mess, anyhow?”

“How does a guy get struck by lightning? Bad luck. Real bad luck.”

“How come you’re running for President?”

“I’m not! Some (and he used that word again) from Tulsa called me up and tried to get me to run as a joke. I said no, and he didn’t take no for an answer. Now the whole country wants me to run, or pretend to run, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

At Rockville, the driver turned left, crossed the Platte River and followed highway 68 toward Ravenna. He said, “You got any money? If you’re gonna run, you’ll need money.”

“Some. I took the rainy day money out of the sock drawer before I left.”

“I could loan you forty.”

“No, you keep it. But thanks.”

They drove on in silence. Fifteen miles later, as they were coming into Grand Island, the driver said, “I’ll drop you at the bus station.” Leap nodded. He didn’t ask the driver’s name. It didn’t matter, really. In the short time he had lived in Dannebrog, Leap had met a dozen men and women who would have helped him out just as automatically, with no hesitation and no thought of reward. In fact, Leap would have done the same himself.

At the bus station, he walked around the pickup and reached up to shake the hand of his new, anonymous friend.  For the first time he saw him full face, not profile. He was tanned and whiskered, lean, maybe forty years old, with a ball cap and a khaki shirt. He grinned at Leap and said, “Running from president. God almighty. Only in America.”

Leap said, “What would you do if they tried to stick you with the job?”

“Run like a deer, leap like an antelope, burrow like a prairie dog. Anything it took to get away.  Good luck. I hope they don’t catch you.”

**        **       **        **

For those of you who don’t live in Nebraska but still recognized the name Dannebrog in the last two posts, yes, you’re right, this is also an homage to Roger Welsch, who would also run from President. more tomorrow

525. Highland Laddie Gone

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

Of all the books on my best list, this is the weirdest, hands down. It sings, but its song belongs on a Ray Stevens album. Highland Laddie Gone by Sharyn McCrumb is the funniest book in history, or an incomprehensible mess, depending on how well you understand the backstory.

Which brings me to my backstory. I am not a Scot, but my wife is. Her mother, a Swede, became more Scottish than the Scots in pursuit of her husband’s culture. I learned to love bagpipe music and appreciate tartans from her. I also got into the habit of going to the local Scottish Games every year, where I found this book in a Scottish book stall.

The Scottish Games are an odd mixture of athletic events, genuine Scottish history, and romantic historical claptrap, with the last being the strongest element. I love them, but I am not fooled about how silly the whole concept is. I like the games like some people like Benny Hill.

The Highland Games are about as realistic as a bunch of modern Virginia women shucking their skinny jeans for hoop skirts and sitting around sipping mint juleps while their husbands reenact the Civil War — and that happens in this book, too.

There is also a Scottish marine biologist who has come over for the summer on a grant to study the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, only to find out that the man paying the bills really wants him to study Chessie. If you don’t know, Chessie is the Chesapeake Bay equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.

Our heroine, Elizabeth MacPherson is attending the Glencoe Games, one of the bigger venues. She is naive, slightly overweight, and in love with glamor but can’t quite pull it off. She solves mysteries, although the reader is left wondering how, and she has a wicked tongue for countering catty remarks.

The more I describe Highland Laddie Gone, the more I can’t believe it is one of my favorites. But it is jammed full of the humor of juxtaposition, both linguistic and cultural. There are at least five one-liners per page. Example:

When Elizabeth falls for the visiting biologist’s Scottish accent, she tells him, “I love your rrr’s.”

Taken aback, he replies, “Yes, your arse is rather nice, as well.”

Elizabeth knows the fake Scottishness of the games, but little about historical Scotland, and absolutely nothing about modern Scotland. Cameron, the visiting biologist, has never seen a Game and finds them incomprehensible; he has no interest in history, and all he want to talk about are modern Scottish sports teams. He and Elizabeth spend the entire book talking past each other, with hilarious results.

Then Lachlan, the dealer in fake genealogies and associated trinkets, is killed with a skian dubh, a ceremonial dagger. The call goes out, and the local sheriff is just over the hill at a Civil War reenactment. He tells his troops to stop being dead until he gets back, and heads toward the Game at a gallop in the full dress of a Southern cavalry officer. He sees the death weapon and says, “This will be easy. How many of these things can there be?” The attendees have to tell him that every one of the thousand kilted pseudo-Scotsmen has a skian dubh in his sock.

Elizabeth decides to solve the mystery, and all her friends push her this way and that, hoping she will find the clues they are directing her toward. Eventually, she does find the killer, but she never has a clue of what has actually been going on.

The  joy of this book is all in the one-liners. I’ve given you a few; there are hundreds more in HLG, but you might miss many of them if you don’t know the Games or the Reenactments.

If this sounds like fun, but you are only into science fiction, you might try Bimbos of the Death Sun or Zombies of the Gene Pool in which McCrumb takes on science fiction conventions.

523. Monkeying Around

This is about accuracy in discourse, and therefore applicable to writers, but it won’t seem so at first. Stick with me a few paragraphs and you’ll see.

The last week of August, there was a primary in Florida. In the aftermath, Ron DeSantis said the voters would “monkey this up” if they voted for his black opponent, and was slammed for making a racist comment.

Really?

I remember the Monkees, back in the Precambrian. Their theme song contained the words

Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
People say we monkey around.

I knew they were a fake band, but I never realized they were racists.

Knee-jerk liberals (that’s me, by the way) can look pretty silly when we overreach. Even people I respect were calling the monkey reference a racist dog whistle, and maybe it is. But let’s apply a little logic, in the form of Occam’s Razor.

What is the simplest and most likely explanation for the statement? There is no old saying “monkey this up” but there is an old saying “monkey around” and it is a simple extension to make that “monkey around and screw this up”. Millions of people have said that over the years, with no racial intent. My guess is that DeSantis was thinking “f—- this up”, and cleaned it up for television.

But I could be wrong. I don’t know the man and what I do know doesn’t impress me. “Monkey this up” may in fact be racist code, with built in plausible denial. If so, it worked beautifully. By assuming the worst, the liberal press has given the man massive publicity, and come off looking like fools.

As writers, on the other hand, we are in the business of not being misunderstood. See, I told you I would bring this around to writing.

Recently, I was revising an old novel. A young man and woman were about to move into a physical relationship, which was not not a love match. She was more excited than he was, because she lived in a small village, and he was the first male of her own age she had seen in a long time. He was planning to travel on in the spring, alone. He would tell her that in another line or two. This is what I wrote, years ago:

When he loosened the strings of her robe, she did not protest.

When I wrote that, the image in the mind of a reader would have exactly matched what I meant to say. There would have been no thought that he was forcing himself on her, or that she was reluctant in any way. In point of fact, if you had read a few sentences before and after, she was steaming.

That was then. Now, in the age of #Me Too, the phrase did not protest might be read differently than I intended when I wrote it. So I changed the line to read:

When he began to loosen the strings of her robe, she moved to hurry the process.

That is a pretty subtle change. To my mind, the two lines mean exactly the same thing, but they might not mean the same thing to a modern reader.

Readers read what we say, not what we meant to say. Communication isn’t entirely in our hands — readers do misread from time to time — but we have to do our best not to monkey things up. And no, that was not a racist dog whistle. That’s just me kicking the liberal press one more time for falling into a trap.

(Some) politicians (may) be in the business of doublespeak. They may bask in the comfort of plausible denial. Writers are not in that business. Our job is to say what we really mean, so skillfully that the reader is not confused about our intentions.

That is actually a fairly hard job.

515. Immortal Hunger

Magic requires an agile mind and a good memory.

Immortal Hunger
by Syd Logsdon

Abbit perault desegené . . .

An old man tried to speak the words
That his fading mind could not compel;
Began again, and once again,
Could not complete the vital spell.

Outside his walls a storm was coming
Snow had just begun to fall,
Within his chest there beat the ragged,
Slowing pulse of death’s own song.

Abbit perault divalté  . . . Damn!

The formula locked in his skull,
He could not force them free —
Those words that he had labored long
To etch in stones of memory.

Four thousand years ago he spoke them,
At Marduk’s feet in Babylon.
The old God said that death was conquered,
But warned him, never wait too long.

A hundred years ago he spoke them,
With shortened breath he sang their song,
And rose to live another century —
Remember, never wait too long.

A man grows tired, a brain grows weary
Childhood memories fade away.
Three hundred wives, so many children;
Still clinging at end of day.

Not satisfied, not done with dreaming,
Not ready for his final lay,
Desire unquenched, immortal hunger
Not to simply slip away.

But hunger isn’t all he needs
If memory fades with every breath.
Abbit . . . my God what was that spell?
The one that puts an end to death.

510. Books About Books

The Great American Read sent me scurrying to my personal library to review some books about books. That is an odd sub-genre, but not a small one.

From my library (i.e., room-filling book pile) I pulled out The Novel 100 by Daniel Burt, The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written by Martin Seymour-Smith and Twenty-five Books That Shaped America by Thomas C. Foster. I have certainly read many others over the years, picked up while wandering through libraries. I own these three because they were on remainder lists, which made them cheap enough to buy.

I also have A Great Idea at the Time by Alex Beam, which deserves a whole ‘nother post, later. (See the aside below before you write me about my bad grammar.)

Why do we read these books on books? For the lists and for the opinions. Everyone who writes one of these books is highly opinionated. They have to be, since there are no real criteria for making these choices. It’s all very subjective. One person’s Great is another person’s Crap.

It might be interesting to read a few dozen of these lists and see what books, if any, end up on all of them. Moby Dick, might qualify; everyone admires it from afar, although few read it. Still, I wouldn’t bet money on any title ending up on every list.

The best of these authors admit that their picks are personal, and could have gone a different way on a different day. They defend their choices with humor, which is always welcome. A good book-on-books is fun to read. Even when the prejudice is potentially offensive, we get to laugh at academics looking like red-necks without realizing it. And, no, I’m not going to admit which one of the above I’m talking about.

The criteria for inclusion are also different from book to book. The Novel 100 is based on pure quality, and on continuing to be recognized as fashions change. Daniel Burt begins with 1. Don Quixote and carries though 100. Gone With the Wind. Then he adds an appendix called the second hundred. The reader gets a two-fer.

Seymour-Smith skips great books which were not influential on other writers or the culture in general, and includes books which were influential, even if they were inherently bad. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is an example of the latter. Seymour-Smith’s list runs from 1 The I Ching through 100 Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Mercifully, he does not provide a second hundred.

Foster writes with a light tone, sometimes slipping too far into flippancy, and only gives us twenty-eight books. His twenty-five include a two-fer of short books of poetry and a trilogy of novels. He also provides a list of fifteen runners-up.

If I wanted to collate the books in these three collections, throwing out the duplicates, the number would probably be close to 300. Am I going to read them all? Not in this lifetime, but I can read these reviews and come away with at least an idea of what I am missing. I can also garner a much smaller list of ones I actually might read some day.

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Aside. If you are a writer, you must ponder the weird cock-ups where grammar meets usage. Take the phrase I used humorously, a whole ‘nother post.

Another post makes sense. If you add the modifier whole, the phrase falls apart. In another whole post , whole seems to modify post when it is meant to modify another. That is, it seems to say an additional post instead of a very different post.

It is similar to German, which has two words for another. Noch eine Bier means “Bring me an additional beer”, but ein andera Bier means “Bring me a different beer, I don’t like this one.”

You might try to break another into an other so you can squeeze in the additional modifier closer to its referent. But that doesn’t work either. You end up with—

An whole other post. That puts an instead of a in front of a consonant. So you try—

A whole other post. But that doesn’t work either, because you have lost the “n“, which leaves your reader muttering under his breath, “A other post? That’s not right!”

So you end up splitting another in a different place, ending up with a nother. Put that back into the phrase, and you get a whole ‘nother post which sounds right, even though it’s wrong.

Ain’t English fun?

This brings up Writers Rule # 1, to wit: If that which is grammatically correct looks bad, use a different sentence altogether.

You might also call it the “There are things up with which I will not put!” rule.