Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Archive for May, 2011


with 5 comments

One of the other peculiarities of still having dial up is the fact that you can’t get on the Internet in a thunderstorm.   That means I spent this morning working in the living room, because the thunderstorms probably started before I was awake and went on nearly nonstop until about nine o’clock.  And there was lots of rain, too, which means that the pollen problem was considerably relieved.  

Somehow this seems very inefficient–can only work in office when I can’t work in office.  Hmmm.


For those of you who asked–the reason I wanted some references for good opening chapters was that I felt as if we were all talking past each other.  To me, the opening chapters of The Way We Live Now were fascinating, and I found the plot thoroughly engrossing, from the very first.  It never seemed to me as if the characters weren’t “doing something.” 

I felt as if a few concrete examples would help me figure out what people were talking about. 

I thank everybody for their suggestions, and Robert for producing what looks like the reading list for a graduate seminar on the American popular novel. 

I will go forth and attempt to find copies I can read the beginnings of.  Some of what you suggested are on Amazon with “look inside this book” features, meaning I can do it online for free and don’t even have to drive out to Barnes and Noble to see what I can find.

That said, before I’ve stared on the actual research, I must say that I think anything with the title “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” deserves a shot.

Before I do the research, though, I’ve got something else on my mind.

I’ve said here before that I get a little upset hearing people–police officers, former jurors–declare that this or that defendant in a criminal trial “showed no remorse” or “wasn’t upset at all” or “was just stone cold emotionally” or whatever,  with these things being used as “proof” of the person’s guilt, or of the “fact” that he/she is a monster, thoroughly evil, pick your adjectives.

There’s a lot of that sort of thing going around.  I think it’s probably an artefact of our tendency to think in narratives.  We want the good guys to look like good guys and to have certain specific sets of behavior.  When people, being people, don’t oblige, we chuck them into the “bad guys” category.

Still, the entire concept of guilt–of feeling guilty–is a complicated one.  We often justify harsh punishments for some offenders by saying they have no sense of guilt and no feelings of remorse.   I think that most of us feel that, at least under some circumstances,  feeling guilty is a good idea.   We wouldn’t excuse Hitler if he’d felt guilty about murdering six million Jews, but we’d probably think better of him if he had. 

With that in mind, I want you to consider the case of Louis VII of France, king in the 12th century and first husband of Eleanor of Aquitane. 

Louis was, quite frankly, a train wreck of a human being.  It’s possible he wouldn’t have been one, and that we would have wonderful reports of him, if he had only not ascended the throne of France.  Or any other country.

Louis was brought up in a monastery, on the assumption that he would one day enter the church and the royal family would thereby have one of their own as their bishop.   Then his older brother died, and there was nothing for it.  Louis was king.

Louis lived in an era when it was not considered a good thing for kings–or much of anybody else–to control their emotions.  Even in such an era, however, his emotional swings were considered a bit extreme.

(And you wonder what it took to be extreme.  Henry I of England was once so angry that he leaped out of his bed bellowing in fury, then had at it until he’d eaten an enormour hole in the mattress.  In a more psychologically therapeutic age, the male members of every one of the twelfth century royal houses of Europe would have been institutionalized.)

At any rate, Louis was removed from his monastery and set up as King of France.  He thereupon dutifully married Eleanor and fell deeply and permanently in love.  She had very little use for him.  He thought she was God walking on earth.

It was at the behest of Eleanor that Louis decided to invade Champagne, the result of a Byzantine series of dramatic events I would need twenty blog posts to even start to get straightened out.   Let me just say that the purpose of the campaign was an attempt to have the control of various lands returned to Eleanor, that control having been usurped by local vassals, and then the whole thing was complicated by the fact that Eleanor’s cousin eloped with the wife of another man and the Church responded by picking a bishop for an empty see in the area.  The bishop was not congenial to Eleanor, or the elopers, or–

Okay, I told you it was a mess.

What’s important here is that Louis was not invading the Champagne for the usual military purposes, but to punish the region’s nobility for their refusal to accede to his wishes by punished their people.

It was January, 1143, and Louis started by invading the town of Vitry-sur-Marne with a large force of soldiers.  Louis was not a good military commander.  He was barely a passable one.  And he was really bad at enforcing discipline among his soldiers, so that whenever Louis went to war he ended up enforcing the enimity of the population of any place he invaded, because his soldiers, raped, murdered, looted and pillaged on a truly heroic scale.

In this case, of course, it didn’t matter as much as it might have, since Louis was not trying to gain the confidence of the populace but to so appall the nobles that they would end their opposition to his plans.

His soldiers therefore laid waste to the town, murdering hundreds, raping at will, burning down everything in sight and often burning houses with the people still in them. 

Louis sat in his encampment on the hill above town and listened to the agonized screams that went on all night–and then he did what Hitler did not do. 

He felt guilty.

Louis’s guilt was on almost as large a scale as his war crimes had been.  He was unable to sleep for days at a time.  He took to fasting on nothing but bread and water, then nothing but water, then nothing for days at a time, sometimes making himself so weak, he could barely walk.  He also took to wearing a hair shirt under  his clothes and against his skin. 

At a time when the single most important thing he could do was to stay strong to keep his realm together, he went to pieces.

If it had ended there, we could chalk the whole thing up to the man’s emotional idiocy, and leave it alone.  But it didn’t end there.  Louis found himself casting about desperately for some way to expiate his sins, and he finally had one handed to him by the Church.

We call it the Second Crusade.

Now, I’m not one of those people who sniffs self righteously at how awful Christian fanatics were invading innocent Muslims in the Crusades.  That wasn’t what the Crusades were. 

They were, more or less, what we have in NATO–the nations of the Middle East were Christian kingdoms.  They were invaded by Muslim armies with mind-boggling brutality, and then subjected to dhimmi status under Muslim rule. 

The Christian nations were as justified in their Crusades as we were in invading Germany in WWII, and for exactly the same reason.

But a Crusade was a very difficult enterprise.  Remember–no communications except what could be had by sending runners or horsemen, no modern transportation methods, no refrigeration to keep supplies from spoiling.

And that’s just the beginning.

You couldn’t just go on a Crusade because you felt like it on Monday.  The distances took months to traverse.   The kingdoms between your own and the Holy Land were not necessarily friendly to your cause, even if they were Christian. 

You had to keep your army together, and the army on the second crusade eventually reached 100,000 soldiers on foot and horseback.  You had to keep them from the rape and pillage thing, because you needed the good will of the populace.   You had to keep massive numbers from deserting or from running away in battle, and those soldiers were mostly not trained.

And, like I said, Louis was not only not a great military commander, he wasn’t even a good one.

The Second Crusade, in other words, was a complete and utter mess for everybody involved.  Unlike the First Crusade, it did not push back the Muslim advance, and it did not save the Christian nations of the Middle East from being conquered and oppressed by the Turks and others.

In fact, I think I could make a good case for the Crusade actually helping the Muslim advance, not only because it resulted in increasingly acrimonious relations about the Christian nations, but because tens of thousands of Christian soldiers converted to Islam when that turned out to be the only way they were going to get to eat.

And in spite of all this, Louis’s guilt for the massacre at Vitry-sur-Marne was assuaged.  He returned to the sacraments.  He felt himself cleansed.

It is, I think, a really astonishing thing.

Written by janeh

May 30th, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Request

with 7 comments

Okay.  I’m asking for a favor.

Would any of you who can think of such a thing post to the comments to this post the title and name of the author of a book you think has an EXCELLENT opening–

I mean opening chapter or two, not just the first teaser line or paragraph.

Maybe then I can figure this out. 

For me, I’d give you two–the first chapter of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, and the first chapter of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods.

Written by janeh

May 29th, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Doing Things

with 3 comments

So, I got up way too early this morning, and the first thing I found was John’s post about how people who are getting up and going to work and coming home and going to bed are doing something, but it wouldn’t be interesting to read about.

And all I could think of was–yes, I agree.  What I don’t agree with is that that is what is going on at the beginning of The Way We Live Now.

And that brought me back to the original question–which is how we define as “doing something” or “something happening” in a novel, when we say that something is happening, and when we don’t.

And I think I was right to think that, for me, characters are “doing something” in cases where characters would not be for at least some other people.

For one thing, what I most want out of a novel (besides good prose, and Trollope is unobjectionable but not good) is character and the exposition of character, and in that sense I find the everyday affairs of ordinary people very interesting to read indeed.

I find them especially so under two circumstances:  when the writer is talking about class (here’s Henry James again), and when the writer is talking about what we now call “dysfunction.”

The “dysfunction” thing is mostly curiosity.  Every once in a while, I’ll turn into reality shows like Intervention, and find myself sincerely flabbergasted by the sheer logistics of the thing.  Here are people who don’t work, or work for a while and then get fired, who have no credit, who spend their time flat on their backs out of it except when they’re looking for their drugs or alcohol or whatever–and they’re managing to support two hundred dollar a day habits, three hundred dollar a week alcohol binges…

I mean, what the hell.  Where is all this money coming from?  Some of them steal, yes, but most of them are just mooching off their families, and the families are not rich.   How does this work?

The interest in class, though, is just an interest in class–Americans like to pretend that class doesn’t exist here, but it isn’t that simple.  In the European sense, of course, class doesn’t exist here.   Get successful enough, and we’ll find a way to declare that you fit in.  Reach the level of a Bill Gates–or a Mark Zuckerberg–and nobody will refuse to marry you because you didn’t go to Exeter or you’ve got a funny accent.

It is the biggest flaw with The Great Gatsby–historically, successful American upstarts have not spent their time and money buying their way into “society,” but simply ignored it and started their own.   That’s why Mrs. Vanderbilt had a 400.  The upper classes of her day didn’t want anything to do with her.  She was vulgar and cheap.  But her husband had a lot more money than they did, and so did his friends, and they just sailed off and founded their own debutante cotillions, country clubs and resorts.

So class interests me, as does the interaction between different people of different classes. 

So do relationships–between men and women (or women and women, or men and men), but also in families, and among coworkers.  The attempt of Michelle to get Leon to marry her, the dynamic in the office like the one in the dentist’s the other day, the way various family members cope with one of their number who has Alzheimer’s Disease (or who has just committed a murder)–

All that kind of thing interests me.   And for me, when that’s what I see on the page, then the characters are “doing something” and I find it interesting to read.

What I don’t find interesting to read, as I said before, are fight scenes, battle scenes, the monster attacking Detroit, the serial killer raping the corpse, and that kind of thing.

I am, as some of you already know, completely in love with an HBO miniseries called Band of Brothers, but during the three episodes where there’s mostly lots of explosions going on in the Battle of the Bulge, I make dinner.

For a while, I thought I had an exception to this rule in the fact that I really, really love disaster movies.  Or disaster books, for that matter–where is Harold Robbins when you need him? 

After a while, though, I began to realize that the reason I like disaster movies and disaster books is that the disaster is just the frame you hang the lives of the characters on, and it’s the lives of the characters–this one’s alcoholism, that one’s divorce, the other one’s fight with her father–that was really holding my attention.

So, to me, everybody at the beginning of TWWLN is “doing something,” and it’s all very interesting to read about. 

But I do think this discussion is ironic, in a way.

Trollope is always a bit declasse in graduate schools–or in good ones, at any rate–

Academics think he’s got much too much in the way of plot to qualify as a serious writer.

There’s an ANTM marathon this morning.  I’ve got tea.

Written by janeh

May 29th, 2011 at 5:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Higher Gossip

with 5 comments

So, it’s Saturday morning on a long week end, and I’m doing–nothing.

Well, working.  I’m always working.  But other than that, I’m finishing one book, starting another, and complaining because there does not seem to be an ANTM marathon when there usually is one.

But I have been thinking, reading the comments, and some of the e-mails, about what it means to “like” a book.

Let’s start with the Trollope, which I have (almost) just finished.  The (almost) is because I actually have about five pages left.  I would have finished them before I started in here, but the machines were beeping at me, and I felt compelled to do things. 

The Way We Live Now–in fact, all of Trollope, as well as all of Henry James, all of Jane Austen, all of most of the nineteenth century classics in English, French and Russian–is an example of what was called, when I was in graduate school, “the higher gossip.” 

That is, these are books that are about the private lives of (mostly) middle class people, who they marry, who they fall in love with, what they do about their lives and their careers and their hopes and fears and dreams.

A successful novel of this kind makes you intensely interested in the characters, and then lets human nature take its course.  You want to know what happens to Lady Carbury for the same reason you want to know what happens to the woman next door.

There are, of course, other kinds of novels–but it’s really remarkable how even other kinds of novels rely to at least some extent on the higher gossip. 

This intense need we all seem to have to know what our friends and neighbors are up to is the reason why so many mystery series become soap opera extravaganzas where continuing series characters get raped, have their significant others murdered, fall victim to brain tumors, and on and on and on, until you think that if you lived that life, you’d blow your brains out.

For many people, the most important thing is that they should “like” the characters, or at least the main character.

I’ll admit that this isn’t true for me.  Lots of characters interest me that I don’t like at all, and if I was going to insist on “attractive” characters, I’d have to stop reading P.D. James.

I have to assume that the “likeability” of characters is important to most readers, though, because so much stress seems to be placed on it by publishers and editors and reviewers.  Writers who are being groomed for bestsellerdom by large commercial publishers are often given a list of things their characters may and may not do–female heroines shouldn’t be divorced, for instance, at least when the series starts. 

It’s requirements like these that make literary readers turn their noses up at “popular trash”–the assumption is that popular books are written to formulas that have nothing to do with the internal integrity of the novel itself, that they’re both manufactured and fake.

And, of course, some of them are.  But the scorn of formula fiction–better term than “popular,” since not all popular fiction is formula, and not all formula fiction actually sells that well–

The scorn of formula fiction comes as loudly from the devoted fans of various genres as it comes from literary types.  Somebody must read the formula stuff, but it’s sometimes hard to figure out who.

Some of what makes us “like” a book is entirely idiosyncratic.  For instance, I have absolutely no use for stories set in rainforests, jungles, or the wild West.  I want as much civilization as I can get.  Even if you give me characters who would interest me as people if I knew them personally, I’ll just fade away if they’re riding around on horses trying to do something serious about the cattle.

I also have very little tolerance for “action” scenes.  I don’t mind it when a shot rings out.  In fact, that can be kind of neat.  I start falling asleep when the fight scene lasts three pages, or there’s a car chase, or a long description of a battle.

Or sex.

When I was twelve years old, I found Mary McCarthy’s The Group, whose chapter two gives and absolute play by play of sexual intercourse.  I found it utterly fascinating.  I brought it to school.  We passed it around.  A girl named Valerie, who usually had a great deal of trouble reading, managed to get through that chapter in two minutes flat. 

But that was then, and this is now.  There’s not much more that can be said about that that hasn’t already been said.  Enough already.

Or, go look at Donald E. Westlake’s Dancing Aztecs, the greatest caper novel ever written.  There’s a wonderful couple of paragraphs where Westlake writes a scene of a man starting his car in the way you’d write a sex scene–oh, never mind.  You just have to read it  yourself.

At any rate, as we’re talking about liking here, it’s obvious that I’m in the minority when it comes to action scenes.  A lot of people must like them, since a lot of people buy that kind of book. 

Of course, I’m in the minority when it comes to action scenes in movies, too.  I’ve been known to fall asleep during them.  Mostly, as soon as stuff starts exploding, I go to the ladies room.

In the end, I think that the higher gossip is why we go to novels, and to fictional movies and to plays–the need to involve ourselves in the lives of the people around us, except this time with more interesting people. 

And that may explain why, in spite of the fact that so many people (including some of you here) say that what matters is “a good story,” a lot of the very best selling books aren’t good stories at all.   

The entire last half of the Harry Potter series is a mess of plot holes, dangling narrative threads and Big Moments that aren’t actually Big because they aren’t actually connected to anything–but the series was more popular at the end than at the beginning, because there was Harry and Hermoine and Ron and we were all worried about them.

In the end, I think, the Higher Gossip beats the Good Story (or Exciting Plot, which is what people usually mean) any day of the week.

Written by janeh

May 28th, 2011 at 7:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Cliff Notes, Or Whatever They Call Them These Days

with 5 comments

There’s some Internet version of the things that all my students use, so that if I’m teaching lit at all, I get twenty papers that all have the same mistakes in them.  The other thing they do, of course, is to watch the movie, if there’s been one.  One term, required to teach “The Color Purple,” I got past that one by asking them to explain the symbolic significance of the masturbation scene and of the fact that its center was one specific character.

And I didn’t name the character.

But this isn’t really that kind of thing.  It’s just a couple of points about Trollope, since a surprising number of you went off and got a few.

1) In an era when writing for money was the accepted concept in the profession, Trollope took a remarkable amount of flack for doing just that and being unapologetic about it. 

He also wrote without ceasing, a set number of pages every day, without fail.  He had a job as an administrator in the Post Office, and on work days he wrote on the train on his way to work.

And if he finished a book during his alloted hours, he just drew a line under the ending and went to work on the next one.

2) He was a breathtakingly successful writer for most of his career, easily earning enough at it to live like a gentleman in London, which was not cheap.

He kept his day job in spite of that, and had for a while rather a distinguished career of it.

3) His books fall into three categories:  the Barsetshire novels (focused on the Church of England); the Palliser novels (focussed on Parliament); and the stand-alones. 

The Way We Live Now is a stand-alone.

4) Parliament and the Church of England were the reigning passions of his life, but read the novels for a bit and it becomes obvious that it was Parliament he thought was closer to God. 

He did stand for Parliament once, but lost his race, and never tried again.  Successful author or not, running for Parliament in those days was very, very expensive, and for most of Trollope’s life MPs were paid no salary.

5) If you are assigned Trollope to read in an academic course, the chances are good that you’ll get one of the Barsetshire novels, and probably Barchester Towers.  BT is actually the second book in that series.  The first is The Warden. 

It was BT I read in an undergraduate course on the Nineteenth Century British Novel, and it bored me to tears.

The problem was not the book itself, I don’t think–most Trollope is like most other Trollope–but the fact that I’m not very interested in looking inside the Church of England, or in country parsons and their bishops, either, unless one of them is a dead body in the library.

I would probably never have looked at Trollope again if I hadn’t been assigned Phineas Finn in graduate school, and found that I was very, very interested in Parliament and the people who were connected to it.

6) At that point in time, the early to mid Seventies, the Palliser series was all out of print except for Phineas Finn, and the only available edition of that was in a tiny, pocket-sized hardcover with whisper-thin pages. 

I read the book and decided, right away, that I was going to read the entire series from start to finish–and then I wasn’t able to do it, because I couldn’t find them in print and I couldn’t find them in libraries. 

That’s the way that stood until about five years ago, when I realized that Penguin had put them all out in paperback.

The first of the Palliser novels is called Can You Forgive Her?  The best of the Palliser novels is The Eustace Diamonds, and it’s a book that is oddly modern in terms of plot and pacing.  And Lizzie Eustace joins Becky Sharpe in the gallery of literary sociopaths in skirts. 

7) I go back and forth about the way I feel about the introductory essays that are always included in Penguin Classics.  Some of them are good, some of them are not, and some of them are just odd.  Mark Musa, who did the essays for all three of the volumes of Dante’s Divinia Comedia, was so in awe of his subject that he seemed to find it impossible to conceive of the possibility that Dante made mistakes.   Some perfectly egregious lack of continuity would come along, and Musa would go “Dante is a genius, so he couldn’t have made a mistake here” and then spend paragraph after paragraph trying to “understand it.”

The essays for the Trollope novels, written by different people, have gone back and forth in terms of quality and insight, but the one for The Way We Live Now makes what I think is a really egregious mistake.

I’m perfectly willing to believe that Trollope did not have the attitude to Jews and Judaism we have now, but if you actually read the book instead of just reacting to the surface of it, you’ll find he spends a good deal of time almost mercilessly skewering the fashionable anti-Semitism of his time.   Trollope thought Lady Monogram should have been thoroughly ashamed of herself on more than one count, and you have to be listening only to the voices in your own head not to hear it.

8) For what it’s worth, The Way We Live Now has become my favorite Trollope novel of the ones I’ve read–but it was a late book, and not a very popular one. 

It is, as I’ve pointed out before, oddly contemporary in its situations and characters.

Sometimes I think the Bernie Madoffs of this world succeed because we want them to succeed.

They certainly haven’t changed much in a century.

Written by janeh

May 26th, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

Most writers do everything they can to block out interruptions and distractions when they work.  They find a room at the back of the house where no one comes.  They put their desks up against a blank wall.  They pull down the blinds so they can’t see out of the windows.

I, on the other hand, work in a sunroom.  I don’t like interruptions, so I get up early before everybody else is awake–but I have two walls that are solid with windows, and I really like the feeling it gives me of not being shut up and claustrophobic.   I was once in a house where there was a screen porch in the shape of an octagonal gazebo, attached to the house by only one of the eight sides.  All I could think of was that it was a perfect place to work, if I could only replace the screens by glass and have the thing wired and air conditioned.

My office makes me very happy ten months out of the year, but for the first two months of any summer season, I’ve got a problem.  For reasons having to do with the type of windows in my office, it happens to be the one room in the house that lets in serious pollen.  And short of having the windows replaced wholesale, I can’t change that.

That means that for those two months, I can’t sit at my computer for longer than about an hour or a time without incurring really nasty allergic reactions, mostly in the form of bizarre stuff happening to my eyes.

So, on days like today, I work in here for about an hour.  Then I go lie down with ice cubes on my eyes for about an hour. 

Fortunately, most of the work I’m doing at the moment can be done longhand on my manuscript and then transferred to the digital copy all at once and reasonably quickly.  I’m a fast typist.

Right now, though, I’m in here writing the blog, and also because I like spending time in my office, which has lots of books in it and the computer.

And I’m thinking about a Rule We Must Never Break in writing, because it came up in e-mail from a friend a few days ago.

The rule is this:  fiction should be “show” and not “tell.”

I will say that, when it comes to my own work, I tend to take this rule to be unbreakable, too. 

It’s certainly a reason I have given, often enough, to explain why I think a novel is well or badly written.

I wonder though if it is, in real life, as unbreakable rule as we all think it is.

In a way, this goes back to a bigger problem that I’ve blithered about at other times:  how surely can we trust the reader to “get” what the writer is doing?

The answer that is usually given to this in creative writing classes and writer’s workshops is that we just have to trust the reader, and readers who aren’t able to handle it will just have to fall by the wayside.

I’d like to point out that I’m not talking, here, about fancy-ass experimental techniques, but about simple and straightforward ones.  Every time I have a book published, I spend a few days on this blog complaining about the number of people out there who don’t understand how to read third person multiple viewpoint–who don’t understand that just because a character thinks or believes X, it is not the case that the writer herself thinks or believers X.

Historically, there has always been a lot more tell in fiction than there ever has been show.  Even relatively sophisticated forms like that of the drama of Classical Greece exhibit writers’ deep distrust of their audiences’ abilities to “get” anything at all.

The chorus was not some academic exercise in indicating the difference between the ideas of the People and the ideas of the individual characters.  It was there to tell the audience what to think.    And the masks were there to make sure the audience didn’t run off the rails and think that Xenophanes was crying when he was really having a good chuckle.

Okay, so part of that was writers not trusting actors, either.  But you see what I mean.

Unsophisticated forms–like, for instance, Medieval morality plays–are even more determined to tell as much as possible.   In fact, they often seem to do very little else.  Milton may have left us all wondering if he was “of the devil’s party, and didn’t know’t,” but the person who wrote Everyman left no wriggle room.  We know what side he’s on with every line.

And most of us who say we prefer show over tell have novels we love that are very largely tell–for some people who read this blog, that would be Atlas Shrugged.

What’s more, telling instead of showing can be used very effectively by writers who know what they’re doing.  There is, for instance, the narrative voice in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.   By and large, the book is impeccably show and not tell, even though it was written in the first person by a character who could not have been present at all the scenes he presents.

Every once in a while, however, that narrator will step forward out of the frame, and the result will be very compelling indeed–and sometimes very funny. 

“They were afraid he was a snob,”  Maugham says of Elliott Templeton. “And of course he was.  He was a colossal snob.  He was a snob without shame.”

 And, really, that’s exactly what you need at exactly that point to make Elliot Templeton more alive in your living room than your cat.

I’ve been trying to figure out when “telling” instead of “showing” is tolerable and when it isn’t.  There’s more of it in commercial fiction, these days, than in literary fiction.   In fact, a lot of literary fiction these days is so minimalist, you aren’t sure what it’s trying to show.

And telling instead of showing in more in evidence the farther back you go in the history of the novel.  Trollope and Dickens (and Kipling) do more of it than Hemingway and Margaret Mitchell. 

I hesitate to say, however that this is some kind of progress. 

The fact that we can care about the question at all is probably a testament to the effects of the drive for universal literacy, and the fact that it causes so much more trouble these days is probably a testament to the waning influence of those effects.

So yes, I guess that in one way I am looking at a story of progress–although not progress from bad to better novels.

I also wonder how much of this is the affinity effect–we don’t mind being told if we’re being told what we want to hear, but we hate it when the telling expresses something we disagree with or dislike. 

I once had a discussion with a guy on RAM during which it because very clear that he didn’t mind rock stars talking about politics, he only minded them talking about politics opposed to his own. 

And then there’s the most obvious issue–anything can be done well or badly.  Maybe we just don’t like telling when it’s done badly.

I’m going to leave the office now and put an ice cube on my eye.

Written by janeh

May 25th, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Power Outage

with 2 comments

So, I got up this morning, turned on the computer, put the kettle on for tea, went to find my manuscript and…bang.  Power out in the entire neighborhood. 

At that point, I did what any red blooded New Englander would do–I called Connecticut Light and Power to find out when the thing would be over.  The CL&P automated line does this very peculiar thing, where, when you ask when the outage will be over, doesn’t say something like “six thiry” or even “seven fifteen am.”  It starts out with “May…24…2011” in sepculchral tones that make you wonder if it just told you the power will be back on in a couple of months.

I, however, am used to that, so I ignored the date and got “nine am” for the time.

A couple of hours later, I called back, and got the time.  12:15.

I’m annoyed.  And I feel useless.

I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really don’t like days when I feel like I’m not getting anything done.

But here I am, so two things, one even happy.

First:  if Greg ever wants to go to a therapist, I’ll be happy to send him, but for myself, I really resist the idea that people need therapy for perfectly normal behavior.  Most of us are nervous going to the dentist.  It’s not a pathology.

Of course, if Greg really had been refraining from going, or resisting going, because of fear, I’d have thought it worth doing something about.  But he wasn’t.   And although he is jumpy when he first meets new doctors, or when something knew has to be done that he isn’t used to the idea of yet, the fact is that he got through two eye surgeries without virtually any fuss at all.  He sees his PCP without needing anxiety medication, either, and his dermatologist. 

But there’s something I should have remembered to say, that might put the entire incident into some perspective.  To give you an idea of just how extreme this woman’s behavior was, while she was talking to me and Greg had been banished to the waiting room in tears, one of her nurses slipped Matt a note saying we should take Greg to this other dentist, who was really a lot calmer and wouldn’t have any problem with him.  As, in fact, the nurse herself hadn’t had any problem with him when she’d done the x-rays.  And, um, we shouldn’t mention this to the Bitch Dentist.

This indicates a very interesting dynamic in that office.  And I am not going back to deal with it again, nor am I going to medicate Greg up to the gills because he responds to monumental bullying in the way he did.

I do, though, worry about that response–not because I think it’s a pathology, but because I think there are a lot of bullies in the world.   Eventually, he’s going to have to stand up for himself.  If he doesn’t, he’s going to get bulldozed. 

Of course, I’m hardly a great role model. I spent that entire incident appeasing like crazy, and I didn’t manage to get furious until I’d left the office, either. 

Sigh.   Maybe it’s genetic.

That all said–here’s something completely different.

Last night, one of the HBO off-channels–I don’t actually get HBO, but I get this side channels, I don’t get it–anyway, one of them aired the made for TV movie of a nonfiction book called Too Big To Fail,  by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

The book is about the 2008 collapse of the banking system, the death of Lehmann and disappearance of Merrill and Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, AIG, all that stuff.

And, if you’re interested in that kind of thing–yeah, I know, I’m the only one here–

If you’re interested in that kind of thing, I think it’s the best book out there on the subject.  It is also, however, really HUGE.  Although I may read it again when I’m finished with the Trollope.

On top of that, the made for TV movie is really, really, really good, and the mechinations to make sure the audience gets the issues are done skillfully enough so that you never notice that you’re getting little primers on banking law and financial…shennanigans. 

It’s worth seeing if you get HBO channels of any kind and have a chance to catch it.  I know there’s an encore performance tonight at eight, because I intend to watch it.

And I have informed my children that the DVD is likely to come out sometime around Christmas.

Written by janeh

May 24th, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

So, Here We Go Again

with 10 comments

I’ve been having a day.

Let me fill you in a little–Greg tends to be a jumpy kid.  He’s jumpy in situations with new people, and always with having to go to the doctor or the dentist.

When we’ve got good luck, whoever is seeing him just sort of joshes him along for a while, and he relaxes a bit, and everything goes as planned.

Every once in a while we get somebody who takes one look at him, decides he has a “disorder,” and then starts demanding that we put him on anti-anxiety medication immediately!  Because he’s suffering!

And once we get to that point, of course, he IS suffering.  He’s having a complete and total meltdown, in tears, unable to stop shaking, the whole bit. 

At which point the “medical professional” goes–there, proves it, what’s wrong with you that you aren’t getting him pills?

Well, welcome to Greg’s visit to the dentist today. 

It was bad enough to begin with, because Greg hadn’t been to the dentist in a while, and he also hadn’t been brushing his teeth in a while, and he was nervous about what he was going to hear, nervous about a new dentist, nervous about a lot of things.

I picked the dentist I picked because she’d worked on a very difficult problem in my mouth, and I figured if this was going to be as bad as I thought it might be, I could be sure that she’d do a very good job.  She’s a  very good–hell, a first rate–dentist.

But the visit was a disaster.  By the time Greg had been in the chair for five minutes, she’d reduced him to a quivering mass.  By the time he’d been there for ten, she’d reduced him to tears.

At that point, she ordered him out of the room and delivered a lecture to me on how I must see he was “suffering” and that if it was her child she’d have him on anti-anxiety meds, and his mouth was so bad he should never have been allowed to have his eye surgery.

That one floored me.  I mean–what?  Sorry, no.  He’d been checked out by three doctors for surgery.  And I know lots of people with mouths in much worse states than his who have had much more serious surgery than his. 

We all got home completely blown away, with Greg upset beyond words, but not the anxiety-upset he was exhibiting in her office. 

Instead, he was just furious, and he is now adamant–he will not only not go back to this dentist, he will not go back to any dentist, ever, period. 

I’ll talk him out of that one, but I really need to know.

Why do people behave this way?  Really?  If she’d listened to him instead of barging around shouting, she’d have found out some things she needed to know. 

Instead, she’s lost what is going to be a lot of work. 

Because I don’t ever want to see her again, either.

Written by janeh

May 23rd, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Saturday in the Country

with 6 comments

That sounds very elegant, but it isn’t really.  I’m in desperate need of having my lawn mowed.  My older son is so allergic that the year he tried it, he put himself in the hospital.  Granted, it was a minor trip, but still.  My younger son doesn’t have the doctor’s permission to even try running a lawn mower.   And my guys from last year seem to have disappeared into the mist.  Then I called the local guy who does my nearest neighbor’s lawn.  He promised to show up yesterday, and hasn’t shown up yet.



Other than grass, though, we’ve got the Trollope, and a few words on The Way We Live Now.

First is to note that this is the favorite Trollope novel of a number of people whose likes and dislikes usually speak well to my own, including Theodore Dalrymple’s.    That tends to work for me, and it has with this.  I don’t know if I’m having such a good time with this for the same reasons somebody like Dalrymple is, but I am definitely having a good time with it.

Second is that the book is eerily modern.

At least, I tend to think of the “all that matters is money and it doesn’t matter where it came from” thing attitude as being modern, but that is definitely the world about which Trollope is writing here. 

And the snobbery of the “respectable” people who are willing to do anything and everything to get near that money mirrors a lot that is modern about places like Fairfield County, CT, too.

But what really strikes me as modern is the fact that the man of great wealth at the center of all this is not a Northern industrialist, but the Victorian fictional equivalent of Bernie Madoff–he’s running a gigantic Ponzi scheme. 

Except, being Victorian England and not 21st century NY, the presumed source of the fictional wealth in question is not derivatives and credit default swaps, but a railroad that is theoretically being built from San Fransisco to Vera Cruz, Mexico.

What’s that from The Hunting of the Snark about “to threaten its life with a railway share”?

Trollope tends to deal mostly with people whose lives are not hemmed in inexorably by the conventions of respectability,  either because their social standing never was high enough to warrant worrying about it, or because their presumed social standing was two high.   In Trollope, the dissolute minor aristocracy is always with us.

What is also with us, I think, is the fact that, underneath it all, money isn’t the only consideration.  Sir Felix Carbury isn’t much interested in people like his cousin’s biggest tenant farmer, who has managed to put away enough to be richer than Sir Felix, or cousin Roger, or the Ponzi man schemer himself.

It makes me wonder if what people like Sir Felix actually want–and their counterparts today actually want, all those people who hang around people like Paris Hilton–isn’t so much the money itself but a very particular way of life.

And the thing about the way of life is that it’s virtually impossible to live like that and have money.    It’s easy enough to run through $30 or $40 million dollars if you insist on $40,000 a night hotel rooms.

I think it’s also fairly easy to get your priorities skewed, which is why we have the kind of bankruptcy nonsense we get with a person like Ken Lay.    If the mechanic down the street goes bankrupt, he can lose his house and be left to himself to pick up the pieces.  If Ken Lay goes bankrupt, he needs enough left over to live a live that is “reasonable” to live, and we have Linda Lay crying on television because she’s left with only one thirty-room house.

And, you know, from her perspective, from the example she has of all the people she knows, she isn’t being idiotic–that really is suffering. 

By now, of course, you’re all probably thinking that we ought to go back to the kind of bankruptcy that leaves a Ken and Linda Lay with about enough for a raised ranch in Davenport, Iowa, and I’m with you.

But we seem to have done all this in 1880, and learned absolutely nothing since.

I need to take back recycling.

Written by janeh

May 21st, 2011 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

Just in case you’re all wondering, I haven’t disappeared from real life, and I’m not up to my neck in trouble.  It’s just that I’m having really odd computer problems.

Or maybe not computer problems.  Maybe AOL problems.  And since AOL dial up is my only connection at home, if that isn’t working properly, then there’s not much I can do. 

One of the things that’s been happening is connection times so slow that I can’t load any site with serious graphics–but with FB, it’s even worse.  It keeps telling me I have to “download” FB, which I’ve never done before, and don’t  intend to do now.

Then there’s the thing where the program dials up, gets off, and tries to dial up again without actually hanging up the phone, causing me to have to disconnect at the jack to make the damn thing hang up.

In other words, I’m frustrated, bothered and annoyed.

And reading Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which is very funny on a number of levels.

I’m going to go back to fighting with the machine again, but I promise a report in a day or two, assuming I can get on at all.

And, yes, I know I need a new Internet provider.


Written by janeh

May 20th, 2011 at 11:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bad Behavior has blocked 864 access attempts in the last 7 days.