Our Virtual Commonplace Book

commonplace:  noun, Archaic. A place or passage in a book or writing
noted as important for reference or quotation.

Findings from Our Work and Reading

Thursday
Jul212011

The Seven Deadly Sins Have Never Been More Fun

Now that the heat wave that has been sweeping the nation has reached Boston—the heat index was just about 100 degrees today, with more of the same expected tomorrow—I can think of nothing better to discuss than The Seven Deadly Sins.

Well, not exactly the sins themselves, but comedian Mark Watson’s take on them from a series on BBC radio in 2007 called “Mark Watson Makes the World Substantially Better.”

The 6 episodes of series 1 were made available recently on iTunes, and I discovered them there last weekend while looking up Tim Minchin. After downloading and busting a gut laughing over episode 1, I quickly bought the other 5—a total investment of less than $12 for 3 hours of mirth.

Watson, with his Welsh-inflected rapid-fire diction, takes on the subject of sin with the help of comic poet Tim Key and the satiric singer-songwriter Tim Minchin. Watson’s stated goal is to make the world better—substantially better—by exploring the sins through poetry, comedy, and song. Starting with Greed and Gluttony, episode 1 is a 2-sins-for-the-price-of-1 production. Subsequent episodes introduce Lust, Pride, Envy, Sloth, and Wrath with hilarious gusto and evolving dynamics among the comic trio.

Tim Key offers a poem on each sin, Watson provides a standup sermon complete with highly amusing exempla, and Minchin concludes each show, after providing incidental music and jingles throughout, with a song about the sin in his incomparable style. “Sloth,” for example, is sung in the voice of that adorable mammal from Minchin’s native Australia. Members of Minchin’s growing U.S. fan base will no doubt enjoy his contributions, as irreverent and clever as ever.

The show, though, ultimately belongs to Mark Watson, whose observations and “lessons” stand up (okay, pun intended) to repeated listening. Given the challenges inherent in making the world substantially better, I’m happy to settle for a few hours of making the world substantially funnier.

*     *     *

Postscript: Mark Watson is also the author of a handful of books, none of which I have read or can vouch for, but I expect to land one on my Kindle before long. His Amazon page is here.

Here’s a snippet of Watson to enjoy. Plenty more can be found on YouTube.

Wednesday
Jul132011

A Wise and Generous Soul

I read and reviewed this young adult novel several years ago. Last night I took it down from the shelf and visited with it for a little while. It still impresses me. Here’s the review.

 

Zazoo

By Richard Mosher

Clarion Books, 2001. 248 pages.

A “very good” novel captures the reader with compelling narrative, fascinating characters, and essential subtext. Richard Mosher’s Zazoo is a very good novel. Written for teenagers, this story of a thirteen-year-old girl in unusual circumstances is rich and satisfying on many levels. It is a can’t-put-it-down but don’t-want-it-to-end sort of novel, carried by the voice of the narrator, Zazoo, and the matters, joyful and grave, that she confronts as her story unfolds.

Zazoo lives in France. Born in Vietnam and orphaned, at the age of two, by a post-war landmine explosion, she is adopted by the elderly Grand-Pierre while he is visiting Vietnam long after his involvement in the French part of the war. Grand-Pierre, whose local reputation is based on his violent actions against the Germans in the Second World War, is now a lockkeeper on a rural canal. Zazoo grows up in this unique and pastoral setting. The canal is a place of boating, swimming, and skating.It is the inspiration for poems written by the old man and young girl, together and separately. It is also, for Grand-Pierre, a place of harsh wartime memories and present penance.

As the story begins, Zazoo meets Marius, a mysterious sixteen-year-old boy who speaks in the “slow accent of the south” but lives in Paris with his grandmother. Zazoo’s encounter with Marius sets the stage for a series of discoveries about, and with, the people in her life. These discoveries are centered upon love -- young, old, lost, redemptive -- and can only be made among Zazoo’s circle of friends with the help of her special status as an “outsider” who is also very much inside their lives.

All of this is brought to the reader on a rich narrative canvas. Zazoo speaks in a lovely voice that reveals echoes of a generous and wise soul. She guides us through the seasons of the canal. She both laments and honors Grand-Pierre’s slow “disappearance” as age takes his memory and capabilities. She shares the delightful unlikelihood of her friendship with Monsieur Klein, the village pharmacist, who belies his tragic past by surrounding himself with art and craft. And all the while she is navigating a tale that covers ground and time from Vietnam to France and from her own fourteenth year to Grand-Pierre’s wartime violence. It covers the emotional ground of first love and lost love and restored love, always in the ever present light and shadow of that great flawed masterpiece we call human history.

With Zazoo, Richard Mosher offers a novel that is a singular journey through time, place, and the human heart. It is a mystery in the large and small senses of the word, one that lingers and haunts long after the book is closed.

 

Monday
Jul112011

A Routine Ballplayer

I just finished proofreading an ebook-conversion manuscript of Fear Strikes Out by Jim Piersall and Al Hirshberg. First published in 1955 and restored to print in 1999 by Bison Books of the University of Nebraska Press (which has the admirable mission of rediscovering great baseball books that might otherwise be lost), Fear Strikes Out is an honest account of Piersall’s youth and rookie year, 1952, with the Boston Red Sox. Halfway through the season Piersall suffered a nervous breakdown was institutionalized for several weeks. His on-field performance that year had included not only stellar play but outrageous antics ranging from delaying games — to the delight of fans — by performing an extended stretching routine, imitating (on field) other players including the great Satchel Paige and Piersall’s own idol, Dominic DiMaggio, and harassing umpires.

Piersall’s comeback the next season was facilitated by the way the professional baseball fraternity came together in a truly brotherly fashion. Piersall was not stigmatized for having been through a mental illness and breakdown. Players and umpires did not seek “revenge” for his sometimes mean-spirited clowning around on the field. Surprising and even ahead of its time in a decade that was not always so understanding and forgiving about such illnesses, the baseball community, including, ultimately, the fans, embraced Piersall, who went on to play for 16 seasons that included two trips to the All-Star Game. Born in 1929, Piersall presently lives in Arizona.

Here’s an excerpt from his story, as he steps gingerly into spring training of 1953.

The other Red Sox players treated me exactly as they treated each other. . . . . There’s always a lot of hand shaking and back slapping and kidding around and shouting back and forth. I was included in all of it. As far as the boys were concerned, I was a routine ballplayer who had had a routine winter vacation.

Everyone I’d played with who was still with the club acted the same towards me. The boys were neither too hot nor too cold. There was no self-conscious moving in, shaking hands and moving out again. I was one of the crowd and that was just the way I wanted it. Even when I saw [Mickey] McDermott for the first time, I felt no embarrassment. He shook hands and kidded with me just as the others had. The same thing happened with [Billy] Martin when I saw him later in nearby St. Petersburg, where the Yankees trained. The flareups of the year before were forgotten. We met in the natural course of events, shook hands as any two people would after not having seen each other for some time, and passed the time of day.

I was a little concerned about how the umpires would treat me. After all, I had given them a worse going-over than anyone else. Umpires have spring training just the way ballplayers do. Usually an umpire is assigned to a team for several weeks at a time. Bill Summers, a rolypoly veteran who had been around for years, was with us.

When we met for the first time, he held out his hand and said, “How are you doing, Jimmy?”

“Fine,” I told him.

“You look great. Now just get out there and stay loose and you’ll be all right. Don’t worry about anything. Play the best ball you can. The umpires all want to help you. They’ll do anything they can to make it easy for you.”

Charley Berry, another veteran American League umpire, who joined us later, told me the same thing. Everywhere we played, the umpires who were working the game went out of their way to be nice to me. I was a little apprehensive about Honochick, with whom I’d had that terrible battle in New York, and Passarella, whose conscience I had once challenged, but they were just like the rest. . . .

The newspapermen were wonderful. I read all the Boston papers daily, and I didn’t see a single reference to any of the stunts I had pulled either on or off the field, or to the nature of my illness. There was nothing but encouragement, as the baseball writers, to a man, reported how well I was hitting and fielding and how certain it was that I was on my way towards making a sensationally successful comeback. (pages 197-199)

 

Tuesday
Jul052011

The Idiocy and Brilliance of the Species

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I gobbled this book up! (But not literally. See excerpt below.) Great character studies. Reminded me of a quote I heard once: "The great tragedy of life is that everyone has their reasons."

 

Here are a couple of excerpts:

He opens the paper to the culture pages, which have improved considerably under Arthur Gopal. Nevertheless, Herman spots an offender: the word “literally.” He snarls, wakes up his computer, and types:

  • literally: This word should be deleted. All too often, actions described as “literally” did not happen at all. As in, “He literally jumped out of his skin.” No, he did not. Though if he literally had, I’d suggest raising the element and proposing the piece for page one. Inserting ”literally” willy-nilly reinforces the notion that breathless nitwits lurk within this newsroom. Eliminate on sight—the usage, not the nitwits. The nitwits are to be captured and  placed in the cages I have set up in the subbasement. See also: Excessive Dashes; Exclamation Points; and Nitwits. (page 84)

~   ~   ~

Overnight, the paper disappeared from newsstands, taking with it the front-page banner, the characteristic fonts, the sports pages and the news, the business section and culture. Puzzle-Wuzzle and the obits.

The paper’s most loyal reader, Ornella de Monterecchi, trooped down to headquarters to demand that closure be reconsidered. But she had arrived too late. The doorman was kind enough to unlock the vacated newsroom. He turned on the flickering fluorescent beams and left her to wander.

The place was ghostly: abandoned desks and cables leading nowhere, broken computer printers, crippled rolling chairs. She stepped haltingly across the filthy carpeting and paused at the copydesk, still covered with defaced proofs and old editions. This room once contained all the world. Today, it contained only litter.

The paperthat daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the specieshad never before missed an appointment. Now it was gone. (page 269)

 

Sunday
Jun262011

Perfect Silence

A conversation with a history-minded nephew this weekend brought to mind a novel published back in 2000, Perfect Silence by Jeff Hutton. At the time I was doing a web site called Nimble Spirit, and I reviewed the novel and interviewed the author for the site. The book is still available, in print and for the Kindle, and I still recommend it.

 

Interview: Jeff Hutton

Jeff Hutton’s debut novel, Perfect Silence, seamlessly blends the worlds of early baseball, the Civil War, nature, and spirituality. Hutton’s tale of Joseph Tyler, his father, Caleb, and Sarah Kingsley is one of reconnecting with life after suffering great loss and alienation. Jeff Hutton spoke with me by phone from his home in Connecticut.

Michael Wilt:  The author biography on the flap of Perfect Silence is somewhat scant: You are a landscape designer, 46 years old, and this is your first novel. Tell us a bit about your development as a writer.

Jeff Hutton:  For those who write, I think writing is something you do all your life. I really practiced at my writing in high school—I was a really big letter writer, something I think is now a lost art. I wrote music and songs through my college years in the seventies, which was another way of perfecting my writing. Writing lyrics forces you to make a point succinctly. I believe, too, that a writer thinks as a writer, so I never stopped thinking as a writer. I did end up writing some children’s books for my children when they were young, and started and put away the novel once or twice, and then just put it all away for a while and raised kids and got busy with things. But it was inevitable that I would start it again, which I did back in 1997, and remembered how much I loved it. So it became a labor of love until its completion. But I’ve been writing since I was in grade school, various forms of poetry and songs and a couple of early attempts at a novel.

MW:  Have you always had an eye on publication while you were writing?

JH:  I don’t think you can ever think “publication.” If you write for that you’re in trouble. But then again, as with writing songs, you write songs for people to hear, and ultimately you write words for people to read, so you hope for that eventuality. But I began to write again simply because I had to write, it was something I just had to do. And as it evolves, you want your friends to read it, and having been an avid reader all my life—the real “school of writing” I went to was reading—I felt that it might be considered for publication and it might be worth reading, so I decided to pursue that.

MW:  Several threads weave through Perfect Silence—the Civil War and baseball, the need for some sort of spiritual and relational reconciliation—upon a fabric, as it were, of landscape.

JH:  I tried to make the barriers between some of these things less clear. The physical world, the spiritual world, the world of pure joy, the world of love, these things are all interconnected, but in our lives we desperately try to separate them. In my fiction I try to mix them all up—I have stones that have patterns of stars in them, and I have lots of personification in nature. Whether I was trying to do this consciously or not I can’t really say, but I think that is a thread that goes through all the themes of the novel. Joseph in his dialogue and Joseph in his feelings doesn’t consciously separate and label everything as clearly as we all tend to do. All of these things are part of who he is  nature, the physical world, the spiritual world, this world of joy that he discovers through baseball, his grieving for his mother, his torturous relationship with his father. As complex as that sounds, it’s a very simple story, with such matters seen through Joseph’s eyes and with no real attempt to make them understood in any great, overriding way.

I intended for the novel to be simple from the start. I didn’t want it too complex, I didn’t want too many characters, I really wanted things to center on one person. I love novels like Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and anything by Charles Dickens, where the story centers on an individual and through it all you can’t wait to see what happens to that single individual. That’s sort of where I thought I would go with this.

MW:  Given all these elements, what was your starting point?

JH:  I’ve been taken with the Civil War as long as I can remember, reading fiction and history about the Civil War. And I’ve been very drawn to the letters that came from the Civil War. The letters from soldiers are just incredibly, beautifully, lyrically written. They may not be grammatically correct or their spelling may be poor, but they’re just incredibly written. As I said, I think letter writing is a lost art. I’ve enjoyed writing letters over the years, and I’ve read a lot of historical letters, like Thomas Jefferson’s letters to his nephews, and I think that became a focus that drew me to the real human side of the war and the human side of the history.

My interest in baseball sort of evolved as my son started playing and I began coaching Little League. Eventually I discovered that the two intersected. There’s a sort of an unknown history, but it’s becoming more known, of baseball and the Civil War. When I discovered the intersection and saw some pictures of Civil War regiments holding baseball bats, I was just overcome by this feeling and couldn’t wait to write.

MW:  You’ve spent many years as a landscape designer, and manipulation of landscapes—clearing fields, making stone walls, marking out baseball fields—is a recurring element in Perfect Silence.

JH:  Part of landscaping is trying to put a personal stamp on the natural world in some way. In this story, Joseph’s father, Caleb, does it very literally. He really wants to define his world, and stone walls are his manner of definition. Later on I think Joseph does a similar thing, but his boundaries are the boundaries of the baseball field. He even says, “These are my stone walls.” So I think he finds his place in a world that’s too big for him to understand, both physically and spiritually, and it allows him to concentrate on something that is clear to him. I think Caleb does that when he withdraws from trying to come to grips with his wife’s death; building walls gives him a sense of control.

As a professional landscaper, I wonder what I’m doing sometimes, because we can’t replicate the natural world. We try to do the best we can, and sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail, and sometimes we improve. There’s probably some deep philosophical thing there, but I’m not sure I can clearly define it. I also think that landscapes of baseball fields really were, and certainly are today, wonderful memories of a more rural America. Driving through the Bronx and then walking into Yankee Stadium is breathtaking. Even in the early twentieth century that was a big part of it. Baseball fields were built in urban centers, and during the Industrial Revolution people were moving to the urban centers and I think they sort of rediscovered a pastoral past, literally, with the ball fields.

I guess after twenty-two years of landscaping, everything I write has that at the base: my understanding, or lack of understanding, of where the landscape really lies in the whole realm of things.

MW:  As a historical novel, Perfect Silence must have presented some particular challenges for you as a writer in the late twentieth century.

JH:  For me, writing fiction is a lot like doing impressionist paintings. It presents my impressions of things. I do the best I can with that, and I hope I’ve done it effectively. And while I think, based on my reading and research, the book is pretty accurate, I can’t know that it’s, strictly speaking, a historical record. By the same token, one of my goals when I started writing this was to be able to take out the words “Civil War” and have the feel of it remain accurate regarding all these others wars we’ve fought. And baseball’s history often intertwines with the history of war. If you know the history of baseball, you know that guys like Ted Williams went off to fly bomber missions and came back and hit .355 the next year. I think Joseph’s experience coming out of the Civil War is not unlike the experience of people who came out of the Vietnam War. There is a sort of universality there; it needn’t be frozen in time, but should have a broader sense to it.

Writing historical fiction, or any fiction, speaks to that old writers’ rule: You write what you know. I’m not sure I agree with that at all. Certainly you write what you know to some degree, but there’s also the matter of personal impressions. I’ve never lived for a great deal of time in Virginia, I’ve never been in battle, so these are impressions of things that I’m interpreting for the reader. I just don’t think I agree with the rule, You write what you know.

MW:  With all its attention to war and baseball and relationship, Perfect Silence is a deeply spiritual novel. If you don’t mind, what might you share regarding your own sources of spirituality?

JH:  That’s been a big part of my life. My parents were churchgoers and I was involved with the church. I grew up as a Methodist and am a churchgoing Congregationalist now, but more important is that kind of thought process and kind of searching has always been a part of my life. I approached it more “seriously” at a younger age, and really in different way, but I’ve always thought that human life is spiritual, and that if you try to deny that, it’s harmful. So I don’t consider myself a highly “spiritual” person but I do find a lot of joy in many of the things that Joseph finds joy in, particularly in nature and also in family. I think one of my favorite spiritual times is on Sunday morning, in the two hours before we go to church, when my wife and I listen to classical music and read the paper together, and in the context of a work week and all the other things going on, that’s an incredible time for me. Church is good too, but I think those hours before church are some of the best hours in my life. And we do some hiking as a family, and for me those are all transcendent things. My own religious beliefs probably don’t matter, but I think the awareness of being part of something greater is important.

MW:  Who are your favorite writers?

JH:  I read a lot of fiction—that’s where I learned to write. I studied literature in college and back then John Updike and D. H. Lawrence were very important to me. I read a lot of poetry, and when I started writing seriously again I went back to reading Robert Frost, and his poetry was very helpful in writing this book. And I think whenever you’re involved with fiction, with writing words, looking at poetry is liberating. And contemporary writers—I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy and Rick Bass. There are a lot of writers I love to read, Hemingway, Faulkner, and I’m sort of working my way through the top one hundred novels of the century list. The one novel that I try to reread every five years or so is Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, one my favorite novels of all time, the ultimate spiritual novel.

MW:  What’s next? What are your plans as a writer?

JH:  I’m very excited about writing, always have been, and now I’m sort of off the mark and ready to go. I’m about halfway through a novel—I’m not exactly sure where it’s going—in a contemporary setting, and again I think it’s about someone trying to connect somehow with life again. To make it very brief, a guy’s sitting in his office and witnesses a car accident in which a mother and a son are killed, but the woman’s other son, who is also in the car, survives. At first the man just turns away from it, as something routine in his day, but it profoundly effects him after that and he searches out this boy who survived, and it evolves from there. I’m not sure yet about the primary theme, but that’s where it is. I hope to finish that this winter; that’s my goal.