I borrowed an e-book version of Donna’s Tartt’s The Goldfinch from the library. (Still pretty amazed I figured out how to do that, but a rent crisis made it necessary.) This morning, I arrived at 870/1427. In this passage, the protagonist Theo Decker, who suffered a terrible loss when he was 14, as well as a remarkable, if dodgy, gain, is now 26. He decides to wean himself off his drugs of choice, Oxycontin 80s, et al. These enable him to carry on a successful life, whereas alcohol, his father’s drug, or heroin would not. So he says. (This does not reflect the views of the writer who has trouble with 100 mgs of Sertraline.) The physical withdrawal is bad enough, but after that comes the DEPRESSION.
“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…
Elsewhere I have confessed to a black sense of humour. I embrace Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “despair young and never look back.” except I tend to apply it to life in general. So these few pages cheered me up and made me laugh.
My 80 yr-old-body had hobbled out of bed this morning with full awareness that today more strangers would file through my apartment. Eventually, one of them would buy the triplex. Very likely, they would then evict me. My place is the only unit renovated. The only available apartments are $200-800 more than mine. (We’re having a really big real estate boom in Toronto.) I try to remember that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, but getting into those seems too radical altogether.
So I’ve been ruminating on divorce, recession, illness, housing bubbles that burst, and those that haven’t yet. But this despondent passage in Donna Tartt’s book was so beautifully written that I didn’t care.
Goldfinches, especially painted ones, do not have voices like nightingales or mockingbirds. They twitter as they swoop, parentheses of bright flashing light.
No, I’m not 8-sided, but this Septuagenarian Hobbit passed a milestone on Cinco de Mayo. I’m not hairy-footed either, although I do enjoy a second breakfast, and I prefer to stay in my cozy home. Two years ago, I found myself traveling and away from home for months on end to be with ailing relatives. The Septuagenarian hobbit whined about that, despite the beauty of the two places I found myself in – the Kern County, California mountains and the elegant city of Brussels.
Now the octogenarian has a new cause for complaint. My landlord is selling my house.
How can that be? I have lived here ten years. I have poured over $135,000 into their account. I’ve replaced burned out bulbs in the hallway and swept the rugs clean. I diligently reported plumbing issues. I bought my own kitchen tap.I was the one who discovered the flood in the basement. I provide post-dated rent checks from a guaranteed pension income. I can’t be fired or laid off, although it is true, I could become deceased.
Sounds like a back-up plan.
Every house in Toronto, no matter how ramshackled is now worth $1,000,000. I have in my time “owned” four of these million dollar domiciles. The last one I sold during the ’95 real estate bust. I lost about $80,000 and came away with just enough to buy a leather couch. I had badly wanted to buy a Cuisinart as well, but I ran out of money.
No,no, don’t start crowd funding. My son’s mother-in-law found one at a garage sale. Her daughter gave it to me.
I absolutely love my first floor apartment in an Etobicoke triplex. You can see why. I love knowing that deer are sleeping in the woods above the South Humber River. I love the sparrows that flock in the backyard. I love the maples and the oak.
The house has been for sale for three days. I stayed for the first three showings. They were all looking for family homes, in other words, my home. It is the only fully renovated unit. True the new owner has to give me two months notice, so the earliest I could get the boot, considering a one month closing, is Dec. 31st. What a lovely idea! Jan. 31? How could I get so lucky?
There are apparently very few duplexes in the area. There is a species of low rise apartment buildings, without elevators, with rusty balconies and roadside Saturday sales of second-hand clothes. And, of course, mile-high condos that are way out of a pensioner’s league.
There are bidding wars on properties for sale, but there are also bidding wars on rental units. In the front foyer, the upstairs women and I agree: we can’t afford to live in Toronto.
Should we jump ship now? Should we rent a house together? Should I take another Lorazepam?
Meanwhile, showings scheduled 24 hours ahead are cancelled less than an hour ahead, or scheduled just when it’s dinner time, or before we are ready to crawl out of our PJs. I’d go on but I’ve got to take that pill and wash the dishes before the next showing,
THE HISTORY AND UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF HANDWRITING
By Anne Trubek
Illustrated. 177 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.
“I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject,” the Dutch scholar Erasmus declared in 1528 in his treatise “On Handwriting.” As Anne Trubek’s new book, “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” demonstrates, 500 years later the debate simmers on. Trubek traces Western script from Sumerian cuneiform to the Roman alphabet and on through Carolingian minuscule, Spencerian and Palmer scripts. When an Ohio second grader joins in to whinge about achy pen-holding fingers, handwriting — and specifically cursive, now eradicated from the Common Core curriculum — becomes as hot a topic as in Erasmus’s day.
Yet Trubek’s intriguing history is something of a bait and switch. As a writer and professor at Oberlin College, where she offers a course called “Technologies of Writing: From Plato to the Digital Age,” she’s the expert reporters call when weighing the merits of teaching traditional penmanship — she’s skeptical — and her book is a eulogy, urging a long goodbye to handwriting as we know it and an embrace of a neurological metamorphosis already underway as we adapt to new technology. But her revelatory deep dive also shows just how much we stand to lose.
Of course, as Trubek points out, resisting this probable, if not certain, transformation is nothing new. “Unsurprisingly, the most vocal opponents of new technologies are those who dominated the old,” she writes. There’s Socrates, for instance, railing against the treachery of writing, which he thought inferior to oration and risky too, eroding the necessity of memory.
“Writing preserves only the thought of literate peoples,” Trubek points out, quoting the scholar Barry Powell, attentively exposing the politics of access in her subject. In ancient Egypt, as in so many cultures, only well-born boys learned writing, and whether used as a branding tool of church and state or as a signifier of privilege, script is never neutral. Ambitious 17th- and 18th-century clerks changed their fortunes by mastering difficult new hands, while aristocrats wrote sloppily “as if in open proclamation of scorn for the arts by which humbler people oftentimes got their bread,” Thomas De Quincey noted.
Perfecting penmanship became a Christian ideal in 19th-century America, one occasionally credited with disciplining the mind, initiating an era of pseudo-psychological graphology that lingers today. Handwriting’s sketchy scientific past makes good reading, but Trubek errs in underplaying the contemporary research that shows handwriting’s role in cognitive development. Studies show that a child drawing a letter freehand activates the neurological centers that reading and writing do in adults, while using a keyboard produces little effect. Children composing text by hand generate more words more quickly, and also express more ideas. Students who take class notes by hand better retain that information, and, fascinatingly, not only does the brain process capital letters and lowercase letters differently, but block printing, cursive and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns. It all seems more tantalizing and tangible than the “advantages unimaginable” Trubek believes the future holds. She calls the science behind the new studies “fuzzy” and judges their findings unconvincing. But while American public education has abandoned cursive, France surveyed the evidence and began teaching connected script even earlier, at age 6.
A tension between style and substance pitted ornamentation against speed at the start. As Trubek tells it, the Sumerians’ first notations were solely bureaucratic, recording financial transactions in symbolic shorthand. By the medieval era, scribes went through 60 quills a day copying a single book for some three months, reaching perhaps the “apogee of handwriting in the West,” she writes. Though their work was “neither creative nor original,” occasionally a little ego spilled into the margins. “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” one monk scribbled. “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.”
How we write is delicately connected to what we write and why. Trubek suggests relegating cursive to art class, but removing it to the realm of the exceptional limits our expectations of experiencing beauty in the day-to-day. Today’s second graders, including my own, will learn to type — one day, my daughter might even out-key Stella Willins, who banged out 264 words per minute in 1926. But we can’t quantify the value in an ability to forge a rare harmony between utility and beauty, the handsomely scripted grocery list, the love letter, the diary I write just for myself.
“We will lose something as we print and write in cursive less and less, but loss is inevitable,” Trubek concludes. Though one technology often supplants another, that doesn’t necessitate concession. Considering its rich significance, instead of hustling handwriting off to the graveyard, perhaps what’s called for is resurrection.
With “Nutshell,” Ian McEwan has performed an incongruous magic trick, mashing up the premises of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Amy Heckerling’s 1989 movie, “Look Who’s Talking,” to create a smart, funny and utterly captivating novel.
It’s a tale told by a talking fetus who’s a kind of Hamlet in utero — a baby-to-be (or not-to-be, as the case may be), who bears witness to an affair between his mother, Trudy, and his uncle Claude. This adulterous pair are plotting to kill the baby’s father, John. Can the narrator prevent this murder — or later exact some sort of revenge? What will happen to the narrator should his father be abruptly dispatched to heaven, and his mother found out and sent to jail? And what do these depressing developments portend about the world into which he is soon to be born?
Mr. McEwan’s narrator is one well-spoken, highbrow baby (a kind of less diabolical Stewie from “Family Guy”), who possesses all the verbal gifts of his creator (Mr. McEwan, not Trudy or John) and the sophistication of a 21st-century member of London’s chattering class — thanks to eavesdropping, from the womb, on the podcasts and “self-improving audiobooks” his mother is fond of. He is thrilled by Joyce’s “Ulysses,” prefers Keats to most modern poets (“Too much about the self, too glassily cool with regard to others”) and worries a lot about things like climate change and nuclear proliferation. Thanks to Trudy’s love of fine vintages, he’s also something of a wine connoisseur with a taste for Sancerre.
Like his 1998 novel, “Amsterdam,” “Nutshell” is a small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan’s narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can be perform. The restrictions created by the narrator’s situation — stuck inside a maternal nutshell — seem to have stimulated a surge of inventiveness on Mr. McEwan’s part, as he mischievously concocts a monologue for his “almost child” that plays on “Hamlet,” even as it explores some of his own favorite themes (the corruption of innocence, the vulnerability of children and the sudden skid of ordinary life into horror), familiar to readers from such earlier works as “The Child in Time,” “The Children Act” and his 2002 masterwork, “Atonement.”
The narrator understands – or thinks he understands — the three legs of the adulterous triangle around him in very clear terms. John is a not-very-successful poet and small-time publisher — kindly, impoverished and eager to please, persuaded by his pregnant wife to move out of the ancestral manse because she needs a little “space.” Trudy is a manipulative green-eyed beauty who has fallen out of love with John and fallen in lust with his “priapic, satanic” younger brother, Claude — a dimwitted real estate developer and first-class dolt who “knows only clothes and cars.”
As time passes, however, the narrator begins to wonder if things might not be a little more complicated than he first surmised. Has his father been having an affair with Elodie, a pretty young thing who writes poems about owls? And why does his dad seem to have so little regard for him, his soon-to-be-born son? For that matter, what does Trudy plan to do with him once he is born; will he simply be given away or put in foster care?
“Nutshell” cleverly takes its title from a line in “Hamlet”: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.” And the novel is brightly studded with allusions not just to “Hamlet” but also to “Macbeth,” “Lolita,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” Montaigne’s essays, Dante, Nietzsche and Kafka. Mr. McEwan’s little homunculus is, by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent, especially when his mother has had several glasses of wine and he’s reeling from a contact high. He worries about being contaminated by Claude’s sperm when his uncle is having sex with Trudy. And he tries giving his mother a strong kick when he wants to remind her of his existence.
When he isn’t trying to piece together Trudy and Claude’s nefarious plans, the narrator spends a lot of time musing about the state of the world outside “the bouncy castle” that is his temporary home. How can commentators declare that it’s “dusk in the second Age of Reason,” he wonders, when there are “commonplace miracles that would make a manual laborer the envy of Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry, electric light, instant contact with people we love, with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine of a dozen cultures”?
On the other hand, “Europa’s secular dreams of union” are threatening to dissolve “before the old hatreds, small-scale nationalism, financial disaster, discord.” While poverty and war are “driving millions from their homes, an ancient epic in new form, vast movements of people, like engorged rivers in spring, Danubes, Rhines and Rhones of angry or desolate or hopeful people, crammed at borders against the razor-wire gates, drowning in thousands to share in the fortunes of the West.”
It’s preposterous, of course, that a fetus should be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his sleight of hand. At the same time, his unborn Hamlet’s soliloquy leaves us with a snapshot of part of London that’s as resonant as the portrait of the post-9/11 world he created in his “Mrs. Dalloway”-inspired novel “Saturday,” a snapshot of how a slice of the privileged West lives — and worries — today.
Paul Muchrone is a ‘granny whisperer’ – a what? I hear you say? What he does is visit the elderly in hospital and sits with them as if he is a relative. This all came about when he was visiting an old lady on the ward and he discovered his talent.
“While I was there, another lady on the ward – late stages of Alzheimer’s amongst other things – mistook me for her brother. They knew he wasn’t coming back from America and she had some things she needed to say, so – ”
“You did your trick,” she finished.
Paul goes onto explain that he helps out where needed, aided by just having one of those faces:
He had nothing that came close to qualifying as a distinguishing anything. His every facial attribute was a masterpiece of bloody-minded unoriginality, an aesthetic tribute to the forgettably average. Collectively…
As I weigh whether to seek a traditional publisher for The Hour of the Hawk ( my occasionally funny mystery), or to self-publish, I came upon this post. I found this blog post on Passive Voice, to which I subscribe.
I’ve been a stand-up comedian now for about 15 years and I’ve long since lost track of how many times somebody has said that to me. It’s one of the four responses that comics get when people find out what you do for a living. It’s by no means the worst; for example, my heart sinks when a sentence starts with ‘I’ve got one for ye…’ – not least because invariably what follows is tremendously offensive to someone’s race/gender/disability/sexuality or occasionally, all of the above. You’re more often than not left with the choice of fake laughing along and dying a little inside or sticking to your morals and risking a slap in the chops.
That risk aside, there really isn’t much bravery involved. It’s just talking nonsense to people and, with the noticeably exception of one gig I did in the Philippines, those people…
Okay brace yourself! As some of you know, despite my name, I am ‘Sad’, while my sister is ‘Joy’ (according to the gospel of ‘Inside Out’). She is often required to drag me around by my heels, until I cheer up. (Confused? You’re going to have to see that movie.)
Then along came my 80th birthday on Cinco de Mayo, and a house full of people, 18 months to 81, all of them beautiful, people who had gone to the trouble of seeking out 80th b’day cards!!
The biggest surprise was a six foot parcel of fun from Brussels.
Well, maybe he was the second biggest surprise. The biggest is my realization that in spite of events, I have not actually failed. It was never my job to save everybody. They all had their own saving potential. Whatever happened was not wrong or my fault.
I am going to use the kindness I have experienced as a mirror to see myself as Joy.
Hour of the Hawk, the mystery I have been working on for a year, was critiqued by editor B over breakfast. It is no longer on the wing. Or more positively, it has reached a new, exciting launch pad -at the top of a Jeffrey PIne. It lies there disconsolant, at present, but both critic and writer agree that there are parts they love: the goat chapter, the romance novelist, Arta Dietzen, and even the penultimate surprise. Both of us laugh at Jesus, the cable man. We want to keep the concept of the elderly, possibly psychic, Joanna and her friend, flying around on their golf cart in search of the serpent in the mountain Eden of Bear Mountain Place.
(Why am I not lying on the floor, kicking and screaming and bashing my head? For one, I’m told this is the nature of writing. Just when you think you’re done, you’re not. For two, I destroyed my-3 year-old MacBookAir ten days ago. The tea spilled south. The laptop was north, three feet away. Safe as houses. But… the intervening newspaper sucked up the tea and helpfully ciphoned it into the solid state inards through the USB port. I didn’t throw a tantrum then either. I spent two hours waiting for a Mac Genius to deliver the bad news, all the while worrying about Hour of the Hawk. When I plugged the new Cdn $1500 (with extended warranty) computer into my external hard drive, there was my hawk baby, alive and well. What’s money when life is at stake?)
Critic B has no complaint about the writing itself,and he likes the voice. He expected that. He was one of the few who read my e-book Never Tell, recovered memories of a daughter of the Temple Mater, as well as an unpublished manuscript telling about my recovery from life in the cult.
But Hour of the Hawk has too many characters. I had heard this rumor from Critic A and immediately, resolved in my heart that Evie, the telepathic goat farmer, was going to stay.
Critic B began by mentioning that. He had got confused trying to remember who was who. Much to my embarrassment, neither of us could remember the name of the kingpin in the conspiracy. That character is typically absent when he should be front and center. I mean he says he will be at this meeting or that and fails to be there. He has reasons for that. But he obviously isn’t real at present. Neither the protagonist nor the reader connects with him.
Some characters may need to do double duty, while others may be set aside for the next “Old Girl Mystery”, but still others, like Oliver Warren, CEO of El Halcon Ranch, may just need to be developed.
Soon the discussion of character morphed into one of structure, the real problem. It went on for most of the morning, sitting, standing, retreating to fresh air on the deck -very fresh, 40 degrees of mountain air swirling through the pines- pacing, hand-waving. Me still in my hooded onesie, which makes me look like a large white rabbit. The pellet stove belting out heat. A winter storm coming on.
I saw how my story was like washing pegged to a clothes line whereas it needs to be a power pulley line, each event powering the next.
I thought we had finished, but when Critic A returned from yoga, the seminar started up again. She is also in the early stages of writing a book, so now there were two students in this peripatetic class. Where was Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. (Any character can be humanized by one good act such as pouring a saucer of milk for the starving stray.) All we could find was Save the Cat at the Movies. Same theory, illustrated through the examination of many, many movies. We did manage to print out three copies of Snyder’s Beat Sheet, the fifteen steps of a screenplay. (Screenplays are typically 100 pages-20 intro, 60-rising action and 20-climax and resolution.) Critic B is most familiar with that type of writing, but I have come across similar structural breakdowns while researching synopsis writing for novels.
The prospect of listing major events briefly on 3 by 5 cards and arranging them on a tack board seemed less daunting then than it does now – we all got excitedly high on creativity- but what else do I have to do through the long Toronto winter.
My protagonist Joanna Hunter is not a detective nor a forensic expert, so she and her side-kick (the old girls) have to rely on MIss Marple’s methods- snooping, intuition and reasoning. I have to put Joanna in more danger as she closes in on the miscreants. And too much of the climax happens off-stage, reported rather than witnessed.
The first person narrator lends immediacy, but limits point of view. I already have two passages that are third person. Why not a few more?
All the books I have read about editing stress the need for a good editor. Good editors cost money. Critic B is my son-in-law. Do you suppose I will get invoiced?
Years ago, my European brother translated a French joke into English for me.
Three explorers, an Englishman, A Frenchman and a Belgian are captured by cannibals. The head cannibal says, “We are going to cook you and eat you, but first, we are going to remove your skin and make it into little canoes. You can have anything you want as a last meal.” The Englishman says, “Can you do roast beef and Yorkshire pudding?” “Of course,” says the headman. “Do you think we are uncivilized?” The Frenchman wants to begin with escargot and go on to an omelette and salad. He is too upset to eat more. The Belgian says, “Give me a fork.” “Is that all you want?” asks the headman. “We do a nice patatesfrites.” “That’s all,” says the Belgian. “Just a fork.” So they sit down to wait silently. In a surprisingly short time, the meals are presented to the Englishman and the Frenchman, and they begin to eat. The Belgian picks up his fork and begins stabbing himself all over his body. When he is covered with bleeding holes he cries, triumphantly, “That for your little canoe.”
Terrorists are nothing new to my brother and me. Our father was one domestically and socially. Keeping us in constant fear would ensure our obedience and turn us into helpers for his nefarious schemes. Oddly enough, we didn’t obey. We contradicted him and took the blows. Then we escaped him. Two of us became teachers, one a minister and my brother, the funniest, kindest oddball in Belgium.
ISIS has miscalculated as all terrorists do. Paris is now the focus of the world’s love. If you’re into it, tune in and see it in your mind-a grid of golden contrails from every corner of civilization. Spiritual help is pouring in from both realms. People are heartbroken and stricken with fear, and, yet, there is more light than darkness even now.
“Out of this nettle danger,” Shakespeare said, “we pluck this flower..” He named the flower “safety”. It suited his purpose. But it is more than that. Empathy is growing by leaps and bounds.
Terrorists always make the same mistake, and they never win. The human spirit was not built for sustained terror. We rise above. We march on.Terrorists actually accomplish the opposite of what they intended. More darkness calls in more light.
At a certain point in the editing process, I began working on a more authentic voice. In Hour of the Hawk, I was using a first person narrator telling the story in the past tense. Past tense lends distance. First person doesn’t. Because my narrator, Joanna Hunter, had a history similar to mine, one of my first revisions had been aimed at eliminating quirks and ways of speaking that were more me than her because, of course, we were different people. I liked the new, sparer, less elliptical, more direct voice. Then I got the bad news. The voice was not authentic, which is to say, uninteresting. “A lot of it was only mediocre,” said Critic A.
So glad I keep my kitchen knives sharpened to a gleaming edge!
My authentic self was fascinating, she added, and so, therefore, was Joanna’s. Where was my effervescent personality, my wicked sense of humour? I needed to let things fly. Characters hooked readers and made them read on. And I needed to love all my characters, even the irresponsible guy who put honey in a tire swing to attract bears, and ended up getting killed by one.
I wrote the beginning again. I sent it off by email. “Not working yet,” replied Critic A. I went back to work. Several weeks later, I knew enough about Tom Braddock to write a book on him alone. He had a Chumash great grandmother and a college football career, as well as three kids, and an articulate, wife who worked at a Bakersfield hospital. Most of all, I liked him. He passed muster.
But Critic A had more to tell me. I needed to create a relationship with my reader. Joanna, for example, knew what it means to age. A person could be spiritual and loving but also skeptical and cynical. That reminded me of one of my favourite sayings: Samuel Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “Despair young and never look back.” I find that hilarious, especially with a glass of Guinness. (My biological grandfather was Irish, I have just discovered.) The notes I jotted down from that long distance conversation also include the words,”dangerously compassionate”. Don’t ask me.
So I went to see Phillipa C. on Dundas W. in Toronto and arranged for her to take a series of portraits. I brought along props. I thought I would be painfully self-conscious. I wasn’t. I have done enough acting to know how to slip into a character. When I saw them a few days later, I learned more about Joanna.
I knew she wore jeans and a cowboy hat. I’d forgotten the leather jacket. I knew she was the survivor of a dangerous family and had cop phobia. (Does knowing about a crime make you guilty?) I knew she had a rock and roll side, a toughness she could trot out driving on dark desert highways. She was capable of salty language and had once been taken to the principal by a senior student. Poor fellow had aggravated her while she was on top of a ladder adjusting a bulb high in a TV studio. Joanna also saw the world through the prism Shakespeare’s plays and the St. James Bible. Her heart had been broken more than once in a been down so long it looks like up to me sort of way. And she caught glimpses of the future from time to time, and could keep track of dead people. I went back and added this point of view in brief reflections throughout the action.
By now Critics C and D had finished reading the book. They were satisfied. Not about to sort through it again for such gems. Critic B plays golf a lot, and Critic A was now deeply into her own writing. I wait on tenterhooks. In December, we will be together in Pine Mountain Club, and we will sit down to sort our book out.
Meanwhile, Critic A/Writer B had a small breakdown on the phone because she couldn’t find her authentic voice. I thought of her horizontally stripped stockings and her three print outfits. I thought of her exuberant dancing in hiking boots on the golf green. Only children dared enter her orbit. I said try zany. Then discovering that Roget regarded that as an insult, I came up with a list: joyful, full of life, eccentric, empathetic, outside the box, dangerously unpredictable, aggressive, digressive, diverting, out of left field, hippy, unexpected, nuclear powered love and empathy generator which heals on contact.
From what she’s read to me, she’s getting on better now.