Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Review of "Good Prose" by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (Random House, 2013)

To be honest, the initial emotion I felt reading this book was jealousy. This primarily a book about writing and a very good one; ranking with Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Anne Lamont’s “Bird by Bird”. But the book isn’t just about writing. It’s about a relationship, a friendship; but an unlikely one. The friendship is between a writer and an editor.
“Friend” is not the first word many writers think of when they think of their editors. “Boss” might be one of the kinder words that comes to mind. “Vandal”, “philistine” or “nemesis” is might be the less kind words other writers when they are avoiding obscenities.

For some writers an editor is the wall keeping her away from the public. For other writers, an editor isn’t a person but rather a red pen that desecrates his work. For most writers, an editor is an anonymous name on the letter of a masthead. An editor is not someone that can be known, but an unseen, perhaps sinister force.

As for me, I’ve had a good relationship for the most part with my editors. I’ve had a number of books published with a certain publisher. I’ve never seen an editor in person. The relationship with the first editor took place by phone, but communications with succeeding editors has chiefly been via e-mail. They’ve always been polite and helpful. But the editors have never had time for extensive revisions of my work, usually just tucks and tweaks.

But Richard Todd as an editor at the Atlantic took Tracy Kidder under his tutelage and helped him become a best-selling author. Kidder has written some of my favorite nonfiction works and this book made me thankful for Richard Todd’s part in bringing those works into the world.

Most of us think of editors as people that critic a writing product after most of the work is done. But Todd was in on most of Kidder’s project from beginning, a couple of times providing the ideas for the projects.

Kidder acknowledges the patience Todd has had through the long process of creating articles and books. And Kidder salutes the wisdom that Todd has provided through the years that enabled him to find not just the structure and facts for a book, but also the tone and texture.

And Todd expresses his appreciation for Kidder’s hard work in taking suggestions (and on occasion, orders) and making them work. Not many publishers can afford to give writers the time and attention that Todd has given Kidder through the years. But the book is a good reminder that editors share with writers the common goal of good prose.

About My Family...

When I was in seminary every student had to take the MMPI (the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) and then have the results evaluated by a student in the counseling department. I remember one particular agree or disagree statement (“I have black, tarry stool”) came up several times.

The woman who evaluated my results I hope went on to greater things, but didn’t seem stellar in the evaluation department. She said, “I see that taking care of your health is a high priority for you.” Since at the time I rarely exercised and made myself a peanut butter, Cap’t Crunch, marshmallow chocolate ice cream sundae most days, I’d say that perhaps this was not the case.

But she was really off when she said this. “You seem to idealize your family. Do you think you have built a fantasy about them to deal with some kind of personal pain?” I had to explain, no, in fact, my family is really great. At least, as far as my siblings and parents go, greatness is readily apparent.

And in the last couple of months, since my mom’s death, I’ve been reminded of what great brothers and sisters I have.
My Mom died at my sister Gwynne's house. Mom had gone to Southern California for a visit and her heath took a sudden dive and in a month she was gone. And during that time, my sister cushioned my mother’s fall toward death with amazing amounts of care and grace. Gwynne and her husband, Steve, provided all that could be asked to make my mom’s last days comfortable and filled with reminders of God’s presence.

Somehow my brother, Daryl, though halfway across the country, suffering the brutal Minnesota winter, remains a rock of consistency and stability for the rest of the family in California. He is a source of wisdom and calm (with the bonus of his wife, Carol’s, unparalleled sweetness.)

My sister, Lola was given the thankless job of executer of the will and has taken on a myriad of other responsibilities with fortitude and unflagging energy (even though faced with other major life challenges.) With her husband, Dave, she has worked hard with a kind and sacrificial spirit.

My brother, Dale, has had to take on the blows of losing a second parent without the support those of us with spouses and children enjoy. (Though I’m sure the cats are giving all the support they can mustard.) And he continues on with a cheerful and encouraging spirit.

Through the years, I’m observed what families can go through with the death of their parents, particularly when dealing with an inheritance. I’ve seen even good families sever and bicker over not just money, but over who should get that painting or the microwave. Fortunately, I’ve seen my family graciously looking out for each other, being careful to fight those greedy instincts we all have.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve done some pretty stupid things. (Posting a memorial to Mom on Facebook when not everyone in the family had been personally notified, for example.) But the foolish things I’ve done have been met with grace, forgiveness and understanding by Gwynne and Steve, Daryl and Carol, Lola and Dave and Dale. And I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to give them opportunities to respond graciously to more of my idiocy in the future.

At the memorial for my mom, as is always the case, it was said, “If only your mom could hear all the wonderful things said about her.” So I wanted to take an opportunity to send well deserved praise to my dear sisters and brothers.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Top Ten Disney Attractions

Follow your heart for your dreams are the are the wish your imagination becomes... Whatever. There is really bad philosophy to be found at Disneyland and even worse theology. But there are great rides. Was great to go to Disneyland (though not California Adventure) with the family in December. Here's my top ten:

10) Disneyland Railroad - After much park walking, it's kind of nice to seat on occasion. Now that the people mover and the gondolas are no more, this is the best ride for viewing the park. And dinosaurs. Much better than the Knotts Berry Farm dinosaurs (though not as good as those found at Universal Studios. But these guys are much older, which counts for something in dino world.)

9) Great Moments with Lincoln - As mentioned above, you hear a lot of rubbish at Disneyland, but here you can hear the eloquent words of the Great Emancipator. Brings a well earned tear to the eye. And again...Sitting.

8) Buzz Lightyear Auto Blasters - Pixar has brought real wit to the world of Disney, the ride is full of sly touches. And the interactive element of shooting at Zurg is a plus.

7) Indiana Jones Adventure - I'll never fully be able to integrate the world of Disney with the world of Lucas. But both are seminal parts of my childhood and youth. And how I wanted to be Indy while watching those first three films (don't want to become that old, grouchy man in the fourth film). Some good whipping around and effects on the ride. And some creativity went into the line as well, making the wait less onerous.

6) The Haunted Mansion - The last couple of times I've gone, it was Christmas time so it was the Nightmare Before Christmas version of the ride. Which is great. But without Jack Skellington, it's still great. It is eerie and has some good jump scares. The original narration is wonderfully creepy.

5) Star Tours - I liked it a little better when the captain of the ship was Paul Reuben's Rex rather than R2-D2 and C3-P0. But it's still great fun. You feel like it's a real ride with drops and dives, rather than a simulator. And probably the best line experience with some very funny bots.

4) Matterhorn Bobsleds - This could have been Space Mountain in the slot. Two good roller coasters. But I love the alpine setting and the addition of the abominable snow man was choice. And you do get a great view of the park.

3) Peter Pan - The best of the Fantasy Land rides. I love Mr. Toad and Snow White and Pinocchio and Alice, but this is the best. Because as a kid I wanted to fly like Peter. (But these are the worst lines in Disneyland.)

2) Pirates of the Caribbean - I like the old Pirates better, without Jack Sparrow. And especially when they let the pirates chase beautiful women and then the fat woman chasing a pirate (because the world of pirates was not very PC.) But the ride is still funny and the drops are nice and it is probably the scariest ride besides the Haunted Mansion. (Now Monsanto's Journey Into Inner Space...That was scary.)

1) Jungle Boat -They've tried to make Star Tours and Indy into rides that change, but really, this is the only ride at Disneyland that offers a different experience with every trip. Because it all rests with the guide. A great guide makes for a great trip. A lousy guide...Well you can still enjoy the animatronic animals and marvel at how haphazard the geography is. My all time favorite line I heard a guide say..."Make sure to stick around for the fireworks show tonight. Tinkerbell will leap from the Matterhorn, and then they'll try to shoot the little fairy out of the sky." Unlike other jokes on the ride, I only heard that joke once. I wonder why that is.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Review of Nick Hornby's "Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Good Books"

In his collection of ten years of columns about reading, Nick Hornby says that we are often reminded that books can be badly written but we need to remember they can also be badly read. It would be difficult though, to read this book wrong. It is not exactly a collection of book reviews but rather a collection of monthly reading journals written for the publication Believer. So one can read the thing straight view or just drop in on March of 2003 or December of 2010 and will find Hornby’s wit and humility and perhaps a recommendation for a book you would love.

I read it straight through (well, actually I skipped May 2010 through December 2011 because I had read them in a shorter collection “More Baths, Less Talking”.) Hornby notes that one of the benefits of reading is one has interesting conversational bits. Sometimes, he’ll only make it a chapter in a book about science or sociology, but it might give him that factoid that will make his speech sparkle in a pub discussion. We’ll I found myself quoting Hornby often while I was reading the book and after on such varied matters as Dickens’ glorious lack of brevity to blessing of Muriel Spark’s novels being so short.

I very much enjoyed what he had to say about sports (which his imaginary editors despise.) He has the nasty habit of calling ‘soccer’ ‘football’ but one can overlook that because he loved Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball”, a book about Oakland A’s manager, Billy Beane. (My love of the A’s helps me understand Hornby’s love of Arsenal, a ‘football’ team.) He says as a Brit he only understood one out of four words about the game of baseball, but it was still one of the best books on sports he had ever read.

It was also interesting to read his take on religion. Early on he speaks disparagingly about faith and approvingly about the brilliance of Richard Dawkins. But then he reads Marilyn Robinson’s brilliant novel, “Gilead” and admits that perhaps he was too quick to dismiss Christianity (he jokes about becoming a monk.) What makes me very much appreciate Hornby as a reader (and writer) is that he admits he still has much to learn from books.

I certainly learned from his.