Tuesday 30 June 2015

Louisa May Alcott's "Death of a Soldier"

"It was the hardest question I had ever been called to answer; doubly hard with those eyes fixed on mine, forcing a truthful answer by their own truth."

As the Civil War raged on, the casualties mounted.  An unknown woman named Louisa May Alcott, volunteered at a Union Hospital in Georgetown for six months in 1863.  Homeschooled by her father, she was also raised by close family friends Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, giving her a good grounding in literature.  Louisa loved to write.  At the hospital she penned many letters, which became her first book Hospital Sketches, preceding the famous Little Women.

One soldier really made a mark on her.  The doctor said:  "Every breath he draws is like a stab; for the ball pierced the left lung, broke a rib and did no end of damage..."  Louisa was\ told there was no hope for him.  It fell on the young woman to break the news to the soldier.  

Louisa wrote:  "[There was] no outward sign of suffering till, looking nearer, I saw great tears roll down and drop to the floor."  She thought she was a "poor substitute" for a wife, mother or sister.  She watched as the nurse dressed his wound and the scar from his operation, an operation in futility since the bullet was lodged in too delicate a spot to be removed.  

The soldier's vulnerability pulled at Louisa's heartstrings;  "Although he was the manliest an among my forty, he said:  'Yes, a'am' like a little boy."  She noticed a ring on his finger, and thought he was married, but found out it belonged to his widowed mother,  Almost 30 years old, the soldier stayed home and looked after his mother and younger siblings.

The soldier said that he was injured in his first battle, and asked Louisa if it might be his last.  "It was the hardest question I had ever been called to answer, doubly hard with those eyes fixed on me, forcing a truthful answer by their own truth."  The soldier dictated a letter to Louisa to be sent to his brother Jack, who would then break the news to his mother.  

"Over his face I saw the grey veil falling that no human hand can lift."  The other soldiers in the hospital room gathered around the soldier's bed to say goodbye.  Though they were strangers, he was "beloved by all".  As his time drew near, the soldier begged for air and the curtains were opened to a red streaked dawn sky.  "Over his whole face there broke that mysterious expression brighter than any smile, which often comes to eyes that look their last."  The soldier held Louisa's hand until he breathed his last breath.   

Monday 29 June 2015

James Michener's "When Does Education Stop?"

"Young man, your sad story is truly heartbreaking.  Excuse me while I fetch a crying towel."

In 1962, a literature student at a prestigious American university requested an interview with the author James Michener.  He immediately launched into his complaint about how his professor had given him an assignment for the summer to write a 3000 word essay about Michener's books.  The author, irritaed by his bellyaching, gave him a card which a chaplain had given him during the Second World War, which read:  "Young man, your sad story is truly heartbreaking.  Excuse me while I fetch a crying towel."

Decades later, nothing has changed.  My husband's university students complain about writing their essays.  And they only complete them for marks, not for the love of learning.

 MIchener pointed out to the young university student that we he sat down to research and write the book Hawaii, it was a five year and 3 million word "term paper".  It is not the small tasks which prepare us for life, but the big ones.

What we need to complete the big tasks in life is a good work ethic.  As Michener explains;  "When I was finally ready to write, I holed up in a bare wall, no telephone Waikiki room and stuck at my typewriter every morning for eighteen months."  Michener's novel was not yet complete.  He said that he rewrote each manuscript six or seven times before submitting it for publication.

Michener pointed out that if a job should be performed, not in a half-hearted manner, but to the best of one's ability.  "Young people...frequently fail to realize that men and women who wish to accomplish anything must apply themselves to tasks of tremendous magnitude.  A new vaccine may take years to perfect.  A Broadway play is never written, cast and presented in a week.  A foreign policy is never evolved in a brief time by diplomats relaxing in London, Washington or Geneva."

In his essay, Michener went on to say that most adults will work at three different careers in their lifetime.  With each career change, comes re-education.  "Adults who are unwilling to re-educate themselves are doomed to mediocrity."  The author pointed out that after the war, when President Truman or President Eisenhower picked a military figure for a particular job, he usually picked one that had re-educated himself.  For example, the head of Michener's outfit, William Calhoun, spent six hours a day learning French.

Michener said that in the closing months of the Second World War, he worked with a group of brilliant doctors studying alcoholism.  One of them asked him what he was studying in his own field, the field of literature.  Michener was embarrassed to think that he was studying nothing.  The very next day, he started the manuscript to the book Tales of the South Pacific.  It was another example of "Go big or go home."

Note:  James Michener held various jobs in his lifetime including teacher, businessman, soldier and author.  He went on to write at least 25 novels.

A map of Michener's novels courtesy http://home.comcast.net/~arbjlb/michener.htm.

Sunday 28 June 2015

P. T. Barnum's "The Art of Money Getting"

"Money is good for nothing unless you know the value of it by experience."

It could have been written in the 21 Century.  The proverbs still ring true.  The advice still applies.  The financial problems we face remain the same.  The common sense is still beneficial.  P. T. Barnum starts off his essay with the words:  "The road to wealth is, as Dr. Franklin turyly says, 'as plain as the road to the mill.'"

Barnum goes on to explain how if we only expend less than we earn, we will be keep our finances in check.  Avoid debt because debt strips you of your self-respect.

At the same time, we shouldn't take our "meanness" to extreme, citing the example of a woman who refused to burn a candle in the evening and limited her knowledge because she couldn't see to read.  The same woman spent money on ribbons and furbelows instead.  She was "saving at the spigot and wasting at the bunghole".  Similarly, a man bought a penny herring for his family, then hired a coach and four to take it home.  

You need to make more money than you spend, advises P. T. Barnum.  Wear your clothes a little longer; eat plainer food.  "[There is] more satisfaction in rational saving than in irrational spending."
Even in 19th Century Britain, there was a "keep up with the Joneses'" mentality.  "It is the fear of what Mrs. Grundy may say that keeps the noses of many worthy families to the grindstones."  He warns that you won't get ahead if you let vanity take over.

Ironically, prosperity can be more of an ordeal than adversity.  Remember the proverb "Easy come, easy go".  Money that is easily made can just as easily disappear.  Beware of get-rich-quick schemes. "Never have anything to do with an unlucky man or place."

Realize that good health leads to happiness.  Many are in poor health due to their own addictions:  tobacco, alcohol, etc.  Addictions not only hurt your health but also your pocketbook.  They lead to "lassitude neutralizing energies so essential to success in business".

Know your business and do it with all your might.  Use the best tools.  Persevere:  do not give up easily.  At the same time, do not get above your business.

"Money is good for nothing unless you know the value of it by experience."  In the 19th Century, nine out of ten rich men in America started with nothing.  John Jacob Astor, a poor farm boy, amassed a fortune of $20 million.  Alfred Vanderbilt, who used to row a boat between Staten Island and New York City, accumulated $50 million.  Stephen Girard, a poor cabin boy, made $9 million.

A proverb states that there is no royal road to learning; the same is true of wealth.  Let hope predominate on the road to success.  Do not have too many irons in the fire at one time.  Read the newspaper to stay abreast of current events.  Advertise your business.  Be polite to your customers (the customer is always right).  Be charitable.  Don't blab.  Preserve your integrity.  

Note:  P. T. Barnum was known for his ownership of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.  Jumbo the Elephant was one of the circus' biggest attractions.  Barnum was also mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut as well as a member of the House of Representatives.  At Barnum's death, his estate was worth $8.5 million.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Susan Griffin's "Our Secret"

"The missile carries a warhead weighing 1870 pounds.  It has three different fuses to insure detonation."

Susan Griffin traces the life of Heinrich Himmler, one of Hitler's right hand men, while at the same time tracing the history of the rocket, and of the cell.  She talks about a frail boy, who envied his more athletic brother, who craved the acceptance of his peers.  The frail boy grew up to be a man who hoped to see duty in the First World War, but it ended before he had a chance.  He befriended a fellow soldier, with whom he shared philosophies.  The two would end up running Germany.  

Susan talks about a six year old girl visiting a concentration camp:  "Shoes in great piles.  Bones.  Women's hair, clothes, stains, a terrible odour."  The girl didn't find out what it was until years later in school.  Susan quotes Himmler's letter:  "Make no mention of the special treatment of the Jews."  

Susan describes an old mining shaft in the Harz Mountains where, at gunpoint, concentration camp inmates put together rockets.  "The missile carries a warhead weighing 1870 pounds.  It has three different fuses to insure detonation."  

Himmler, of course, was captured by the Allies at the end of World War II.  He swallowed a poison capsule, leaving a wife and children.  He would never face the music at Nuremberg.

Friday 26 June 2015

Joe Queenan's "My 6,128 Favorite Books"

"I am of Irish descent and to the Irish, books are as natural and inevitable a feature of the landscape as sand is to Tuaregs or sand traps are to frat boys in Myrtle Beach."

Joe Queenan's love affair with books began at a Quaker City bookmobile when he was seven years old.  "What started out as a harmless juvenile pastime turned into a lifelong personality disorder," states Joe in his Wall Street Journal essay "My 6,128 Favorite Books".  He liked the way that books enabled him to escape into another world.  The three books that "saved his life" were:  Kidnapped, The Three Musketeers and The Iliad for Precocious Tykes.  Joe was hooked; there was no turning back.

Joe would read books wherever he went:  on trains, planes and busses.  He also read in unlikely venues like plays, concerts and prize fights.  He consumed Tortilla Flat from cover to cover during a Jerry Garcia concert.  Joe read books to kill time, like when waiting for a friend to be "sprung from the dunk tank, emerge from a coma, or the Iceman to cometh."  He read books while on lunch break from packing trucks on the graveyard shift in Philadelphia; he made sure not to read anything too fancy as his Teamster co-workers peeked over his shoulder.

Books fill every room of Joe's house.  "I am of Irish descent and to the Irish, books are as natural and inevitable a feature of the landscape as sand is to Tuaregs or sand traps are to frat boys in Myrtle Beach."  Joe describes how the Irish, invaded and pillaged by the English in the 17th Century, had everything taken away from them except their books.  Along with music and drink, that was how they escaped reality, how they survived.

Joe doesn't believe in speed reading.  Books are to be savoured, like a good Porterhouse steak.  Books also are to be chosen, not to be foisted on another person.  "Saddling another person with a book he did not ask for has always seemed to be like a huge psychological imposition, like forcing someone to eat a chicken biryani without so much as inquiring whether they like cilantro."  Joe explains that you don't necessarily like a book because of the author or the subject matter.  You don't necessarily like an Irish author just because you are Irish.  For instance, Joe's Mexican-American friend's favourite book is The Dubliners by James Joyce,  We choose books because they "speak to us".

Joe does not see e-readers in his future.  He prefers good old fashioned books, the ones with hard covers and frayed pages; the ones that evoke memories.  He owns one book that contains a Metro ticket which harkens back to the Rue St-Jacques in 1972.  Another book contains a note evoking Granada's sun soaked beaches circa 1973.  And another book contains a phone message from the Chateau Marmont in 1995, reminding him of a friend who passed away too soon.

While Joe has read 6,128 books, he says it is far from a record.  Winston Churchill used to read a book a day.  What he likes most about books is the way they make us believe, even for a short time, that we will live "happily ever after".  

Note:  This essay was adapted from Joe Queenan's book One for the Books.  To read it in its entirety visit http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390444868204578064483923017090.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Laura Hillenbrand's "Four Good Legs Between Us"

"When the lives of a failed prizefighter, an aging horsebreaker and a bicycle repairman turned overnight millionaire converged around a battered racehorse named Seabiscuit, the result captivated the nation and transcended their sport."

Charles Howard, a calvary veteran, repaired bicycles for a living.  But one day, he headed to Detroit, to strike it rich in the automobile industry.  Howard introduced himself to William C. Durant, the owner of Buick, and set up shop, in San Francisco, as the sole distributor of Buicks in eight states.  The world wasn't quite ready for the horseless carriage, but that all changed after the San Francisco earthquake in which cars played a big role in transporting the wounded.  By 1908, Howard had a thriving business.  

Tom Smith, an old fashioned cowboy, had participated in the last of the great cattle drives on the American frontier.  He broke mustangs for the British to use in the Boer War.  His job was rendered obsolete with the coming of the railroad.  He was hired by various ranch owners as a horse trainer, veterinarian and blacksmith.  He never forgot about what he'd learned on the frontier; "he had cultivated a wordless, near-mystical communion with horses".  His operated by the motto: "Learn your horse." (http://www.seabiscuitonline.com/article.htm)

"Red" Pollard was the son of Irish immigrants who lost everything in the early years of the Great Depression.  Known for his spunk, he made use of that as a horse jockey and as a prizefighter.  His pugilism masked his intellect:  he was known to recite poetry and quote Shakespeare.  The life of a jockey was anything but easy.  To keep his 110 pound frame, Pollard had to vomit, undergo vicious exercise regimens and sweating rituals.  A horse blinded him in one eye after kicking him in the head and leaving debris in his brain.  

Seabiscuit, a descendant of the infamous Man-O-War, was a stubborn and reckless horse who had been "beaten up and beaten down".  Two hundred pounds underweight, he was known for pacing in his stall, lathering up when saddled, and bolting when the gate opened.  He was not your ideal candidate for a racehorse.

In 1936, millionaire Howard was looking for a winning racehorse.  Known for his "ability to recognize potential in unlikely packages", he bought Seabiscuit.  He assigned him to his trainer, the former cowboy Smith.  The first thing that Smith did was lavish Seabiscuit with affection.  Secondly, knowing he was prone to bolt, he let him do it until it was out of his system.  Thirdly, Smith calmed the horse's nerves by giving him three stallmates:  a stray dog named Pocatell, a spider monkey named Jo-Jo and a cattleroping horse named Pumpkin.  It was just what the doctor ordered.

Pollard was assigned the task of riding Seabiscuit.  The two clicked immediately.  Both were unbroken; both needed taming.  While Seabiscuit peeked too late to participate in the Kentucky Derby, a race for three year olds, he did start to win races, and he started to make headlines.  "In one year, Seabiscuit garnered more newspaper column inches than Roosevelt, Hitler, Mussolini or any other public figure."  

In 1938, a pairing of Seabiscuit and War Admiral promised to be "The Race of the Century".  Seabiscuit went out like a bolt of lightning, then slowed down to taunt his opponent, then made his trademark rush to the finish line, winning the race.  He graced the cover of Time Magazine as "Horse of the Year".  For more information on the 1938 race, read my post http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2012/06/seabiscuit.html.

Pollard had been badly injured in another race and was unable to ride Seabiscuit, asking a friend to ride in his place.  Doctors told the jockey that he might never walk or never ride again.  Later, Seabiscuit was also injured.  Pollard said:  "Old Pops and I have four good legs between us."  Horse and rider endured a slow recuperation on Howard's California ranch.

In 1940, it was icing on the cake when Pollard and Seabiscuit, both healed from their life threatening injuries, rode the racetrack at the Santa Anita Handicap.  They won the race and Howard went home a happy man, claiming the prize for the richest horserace in the world.  

Note:  Laura Hillenbrand's essay became a bestselling book Seabiscuit and an award winning movie.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Malcolm Gladwell's "The Art of Failure"

"Human beings sometimes falter under pressure.  Pilots crash and drivers drown.  Under the glare of competition, basketball players cannot find the basket and golfers cannot find the pin.  When that happens, we say variously that people have panicked, or to use the sports colloquialism, choked.  But what do those words mean?  Both are pejoratives.  To choke or panic is considered to be as bad as to quit.  But are all forms of failure equal?  And what do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and what we think?  We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways, by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles.  There is as much to be learned though from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail."

It's the Wimbledon final match.  Big name Steffi Graf faces off against newcomer Jana Novotna.  The latter is one point away from winning the match.  The eyes of the world are watching.  Even the Duke and Duchess of Kent sit in the stands.  Jana winds up and smashes the ball straight into the net.  Her swing was half hearted, no legs, no torso, all arm.  A comedy of errors led to her losing the match, a match she had in the bag only minutes before.  Jana Novotna rested her head on the chest of the Duchess of Kent and sobbed.  She had choked.

A women is learning how to scuba dive.  She takes a routine dive with another diver.  Their task is to take out one breathing tube and put in another.  The woman does so, but breathes in water rather than air.  She panics, grabbing the regulator of her partner, when all she had to do was put the other tube back in her mouth.

John F. Kennedy Junior, a new pilot, is flying his wife and sister in law to a family wedding.  He follows the coastline along the Connecticut shore.  Then he heads out into the Atlantic, and becomes disoriented due to the lack of light.  He pitches right, then left.  Soon, he finds himself in a dive that he can't pull out of -- a graveyard spiral.  The plane plunges into the Atlantic.  He panicked.

Note:  To read the full article, visit http://gladwell.com/the-art-of-failure.

Jana Novotna being consoled by the Duchess of Kent at the Wimbledon final circa 1993 courtesy www.rankopedia.com/Most-Poignant-Sports-Moment/Step1/10875/.htm.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

David Kamp's "American Communion"

"As Rubin progressed from his 30s to 40s, and Cash from his 60s to 70s, the two became confidants and sounding boards on matters spiritual as well as musical -- a sort of Tuesdays with Morrie scenario, without the slush and hokum, and with a more reciprocal exchange of wisdom between the dying man and the younger man."

In the early 1990's, Johnny Cash was washed up.  After decades of making country music, he had been dropped by his record label, Columbia, a company which he helped build.  His career needed a boost.  It came in the most unexpected form:  "a ZZ Top looking dude" who had founded the hip hop label Def Jams.  The Man in Black and his new producer, Rick Rubin, would made a "decade's worth of astonishing albums" and forge an enduring friendship in the process.  

Johnny Cash was a self made man.  His father was an Arkansas cotton picker during the Great Depression.  His brother died in a saw mill accident, one that Johnny blamed himself for as he had been fishing at the river rather than helping his brother on that fateful day.  His mother raised him with a strong faith in God.

The hardships that Johnny faced as a child and young adult are weaved into his songs.  One theme consistent to his early records was the train; his dad used to ride the rails when he couldn't get work picking cotton.  "Trains were in Cash's veins," says David Kamp, evident in the "boom chicka boom rhythm of his early records" like Ride this Train and All Aboard the Blue Train.  

Cash continued to write about his life in his songs, evident in "I Walk the Line", about being tempted by other women during his marriage, or "Folsom Prison Blues", although he never served more than one night in jail.  Johnny rocketed to fame, and with it, the temptations.  He battled an addiction to both amphetamines and barbituates.  His anger reared its ugly head when he kicked the stage lights out at the Grand Ole Opry one night.  

It was June Carter who led him to Christ, and helped him conquer his addictions.  Already making music together for years, they married in 1968 and had a son together.  The 1970's saw Cash produce album after album.  But by the mid 1980's, his creativity had dried up.  

Enter Rick Rubin and his unorthodox methods.  He suggested to Johnny that he branch out from his country roots:  Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire", Danzig's "Thirteen", Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" (Cash said that he wished he had written the latter song himself).  And it worked!  Johnny had the "gift of making any song his own".  The Rick Rubin albums became known as the "American Recordings".  Cash started touring again for the first time in ages.  "Out on the road it started feeling like 1955 again," he recalled.

But Rubin and Cash didn't just click musically.  They discovered that they were kindred spirits, holding long conversations about spirituality.  Rubin mentioned a sermon about communion delivered by Dr. Gene Scott that had inspired him.  Growing up in a Jewish household, Rubin had never taken communion.  One day, he asked Cash if he would act as the pastor, and the two of them could celebrate the Last Supper.  Cash found some crackers and grape juice, and performed the ceremony.  It became a daily ritual for the two friends.  When they were apart, they shared the ritual over the phone.

Cash struggled with his health in the later years, forcing him to give up touring.  But he continued to make music at his homes in Tennessee, Virginia and Jamaica.  In 1997, he was hospitalized for pneumonia; the doctors put him into an induced coma from which he would not come out.  After twelve agonizing days, June, a prayer warrior, appealed to his fans at johnnycash.com.  Within hours, Johnny was squeezing her hand.     

Their love affair ended in 2003 when June passed away.  Rubin said that Cash sounded worse than ever.  However, he stood firm:  "My faith is unshakeable!"  Four months later, he passed away.  John Carter Cash, his son, sent Rick Rubin a gift with a note.  It was a communion kit.

Monday 22 June 2015

Jane Jacobs' "Downtown is For People"

"These projects will not revitalize the downtown; they will deaden it."

Jane Jacobs was a woman ahead of her time.  In 1958, she penned a prophetic essay for Fortune magazine called Downtown is for People.  City redevelopment projects were all the rage in the United States at the time.  Urban renewal was taking place in San Francisco, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, to name a few.  Jacobs warned that these projects would drive people away from the downtowns.  She suggested that city developpers focus on the buildings rather than on the blocks, focus on the people rather than the automobiles.  She said that rather than looking at the boulevards of Paris, city planners should "get out and walk" to acquire a feel for the city.  

Jacobs criticized the uniformity of these plans, the lack of originality:  "From city to city, the architect's sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own." (http://fortune.com/2011/09/18/downtown-is-for-people-fortune-classic-1958/)

"All the truly great downtown focal points carry a surprise that does not stale," explained Jacobs.  She mentioned the Times Square Waterfalls and Boston's Arlington Street Church steeple (http://www.candidish.com/there-is-nothing-common-about-boston-common/).  To that list I add the Washington Monument and Chicago's Old Water Tower.  Jacobs' fear was that the downtowns would be razed, that the old classic buildings would be flattened.  The author praised New York's Rockefeller Center, a project that was planned around the existing buildings, a project that respected the existing streets.

Jacobs criticized American cities, stating:  "Waterfronts are a great asset but few cities are doing anything with them."  She mentioned how New Orleans remained detached from its river, the Mississippi; not one restaurant sat on its riverfront.  While Cleveland planned to build a convention centre on its waterfront, Jacobs thought that the choice of property was too isolated from the rest of the city.  On the other hand, Jacobs praised Chicago for the lack of barriers along the Chicago River, where the Wrigley Building and Sun Times Building sat, lending the city's visitors an inviting view (https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Chicago_River).

City planners might have read Jacobs 1958 essay for within a generation, waterfront regeneration had entered the American vocabulary, evident in projects like:  Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Boston's Quincy Market, New York's Pierhead Building, San Diego's Waterfront Village, and San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman's Wharf (http://www.fishermanswharf.org/).

Historic preservation entered the American lexicon as well, starting with the National Historic Preservation Trust of 1949.  Museums and historic homes fell under this umbrella.  Historic preservation as part of downtown redevelopment became popular by the 1970's.  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' campaign to save Grand Central Station, which started with an eloquently composed letter to New York City's mayor, is one such example   (http://www.citylab.com/politics/2013/02/surprising-role-jackie-kennedy-playing-saving-grand-central-station/4596/).  Philadelphia was the site of the first historic preservation commission in the United States, which helped preserve the city's treasures (http://juh.sagepub.com/content/39/2/193.abstract?rss=1).

Note:  For a blogger's take on "Downtown is for People" Fifty Years Later, check out http://streets.mn/2013/05/07/downtown-is-for-people-fifty-five-years-later/.

Sunday 21 June 2015

Tom Wolfe's "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby"

Tom Wolfe had a serious case of writer's block.  And he had a deadline to keep.  Finally, he decided to simply type up his notes and send them to the editor of Esquire who would give the assignment to another writer.  Tom sat down at his typewriter and, several coffee cups later, he typed his last word. He delivered his 49 pages of notes to Esquire.  The editor simply stroked out "Dear Byron" and published the essay as is.  The result was "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby".

In the 1960's, the car culture was alive and well in California.  Whereas in previous decades, the automobile had been a vehicle to get its occupants from Point A to Point B, by the middle of the decade, it had become much more than that.  It was a symbol of success, of which there was much in Los Angeles.  It also fulfilled the need for speed:  drag racing was all the rage.

Wolfe travelled to Los Angeles -- to the city of the "scorched boulevards", boutiques, bowling alleys, skating rinks and taco drive-ins -- to experience the culture.  What he found was a culture that, rather than worshipping giant heads as the Easter Islanders did, they worshipped cars.  Los Angeles youth would meet at something new called the Teen Fair.  They would arrive in their custom cars at what resembled amusement parks.  A hully gully band blasted music, all electrified, from a high platform. Young women, wearing tight slacks and bouffant hairdoes, danced the bird, the hully gully and the shampoo.

What stood out about these teenagers was their uniformity, as Wolfe explained:

"[If] you watched anything at this fair very long, you kept noticing the same thing.  These kids are absolutely maniacal about form.  They are practically maniacal about it.  For example, the dancers: none of them ever smiled.  They stared at each other's legs and feet, concentrating to do them exactly right.  And all the bouffant kids all had form, wild form, but form with rigid standards, one gathers. Even the boys.  Their dress was prosaic -- Levi's, Slim Jims, sport shirts, T shirts, polo shirts, but the form was consistent -- a stovepipe silhouette.  And they all had the same hairstyle...They were all wonderful slaves to form." (http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1292219.files/Week%208/Kandy%20Kolored%20by%20Tom%20Wolfe.pdf)

Booths lined the perimeter of the grounds of the Teen Fair, hocking items like shoes, guitars, and of course, cars.  Wolfe talked to reps from the Ford Motor Company.  Ford was attempting to corner the market on this new "teenage lifestyle".  As Wolfe maintained:  "If Ford can get them hooked on Fords now, after the kids are married they'll buy new Fords."

These weren't just any Fords, though.  They were part of the Ford Custom Car Caravan.  Customizing was the new trend in California.  An autobody man took the original body of a car and chopped and channeled it.  He jacked up the back end.  He streamlined it.  He added lots of chrome.  And he likely repainted it.  Gone were the days of Henry Ford who said that you could order your Ford in any colour, as long as it was black.

That is where the custom car designers came in.  Wolfe talked to the owner of Kustom City.  He showed the writer around his shop.  At Kustom City, the owner didn't create cars, he created "objets d'arts".  He mixed "krazy kolors" which represented the rebelliousness of the new teen culture:  orange, purple, yellow and violet.   His cars made a statement.  And he didn't just make cars for teens.  His famous customers included Jayne Mansfield, Elvis Presley and Liberace.  In 1957, the custom car owner started hearing from the Detroit auto companies.  They wanted to know what teenagers were going for.  However, he admitted they were limited:  they had to "design a car for the farmer in Kansas and the hotdog in Hollywood".

Cars are no longer the status symbols they once were.  We have said goodbye to the streamlined cars, to the muscle cars, to the custom cars, to the gas guzzlers.  Cars have become, once again, vehicles to get us from Point A to Point B.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Richard Wright's "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow"

"There was but one place where a black boy who knows no trade can get a job.  And that's where the houses and faces are white, where the trees, lawns and hedges are green.  My first job was an optical company in Jackson, Mississippi.  The morning I applied I stood straight and neat before the boss, answering his questions with straight yessirs and nosirs.  I was very careful to pronounce my sirs distinctly, in order that he might know that I was polite, that I knew where I was, and that I knew he was a white man.  I wanted that job badly." (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/white/anthology/wright.html)

Richard Wright grew up in in Mississippi, "where nothing green ever grew in [his yard]".  In the 1910's, he remembers an early lesson his Mom taught him about Jim Crow laws when she tanned his backside for getting into a battle with the white boys from the other side of the tracks, even though he came home with a three inch gash behind his ear.

Wright talks about losing his first factory job because he called his boss Pease instead of Mr. Pease. He talks what was accepted conversation and what was taboo for a black man; how he had to respond constantly with "yes sir" or "no sir" to a white man; how, when he entered an elevator full of whites, he had to remove his hat, even if he had a handful of packages.

Wright remembers frantically pedalling home one night from a delivery to a white home, and being stopped and questions by a police officer, just for being in a white neighbourhood after dark.  He remembers not being allowed to meet the gaze of the white guests at the hotel where he worked.

He learned how to "lie, cheat and steal" to eat and live once he moved to Memphis, Tennessee.  It was in Memphis that he met a Roman Catholic white man sympathetic to his cause.  Wright wanted to borrow books from the local library, but blacks were denied the simple right to a library card. Wright's co-worker lent him his card.  Wright would write a note that said:  "Please let this nigger boy have the following books."  He signed the note with his co-worker's signature.  So as not to alert the librarian that the books were actually for Wright, "[He] would stand at the desk, hat in hand, looking as unbookish as possible."  For more on Richard Wright, read "The Freedom of a Library Card" at http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca/2011/06/freedom-of-library-card.html.

Wright later moved to Chicago where he penned the famous novels Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945).  He finished his years writing in France, far away from the tentacles of Jim Crow.

Richard Wright received pennies from men in a Mississippi saloon courtesy http://www.blackpast.org/aah/wright-richard-1908-1960.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Virginia Woolf's "Portrait of a Londoner"

Native Londoner Virginia Woolf penned six essays about her hometown, five of which were published by Good Housekeeping in 1931.  The sixth went missing, and was rediscovered in 2004 when it was first printed.

Portrait of a Londoner describes a London legend named Mrs. Crowe, a Cockney who has lived in the same house for 60 years, employed the same butler and maid for 60 years.  There is no action in the essay, just sheer description.  Yet, Woolf knows how to paint a scene.  "All the pages of London life for the past 50 years were being shuffled for our entertainment," she explained.

Mrs. Crowe sits in the same chair in the same room from the hours of five to seven where she receives guests and engages in meaningless chatter.  She tells us what is going on in her neighbourhood:  she omits nothing.  "Mrs. Crowe's greatest gift consisted in making the vast metropolis seem as small as a village with one church, one manor house and 25 cottages."  While London is big, it consists of smaller neighbourhoods, just like New York City.

Here is an excerpt from Portrait of a Londoner (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2004/aug/11/virginiawoolf).

"That she was born in the country seems, though strange, to be a fact.  That she sometimes left London, in those summer weeks when London ceases to be London, is also true.  But where she went and what she did when she was out of London, when her chair was empty, her fire unlit and her table unlaid, nobody knew or could imagine.  To figure Mrs. Crowe in her black dress and her veil and her cap, walking in a field among turnips, or climbing a hill where cows were grazing, is beyond the scope of the wildest imagination."

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Nelson Algren's "Chicago: City on the Make"

"Chicago.  City on the make.  A tangle of hustlers, gangsters, corrupt politicians.  A city of nobodies nobody knows, the ginsoaks, stew bums and shell shocked veterans who lurk in the alleys and linger in the weedy wastes underneath the L tracks and a town that sells out its dreams and disappoints its dreamers, but once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another.  Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

Nelson Algren's 12,000 word lyrical essay, written in 1951, captures "an aspect of Chicago that still applies today" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago:_City_on_the_Make).  He touches on major events which have shaped the city's 120-year history:  the Great Fire of 1871, the Chicago World's Fair of 1894, the White Sox Scandal of 1919, the political corruption of the 1920s and Prohibition of the 1930's.  In fact, in the 1920's and 1930's, "many Chicago policemen earned more money from pay-offs than from the city" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_history_of_Chicago).

Author A. J. Liebling takes credit for dubbing Chicago "The Second City" in 1952.  The Windy City always felt like it was in the shadow of New York City.  Carl Sandburg, in his famous poem "Chicago", asks "who are those who sneer at my city?", referring to New Yorkers.  What a coup it was for Chicago to win the bid to host the World's Fair in 1894, outbidding New York City.  That's how it acquired the name "Windy City", after the long-winded representatives from Chicago who made the fair bid.  The competition between the two cities persisted.  In the 20th Century, Chicago and New York City outraced each other to the sky, building the biggest and the best skyscrapers.

While Nelson Algren's Chicago may have been full of corruption and suffered from an inferiority complex, Algren "did indeed love the city and held high hopes for it, not in spite of its imperfections but because of them." (http://www.dwrl.utexas.edu/orgs/e3w/volume-12-spring-2012/contested-cities/susan-quesal-on-chicago-city-on-the-make)  For example, the Great Fire which struck Chicago led to its rebuilding, bringing in the country's best architects and leading to a city now known for its beautiful buildings.  Algren's "second hand sea", now much less polluted since the rerouting of the Chicago River, has become a playground for Chicagoans; it's one of the most beautiful waterfronts in America.  The White Sox scandal was taxing, but the team, and the fans, remain.  Algren was a diehard fan until his death.  Prohibition was repealed, slowing down, although not eliminating, the criminal activity in the Windy City.  In the 1920's and 1930's, the Chicago Police Force was known for its corruption.  Forty percent of police officers were killed in the line of duty.  In 1942, the force   established the first Human Relations Section in the nation, and in time, its image improved.

Algren could see the potential that his hometown had.  That is the undercurrent of the "definitive prose portrait of the city of Chicago" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago:_City_on_the_Make).

Tuesday 16 June 2015

E. B. White's "Here is New York"

One writer claims that "there is no more quoted piece of prose" than E. B. White's essay "This is New York".  Before the famous author wrote Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, he penned an essay for Holiday magazine.  It is the perfect example of an essay filled with the elements of fiction, including foreshadowing.   Who would have thought that he would predict 9/11?

"New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village," explained White, commenting on how New York was filling with skyscrapers.  Early in the essay, White maps out his location by explaining how many blocks he is away from certain events in history:  Rudolph Valentino laying in state, Nathan Hale's execution, Ernest Hemingway punching Max Eastman, Walt Whitman writing editorials and Marceline clowning on the boards at the Hippodrome.  History is on every corner of New York City.

When White went downstairs to eat at the cafe, he found himself sitting eighteen inches away from Fred Stone, star of the Wizard of Oz.  "The eighteen inches were both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants."  He uses the eighteen inches analogy to highlight the proximity of everything and everyone in New York.

White points out that since he's arrived in town, a number of "splashy events" have occurred, almost unnoticed:  a man killed his wife in a jealous rage; the world's two largest ocean liners arrived and departed; the greatest air show on earth took place.  It's all part of a normal day in the city.

"New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along," observed White.  The author says there are three types of New Yorkers:  the native, who gives the city solidarity, the immigrant, who gives the city passion, and the commuter, who gives the city restlessness.  On any given day, you might have a farmer arriving from Italy to set up a grocery store, a girl from Mississippi trying to escape her small town and a man with a manuscript from the Corn Belt (the latter could describe Theodore Geisel who did just that in 1957, later called Dr. Seuss).

White points out those who have moved up in the world in New York:  Irving Berlin's journey from Cherry Street to the East Side.  He reminds us that New York "reached it highest point in the sky at the lowest moment of the Depression".  Irving Berlin was one of the city's 2 million Jewish residents; at the time it also had 700,000 Blacks, half a million Irish and half a million Germans, along with 230,000 Puerto Ricans.  "In New York Smolders every race problem there is but the noticeable thing is not the problem but the inviolate truce."  How fitting that the United Nations would be built in such a city.

White describes how New York is a big city full of small neighbourhoods.  Within two or three blocks its residents could find a grocer, barber, newsstand, dry cleaner, deli, flower shop, etc.  They could spend a lifetim in an area smaller than a country village.

E. B. White concludes by saying that New York is both "changing and changeless".  He focusses on the willow tree in the East River:  despite the abuse that it takes, it keeps growing upward.

Monday 15 June 2015

Truman Capote`s The Duke in his Domain

In 1957, Marlon Brando was staying at the Miyako Hotel in Japan with his entourage, his father Marlon Senior, a secretary and a writing companion.  Truman Capote was charged with interviewing him for The New Yorker.  Brando, at the height of his fame, was in Japan to film Sayonara.  Brando brought his entourage with him:  his father, Marlon Senior, his secretary and his writing companion.  According to someone in the entertainment business, the film company foot the bill because this picture just had to have a star.  Sequestered in his hotel room, the famous actor had to don a disguise just to go out in public.  Such was not always the case.

Ten years earlier, Truman Capote had first interviewed Brando on the set of the play A Streetcar Named Desire.  He was just starting to make a name for himself.  In his blue jeans and his white t-shirt he looked a lot like James Dean.  Both played the role of the rebel:  they rode motorcycles, played the bongo drums and dressed rowdy.  Brando sported a Charles Atlas figure at the time.  When not rehearsing for A Streetcar Named Desire he could be found in the basement boxing.  It was there that he broke his nose.  Irene Selznick said the injury gave him sex appeal.  He looked too beautiful before.

According to Brando, he didn`t always want to be a star.  But after two months of doing A Streetcar Named Desire, he heard the roar -- and he was hooked.  He started to dream of being the next Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant.  His star rose rather quickly with parts in movies like Viva Zapata!, The Wild One, Julius Caesar, On the Waterfront and Guys and Dolls.  He could account for a movie`s success at the box office, regardless of the quality of the film, according to an industry expert.

But as Marlon Brandon complained to Truman Capote in the Miyako Hotel, Too much success can ruin you as surely as too much failure.  He struggled with excess:  he smoked too many cigarettes and overindulged in food.  Even though he was on a diet, he ordered beefsteak and French-fried potatoes and spaghetti from room service when Truman Capote interviewed him.  Brandon wanted to get married and start a family, but admitted that he had trust issues.  He seemed to have an affinity for children, showing a special interest in the Japanese children he met while on location.

After the interview, Truman Capote walked the streets of the Japanese city.  It was so late that the cabanas were shuttered and the only people out were the drunks and the red light ladies and a ragged musician.  All of a sudden the writer spotted Brandon, 60 feet tall, splashed on a billboard for The Teahouse of August Moon.  It was a spectacular ending to a first rate piece.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Zora Neale Thurston's "How it Feels to be Colored Me"

Zora Neale Thurston used to sit on her porch in Eatonville, Florida and watch the whites pass by in their carriages and automobiles.  That was the only contact she had with whites, given that Eatonville was an all black town.  Life was good until Zora turned 13 and her mom died.  Her dad remarried and he and his new wife sent Zora to boarding school in Jacksonville, an integrated community.  For the first time, rather than seeing herself as a girl, Zora saw herself as a black girl.  She missed the safety of her front porch back in Eatonville.  Zora's dad struggled to pay for her schooling, forcing her to leave the boarding school.  Later she was accepted at Howard University.  It was there that she blossomed as a writer.  She -- along with Langston Hughes and Wallace Wallace Thurman -- found herself at the centre of the Harlem Renaissance.  She penned four novels and 50 short stories, plays and essays.  Her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1936.  Thurston made a point of divorcing herself from the "sobbing school of Negrohood".  She moved beyond pride in her race to pride in herself, evident in her essay "How it Feels to be Colored Me" (http://www.enotes.com/topics/how-it-feels-to-be-colored-me).  The magazine A World Tomorrow, a journal "looking toward a Christian world", published her piece in 1928.  Here is an excerpt from her famous essay (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/grand-jean/hurston/chapters/how.html):

"But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall.  Against the wall, in company with other bags, white, red and yellow.  Pour out the contents and there is discovered a jumble of small things, priceless and worthless...On the ground before you is the jumble it held.  So much like the jumble in the bags could they be emptied that all might be dumped in a single heap and the bags refilled without altering the content of any greatly.  A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter.  Perhaps that is how the Great Stuffer of Bags filled them in the first place.  Who knows?"


Saturday 13 June 2015

Edmund Wilson's "The Old Stone House"

The Talcott family founded Lewis County, New York's first settlement, Talcottville.  On the banks of the Sugar River, they constructed a two and a half story limestone house, which was later purchased by the Wilson family as a summer home.  Author Edmund Wilson made many childhood memories in its foot and a half thick walls.

In the 1950's, Edmund Wilson inherited the family home, now a "musty, ghost-ridden wreck".  Yet it sill held his treasured memories.  He wrote an essay, packed full of local lore, about the Talcottville house for the magazine Scribners.  As a blogger said, "History is a language for him."  Here is an excerpt from The Old Stone House (http://www.unz.org/Pub/Scribners-1933dec-00368).

"It was begun in 1800 and took four years to build.  The stone had to be quarried out of the out of the banks of Sugar River, close by, beside the falls.  The walls of the house were a foot and a half thick, and the plaster was applied to the stone without any intervening lattice.  The beams were secured by gigantic nails made by hand and some of them eighteen inches long.  Solid and simple as a fortress the place has also the charm of something which people have had made to order for themselves. There is a front porch with white wooden columns which support a white wooden balcony, running along the second floor."

Friday 12 June 2015

Ernest Hemingway's "Pamplona in July"

A tranquil, sun baked town for 51 weeks of the year, tourists descend on Pamplona in July.  Hotels are booked, the cobblestone streets are filled, the restaurants are ready.  Every morning for seven days, six bulls, urged on by thousands of adults, will run half a mile through Pamplona's streets on their way to the bullfighting ring.

The Running of the Bulls is a tradition which dates back to 1592 when the locals would honour Saint Fermin by herding six bulls through the narrow streets from the corral to the bullfighting ring.  The local tradition became global when writer Ernest Hemingway visited the town in 1926 and wrote a famous essay about the experience "World's Series of Bullfighting:  A Mad, Whirling Carnival".  Three years later, the essay was published in The Sun Also Rises.

Americans, and others, became curious about "Europe's most dangerous tradition".  They flocked to the Spanish town to participate in the party.  They wanted to know all about the festival that Ernest Hemingway described in such detail in his essay.  They wanted to experience the thrill of running with the bulls; the thrill of the mass of humanity spilling through the streets of the Spanish town.  The less adventurous tourists could stand on the balconies above the streets, at a safe distance from the snarling beasts.

A 2011 survey estimated that over 20,000 people ran with the bulls in Pamplona.  To date, thirteen people have been gored by the bulls and one person was trampled.  But tourists continue to fill Pamplona's streets every July.

Here is an excerpt from Hemingway's essay (https://engl114.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/hemingway-readings.pdf).

"Really beautiful girls, gorgeous, bright shawls over their shoulders, dark, dark-eyed black laced mantillas over their hair walk with their escorts in the crowds that pass from morning until night along the narrow walk that runs between inner and outer belts of the cafe tables under the shade of the arcade out of the white glare of the Plaza de la Constitucion.  All day and all night there is dancing in the streets.  Bands of blue shirted peasants whirl and lift and swing behind a drum, fife and reed instruments in the ancient Basque Riau-Riau dances.  And at night there is the throb of the big drums and the military band as the whole town dances in the great open square of the plaza."

Thursday 11 June 2015

John McPhee's "The Search for Marvin Gardens"

"In the 1930's, men visiting Atlantic City went to jail, directly to jail, did not pass Go, for appearing in topless bathing suits on the beach." (John McPhee)

An engineer named R. B. Osborne surveyed a bathing village on the seacoast of New Jersey, a result of the railroads which converged there.  He planned roads like Pennsylvania Ave and Kentucky Ave,  Businessmen erected hotels on streets like Mediterranean, Baltic and New York.  Carpenters laid down a boardwalk in the sand for visitors, dressed in their suits and gowns, to admire the Atlantic.  Men were required to wear full length swimsuits at the beach.  Law and order reigned.  

The bathing village grew into a small city, attracting big names:  John Philip Sousa's band played The Star Spangled Banner there; Jack Dempsey staged a fight there; Al Capone held conventions there.

In the 1930's, a gentleman named Clarence Darrow cut out a piece of linoleum.  He cut out blocks of wood to serve as houses and hotels.  He cut out cards with names like Pennsylvania Railroad and St. Charles Place.  He drew squares on the linoleum, including one in the corner marked "Go Directly to Jail".  His board game, Monopoly, would become one of the most successful games in history.  The "bathing village" had become a busy vacation destination, Atlantic City.

Somewhere between Pennsylvania Ave. and Kentucky Ave., something went wrong.  By the 1970's, when writer John McPhee arrived in the famous city, it had transformed from a seaside resort to a "saltwater ghetto".  "[It looked] like Getz in 1919, Cologne in 1944," explained McPhee.  Evidence of decay was on every corner:  the houses were falling apart; glass littered the streets.

John McPhee had one question:  Where was Marvin Gardens?  It was the only property in the Monopoly game that he could not locate in Atlantic City.  After much investigation, the writer learned that Marvin Gardens was a suburb of the city seemingly untouched by the decay; "a citadel of the middle class".  A visit to Marvin Gardens might give the visitor a hint of Atlantic City's former glory.  

Here is an excerpt from John McPhee's brilliant essay, first published in the September 1972 issue of The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1972/09/09/the-search-for-marvin-gardens).

Indiana Avenue was the address of the Brighton Hotel, gone now.  The Brighton was exclusive -- a word that no longer has retail value in the city.  If you arrived by automobile and tried to register, you were sent away.  Brighton-class people came on private railroad cars.  Brighton-class people had other private railroad cars for their horses -- dawn rides on the firm sand at water's edge, skirts flying.  Colonel Anthony J. Drexel Biddell, the sort of name that would constrict throats in Philadelphia, lived, much of the year, in the Brighton.

Atlantic City Boardwalk circa 1920's courtesy https://www.pinterest.com/pin/452963674995210713/.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

E. B. White's "Once More to the Lake"

It was a family tradition.  Every August, E. B. White . author of the infamous Charlotte's Web, and his parents would pack up their automobile and head to a resort in Maine.  White looked forward to the crystal blue lake, the biting fish, the dragonflies, the serenity.  The fact that it never changed was a source of comfort to White.  Years later, White took his son to the same lake.  Now White was the adult and his son was the child.  The lake hadn't changed.  The fish were still biting.  The dragonflies still flitted about.  The only sound to break the tranquility were the outboard motors.  But despite the new technology, White was still amused by the dragonflies.  And now he could relive the experience through his son's eyes.

Here is an excerpt from Once More to the Lake, first published in 1941 in Harper's Magazine (http://genius.com/E-b-white-once-more-to-the-lake-annotated).

"We went fishing the first morning.  I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few inches from the surface of the water.  It was the arrival of this fly that convince me beyond any doubt that everything was as it had always been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years.  The small waves were the same chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor, and the boat was the same boat, the same colour green and the ribs broken in the same places, and under the floor boards the same freshwater leavings and debris -- the dead helgramite, the wisps of moss, the rusty discarded fishhook, the dried blood from yesterday's catch."

Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum – Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company Collection

Belgrade Lakes, Maine photo courtesy http://belgradehistoricalsociety.org/gallery/.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"

"Sinatra with a cold is like Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel -- only worse." (Gay Talese)

It is one of the most famous pieces of magazine journalism ever.  Gay Talese, who had worked for the New York Times, wanted to try his hand at magazines.  His task?  To write six stories in the space of one year for Esquire magazine, the Vanity Fair of the 1960's.  With suitcase in hand, he flew to Los Angeles to interview the music legend, Frank Sinatra.  The problem was, the 50-year-old Sinatra was bound and determined not to speak to reporters:  he was tired of the relentless questions about his current love, a 20-year-old named Mia Farrow; he was tired of the endless queries about his Mafia connections; he was tired of the movie he was shooting; and to top it all off, he had a cold.  

But Gay Talese was up for a challenge.  For the next three months, he followed Sinatra to every corner of Hollywood and Las Vegas.  He pursued the singer's entourage of 75, gaining glimpses into the private man.  He did what needed to be done to get the scoop.  The result was a brilliant essay written in the "New Journalism" style.  Esquire called it "a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction".  Blogger Maria Henson explained:  "The 15,000 word story is as finely crafted as Sinatra's (and Talese's) custom-tailored suits."  Here is an excerpt from the article that everyone was talking about in April of 1966:

"Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel -- only worse.  For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability.  A Sinatra with a cold, can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy."  

Esquire magazine cover for April of 1966 courtesy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Sinatra_Has_a_Cold.

Note:  For more about this style of essay writing, read Tom Wolfe's The New Journalism (http://www.amazon.com/The-New-Journalism-Tom-Wolfe/dp/0060471832).

Monday 8 June 2015

Martha Gellhorn's "Eichmann and the Private Conscience"

"I followed the war wherever I could reach it." (Martha Gellhorn)

Martha Gellhorn worked for 60 years as a writer and journalist.  She worked for FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Adminstration) to document the lives of the hungry and the homeless during the Great Depression, alongside photographer Dorothea Lange.  During her coverage of the Spanish Civil War, she met author Ernest Hemingway, whom she married.  However, her thirst for a story kept her away from the home front and the marriage collapsed after five years.

During the Second World War, Martha went to great lengths to get a good story:  she rode with British pilots on night raids over Germany.  She was one of the first journalists to report on Dachau once it was liberated by the Allies.  On D-Day, she was the only woman to land on the beaches of Normandy, stowing away on a hospital ship and masquerading as a medic, complete with a stretcher.  As Martha explained:  "I followed the war wherever I could reach it."

In 1961, the war correspondent covered the trail of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.  Her article "Eichmann and the Private Conscience", was published in the Atlantic the following year (http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/62feb/eichmann.htm).  Here is an excerpt of Martha's vivid prose:  

"Everyone could not have his special talents:  many people were needed to smash a baby's head against the pavement before the mother's eyes, to urge a sick old man to rest and then to shoot him in the back of the head; there was endless work for willing hands.  How many more like these exist everywhere?  What produced them -- all sane, all inhuman?"

For more information, read The Face of War by Martha Gellhorn (http://www.amazon.ca/The-Face-War-Martha-Gellhorn/dp/0871132117).

The world watches as Adolf Eichmann, the face of evil, is put on trail for the death of millions of Jews during the Second World War courtesy cdn.timesofisrael.com/uploads/2013/04/eichmann.jpg.

Sunday 7 June 2015

George Orwell's "Why I Write"

Eric Arthur Blair wanted to be a writer from the tender age of five or six.  He dabbled in poetry and in short stories, and became a "full fledged writer" with the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris in London.  It was also in England that he found a pen name, Orwell, after the Orwell River in East Anglia.

In Orwell's essay Why I Write (http://orwell.ru/library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw), published in Gangrel magazine in 1946, he points out four reasons that authors take up the pen:

1.  ego:  "a desire to be talked about, to be remembered after death"

2.  aesthetic enthusiasm:  "Pleasure in the impact of one sound or another, in the firmness of good prose or rhythm of a good story"

3.  historic impulse:  "find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity"

4.  political purpose:  "a desire to push the world in a certain direction"

It wasn't until 1936, after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, however, that Orwell found a definite purpose for his writing.  "Every line of serious work that I've written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism..." explained the famous author.  The political theme is evident in Animal Farm, published in 1945, and Nineteen Eighty Four, published in 1949.

Note:  Why I Write is listed as one of the Best American Essays of the Century by Joyce Carol Oates https://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Best_American_Essays_of_the_Century.html?id=XY1jAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y.

Saturday 6 June 2015

Books on Essay Writing

Here are ten books on essay writing:

1.  The College Guide to Essay Writing (Jill Rossiter).

2.  The Nuts & Bolts of College Writing (Michael Harvey)

3.  Writing Essay Exams to Succeed (John C. Dernbach)

4.  The New Oxford Guide to Writing (Thomas Kane)

5.  100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (Gary Provost)

6.  501 Writing Prompt Questions (Learning Express Editors)

7.  Get Writing:  Paragraphs and Essays (Mark Connelly)

8.  Structuring Paragraphs and Essays:  A Guide to Effective Writing (A. Franklin Parks)

9.  The Situation and the Story:  The Art of Personal Narrative (Vivian Gornick)

10.  Writing Essays for Dummies (Mary Page)

Friday 5 June 2015

Essay vs Short Story: What is the Difference?

What are the basic differences between an essay and a short story?  An essay is non-fiction whereas a short story is fiction.  An essay can be anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 words.  A short story "should be able to be read in one sitting".  See Edgar Allan Poe's "Philosophy of Composition" (1846) at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/poe/composition.html.  An essayist shares his or her thoughts and beliefs.  A short story writer describes an experience or event.  An essay follows strict reason whereas a short story has the elements of plot, dialogue, setting, character and theme.

However, Sharon Lippincott points out that it doesn't hurt for an essay to have a bit of action and a short story to include a bit of self-reflection.  In fact, these are the stories that will connect with the reader.  Annie Dillard maintains that the essayist has more at his disposal than the short story writer. "The essay is and has been all over the map.  There's nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter forbidden, no structure proscribed.

The "godfathers" of the essay are Thoreau, Twain and Poe while the expert short story writers are O'Henry, Stephen Crane and Jack London.  To learn more about essay writing, read Writing and Publishing Personal Essays by Sheila Bender.  Tom Bailey's On Writing Short Stories is a good source for writers as well.

Thursday 4 June 2015

How to Write a Reader-Friendly Essay

"Good writing is never merely about following a set of directions." (Rachel Scheller)

While it is important to learn the basic rules of writing an essay, once you have done this, it is important to break away from tradition and find a fresh approach, says blogger Rachel Scheller (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/how-to-write-a-reader-friendly-essay).  Read other people's work with an analytical eye.  When you spot something "electric on the page", go back and determine what made it so.  Try to mimic the technique in your writing.  For instance, a young James Baldwin was heavily influenced by fellow black writer Richard Wright.  He likely incorporated some of Wright's techniques in his early works.  However, Baldwin soon found his own voice and style.  

First drafts of essays tend to be writer-based.  In your second draft, don't just edit the structure, organization, spelling and grammar of your work.  Translate it into a reader friendly essay.  Imagine someone else wrote it and come at it with an objective eye.   

"Be prepared to let it take on a shape of its own if this will create a more accurate, clearer, better argued essay," explains Stephen McClaren in Essay Writing Made Easy.  Take out anything irrelevant, anything that doesn't advance your argument.  When you take it out, it should be obvious that it didn't belong in the essay to start with.  McClaren likens an essay with a sentence or paragraph that doesn't fit to a painting of Sydney Harbour with a structure that doesn't belong (say, perhaps, the Statue of Liberty).  

McClaren offers a checklist to follow when crafting your essay:

  • is it writer-based or reader-based?
  • is there a clear argument?
  • is this material relevant?
  • what further information is needed?
  • is this statement backed up with evidence?
  • is there an organizational principle ordering the points discussed?
  • is the wording clear? (try it out on someone else)
  • how can I express this more clearly?

This artist, Alan Streets, brought his own flair to the painting of the Sydney Harbour.  The signature pieces of the harbour are there:  the bridge, the opera house, the water.  However, he did not copy a photograph.  Bring the same flair to your essay.  

Wednesday 3 June 2015

The Art of the Personal Essay

"...all essays are an expression of the human voice addressing an imagined audience, seeking to shift opinion, to influence judgement, to appeal to another in his or her common humanity." 
(Joyce Carol Oates)

Yesterday I blogged about the educational or formal essay.  Today I am writing about the personal or informal essay.  If the goal of the educational essay is to inform the reader, the goal of the personal essay is to move the reader.  Joyce Carol Oates points out that "art should not be comforting...art should provoke, disturb, arouse one's emotions..." (http://www.amazon.com/Best-American-Essays-Century-Series/dp/0618155872).  

The personal essay writer shares his personal experience or opinion about a topic.  The topics can vary, but the theme should be universal.  Rather than a formal tone, the writer adopts a conversational tone.  The discourse should be natural.  The personal essay should be like a personal narrative which includes dialogue and characterization.  The writer should use scene building techniques.  The writer's emotions and feelings should be transparent.  It is an exercise in self-reflection for the writer.

While an article should be objective, a personal essay should be subjective.  It offers the reader "a glimpse into the writer's life", according to blogger Dave Hood (http://davehood59.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/what-is-a-personal-essay/).  Pay attention to the writer's unique use of language, or voice.  It is not what is said, but how it is said.  The reader needs to engage the writer's voice.

For more information, read Joyce Carol Oates' book The Best American Essays of the Century.