Saturday, March 28, 2015

What the Torpedo in Eric Larson's Dead Wake Really Brought

Reading Eric Larson's Dead Wake is like reading about a wake. You are reading really about dead people. The sinking of the Lusitania took eleven hundred souls to the bottom of the Atlantic and that is really the nub of it. Now how that event took place and the aftermath of course is really what Dead Wake is all about. A dead wake by the way is what is left when a ship passes or a torpedo. So what I am looking for is a thesis to emerge. It is the historian in me.

Larson gives us the U Boat with Schweiger in command. This is really the fascinating part of the book. It must be something about submarines or about Germans in submarines. See Das Boot. But when they go to the bottom of the sea to have Christmas it is really hard to imagine. A UBoat literally sitting on the bottom of a bay where no one can detect it so they can hang a wreath and sing Christmas Carols. Fascinating.

And then we have all those passengers on the doomed Lusitania. These are the ones that survived mostly. And they are interesting and here is why. They are early century Victorians who may have seen themselves as modern but they know nothing about what is going on in the Western Front. They have no idea that the world has changed and so has warfare. They have no idea what the twentieth century has in store for them.

It takes the clear white translucent trail of a compressed air torpedo to be the harbinger of this new world. It crosses the Irish Channel like a meteor from another world and the passengers watch it in awe and fascination as something from a  New World. These people most of them had never seen a plane and to many the automobile was a marvel. So here is this strange missile bringing death from the sea and they watch in disbelief as it slams into the ship.

And so the thesis I draw and not Larson is that the silky trailing torpedo is really a messenger that Total War has arrived. And even as these people drown in the 55 degree water they don't really understand what has happened. They are in shock but they have no point or reference for the true barbarity the twentieth century will unleash. It is in their expressions in the numbered pictures Cunard took of a every victim.

Men, women, children, and infants.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Why Hemingway Doesn't Appeal to Students Today

In my Lit Class at the private college it occurred to me that the Hemingway ideal is dead. It is not just that I have the class read the The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and they don't get it but more than that they don't get the references or the world Hemingway painted. Now I wont say that he inhabited this world because Hemingway was consciously painting a world even then that was fantasy. It was a world of Big Game Hunters and the heroic ideal set in the Natural World.

But for students of 2015 this simply doesn't compute. The setting the mil yer the characters. They are not familiar with the Big White Hunter or Francis McComber a rich man who would hire a guide for a safari or his wife a socialite who has only contempt for McComber. More than all this they are not familiar with Africa as a wild place where men went to hunt animals as a badge of honor or at least a head mounted on a den wall.  Even when Hemingway was writing this he was writing a memory that most people in the thirties didn't possess as the way the world was.

Lets face it the whole Hemingway sell was one of looking back to a time or a world when men were men but for modern Americans then they could at least look back at he frontier that had been declared closed just thirty years before. But the fantasy like James Feinimore Cooper or Jack London painted a world of adventure that simply didn't exist for twentieth century Americans. But for twenty first century Americans that world doesn't even exist in Memory.

Consequently for the Dystopian set there is  no point of reference. Who the hell is this guy and why is he hunting a lion and why wouldn't you run from a lion? Hemingway was dated shortly after his death if not before. I don't think we can say he is dated now maybe simply not relevant even in the passing sense of being able to empathize or at least find the thread that allows the modern mind to participate in the fictional dream.

This would rankle Hemingway I am sure. He was the modernist smashing Victorian convention in his time. But sadly, not in ours.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The New Starbucks Era of the Office

When I go to Starbucks to work it is jammed. And not with the artists of old but the business people of new. People are obviously are working more and more from home and they don't want to work at home. I get that. Home is where the stress is. Home is where the quiet is. Home is where people aren't. The biggest thing people face working at home is there is no work buzz. There is no camaraderie. Starbucks solves these problems.

There is music. There are people. There is a buzz. And American business should think about this because offices have become morgues. The Internet killed the noise of the office. There used to be the ringing phones and people conversing, , meeting, talking. Not anymore. There is on the soft click of keyboards. People send emails to other people one cube over. This silence is not good for people who have to work.

I worked in an office once with a manager who could not stand noise. The office was a morgue. People hated coming in. People need noise. They need to feel like they are part of the whole or they feel like it is them against the world. Starbucks provides the buzz of old. People talk laugh cry yell work spill things. There is the sound of commerce. Corporate America should wake up and take a page out of Starbucks atmospherics.

Maybe they could even serve coffee. What a concept.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Did the Era of Neighbors End?

I was out taking down my Christmas lights and I thought about how lonely it was in my neighborhood. I literally don't see my neighbors except for passing each other in cars. Some of them I never see. And no one socializes. Now our houses are spaced apart. This could account for some of this. And maybe you could say everyone is just really busy. But maybe there is something else.

Take my old neighborhood. Everyone got together. Everyone was friends. You might say that was a function of having young children. Maybe. But when I go back to my neighborhood which has since turned over the people who are still there say people don't socialize  like they used to. They said the new people have no interest in getting together or being social. Some of this can be explained by urban versus suburban or even conservative versus liberal. Our old neighborhood was closer to the city.

But the fact that my old neighborhood seems to be suffering from a lack of socialization like my new one tells me that the age of neighbors might have ended. Of course we all know what replaced it. The online world. We now stay inside our forts and socialize versus venturing out to see what the neighbor is doing. Some of it is two income households. Clearly. Some of it we are more insular by nature with our ear-buds and smartphones. Or maybe we are just too damned busy.

The big porches on homes are really no longer. Most new homes don't have them. In my grandfathers time people used to get dressed up to go out on their porches in the evening. Then like a grand procession people would pass by and pass the time of day. Something we no longer possess.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why Writers Can't Write Another Book

The amazing thing that has come out of the Harper Lee Saga and it is a saga now is that we are finding out she could not complete a follow up to To Kill A Mockingbird. As an author this is nothing short of amazing. Here she has the publisher telling her just give them anything because this book has headed for the moon and anything you publish will sell like crazy and just give us something. She could not.

And the question then is why? So we delve into the saga. Here is a woman who submitted a manuscript that was rejected by the publisher all those years ago. That manuscript is what is being published now. But the publisher saw no book there. So she told her to rewrite it. More than that she told her to bring in each chapter as she went along. This kind of hand holding does not usually happen these days. This process went on for two years.

TWO YEARS. She rewrote with the editor for two years and at the end out came To Kill A Mockingbird. But then then they said ok write something else. She could  not. So then you have to go into what makes  a bestseller. Timing. A story. The intersection of history and events. Luck. Writers are aware of all these things. That is why only a few hit. But then there is that next book. Why could she not produce something else?

Harper Lee might have been a one book writer. She might have had nothing else to say. We can say now that without that heavy editorial hand there would be no To Kill A Mockingbird. And once writers are cut loose to go on their own then they have to fly. Incredible as it may sound, Harper Lee simply couldn't come up with another story.

Maybe the price of mega success is just that.
The Pitcher...sometimes a dream is all you have

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Funny State of Literature

The vapidity of winter probably is a good metaphor for what has happened to literature in the year 2015. It is cold out. Zero. The wind whips against the windows and nothing really moves. As I read Richard Fords Let Me Be Frank With You it is clear what has happened to serious writing in this early part of the twenty first century. It has gone the way the of the LP and the CD. It is simply not relevant to a large segment of the population.

Harper Lee is bringing out a rejected manuscript. Why would an old woman do that who has a secure place in literary history? But of course content is king and so the more the better. Amazing this modality should nibble at the stalwart of classic lit but there you have it. We don't know if she wanted it out there or someone else but it doesn't really matter. What matters is there has been a watershed and there is no going back.

We are writers brought up on filmic imagery. Our scenes are much more relevant to a Parenthood than a reader of E. M. Foresters A Passage to India. It happened to the music industry. The same juggernaut that has pumped out elevator vocalists from American Idol now pumps it out from Dystopian set pieces like Divergent or randy Army manuals like Fifty Shades of Gray.  It isn't so much that any of this is so bad its just that it is not so good.

Then you read Richard Ford and you remember again that literature was never about that. It was about cracking the existential moment. The wonder of being alive in the year 2015. And it is still there but people would have you believe it is not. There is much more money to be made in pulp than art. But like the winter that howls even now. There is that suspicion we are mortal.  And the great consolation is this.

Literature will live on despite our best intentions.

The Pitcher...Library Guild Selection


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Harper Lee's First Novel that is now her Second

Harper Lee is coming out with a second novel but in fact it is her first that the publishers rejected. I had read about how Mockingbird  was written with heavy input from her publisher. This is during the time when editors actually worked closely with writers to produce novels. But Harper Lee had actually written a first novel  and the editor rejected it and suggested she write the book from Scouts viewpoint.

If you read To Kill A Mockingbird the first part is really a series of interrelated stories while the second part is a fully integrated  novel. That first part I will bet came from this original manuscript the publisher rejected. Writers do that. They cannibalize the good out of one manuscript for something else. This then is the book that is coming out in July.

A lot has been written about why she is publishing this. The better question is why didn't Harper Lee ever write another novel. That is a more interesting question. The old wisdom said if you knock one out of the park then why ever do it again? That sounds good but it doesn't pertain to writers. Writers are people who write regardless of their success. Unless they cant.

The story I read about the writing of To Kill A Mockingbird had her describing a very difficult process of forging this novel. There was a lot of back and forth with her editor. Maybe she didn't know what to do after Mockingbird. It happens. Then the next question of WHY. Why now? Why bring out an old manuscript originally rejected by the publisher? It is not money. I think I read she makes 1.6 million off of royalties every six months.

Maybe she got tired of being the one trick writer. Or maybe, she believed the book had merit. And that it should have been published. Maybe the age of sequels or prequels in this case made her think it was alright to publish her first effort. We will never know why she published it, but in about five months we will find out if that editor was right to reject that book.
The Pitcher

Books by William Hazelgrove