Bestsellers

In the wake of the inauguration, George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 has become a best-seller, topping the Amazon, USA Today, and iBooks bestseller lists.  Since it was first published in 1949, the book has remained in print and has enjoy strong yearly sales.  Last year, 1984 sold around 221,000 print copies, according to BookScan, a group that tracks sales for physical and digital books.  Last week, Signet Classics reprinted 500,000 copies of 1984.  Seems they expect this surge of interest to continue.

In 1973, David Bowie wrote a song called “1984.”  Inspired by Orwell’s novel, Bowie originally planned for it to be a stage musical, but that idea fell through when Orwell’s wife refused to give permission.  The song ended up on the Diamond Dogs album.  Now, the hit London stage adaptation, a non-musical, will open on Broadway in the summer.

As much as I like Bowie’s 1984 and the Diamond Dogs album, I prefer Spirit’s 1984, written by Randy California in 1970. (Had to put in a plug for one of all-time favorite rock bands.)

Just last week in San Francisco, a “mystery benefactor” bought 50 copies of 1984 at Booksmith, a bookstore in the famous Haight-Ashbury district, and asked that they be given away free to anyone who wanted one.

Evidently, it is not only Trump’s presence in the White House but also Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” comment that has sparked the spike in 1984 sales.  The parallels to our present political climate are obvious, and have been since before the rise of the monster, and the lessons the book provides are stark.  The specter of authoritarianism is always knocking on the door.  Alternate facts, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Thought Police, Big Brother, clickbait.  Where does 1984 end and reality begin?  What about all the Big Brothers out there…  listening…  watching…  recording…

Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.

– George Orwell, 1984

A runaway bestseller in poetry might sell around 2000 copies.  Most poetry book sales are much lower than that.  But in recent years the works of a 13th-century Muslim poet have sold millions of copies.  Late last month, the Washington Post declared, “How wonderful it is that Rumi… has become the best-selling poet in the United States! He might enjoy knowing that Trump’s America is snapping up translations of his homoerotically tinged work even as the country toys with banning Muslims and rolling back gay rights.”

Mowlana Jalaloddin Balkhi, aka Rumi, was born in Persia in 1207.  He was a Sunni Muslim, Islamic scholar and  theologian, and Sufi mystic.

Why is Rumi suddenly so popular?  Lee Briccetti, executive director of the nation poetry library Poets House, suggests that it is because “Across time, place and culture, Rumi’s poems articulate what it feels like to be alive.”  And it’s not just the US, the BBC says, “Globally, [Rumi’s] fans are legion.”

Rumi’s poems are wise, spiritual, beautiful, and at times, puzzling.  Although he was a Sufi teacher, his work moved beyond the confines of blind faith and exclusivity.  In the Post article linked above (about a new Rumi biography from Brad Gooch, “Rumi’s Secret”)  there is a lovely quote from Rumi: “The religion of love is beyond all faiths.”

A US poet, Coleman Barks, has been one of the folks responsible for popularizing the Persian poet.  Yet, Barks has received criticism because he is not a translator (he paraphrases from existing translations) and because he has contributed to The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.

From what I have read, I understand the older translations are more literal.  Newer translations have been produced with an eye toward rendering Rumi’s verse in a way that is compatible with free-form modern poetry, and therefore, more accessible.  I usually lean toward translations that are closest to what the poet or author originally wrote.

Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945) was one of the best Rumi scholars in the English language and his translations are considered authoritative and literal.  Yet, the archaic language he uses (“thou” “dost” etc.) does seem get in the way for this modern reader.  I gave up trying to learn who translated the following poem.  It seems very modern, so if it is true to Rumi or not, I don’t know…

A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but one in soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden’s beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I unselfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land.

Rumi

– – – – – – – – – –

Miniature painting of Rumi by Hossein Behzad

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Dashiell Hammett and the Tao of Beams Falling

Some of you may know the name Dashiell Hammett, one of the originators of the hardboiled school of detective fiction.  I am sure most all of you have heard of his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon.

Sam Spade, a private detective, gets involved with a group of murderous characters in search of a “dingus,” a black bird: The Maltese Falcon, a priceless jewel-encrusted statue, presented to the Knights Templar, along with the island of Malta, by Charles V of Spain, lost for centuries.  With this story, Hammett presented us with one of the greatest plots in mysterydom.

In Chapter 7, Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the femme fatale of the novel, a story about a man named Flitcraft.   The man lived in Tacoma, and one day while strolling around during his lunch hour, he narrowly missed being hit by a falling beam from a construction site.  If the beam had struck him, it would have killed him.  Spade says this left Flitcraft feeling “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”  Chaos had entered his comfortable world, and he concluded that life was merely a matter of chance.  “What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life.”  Flitcraft left his job, his wife and children, and he set out to wander aimlessly.

George Cotkin, in Existential America, remarks that “Here we have Hammett’s take on the human condition.  Men and women sleepwalk through existence, clutching at illusions and complacency.  When the natural cracks in an existential moment, the potential for freedom, for a new birth, opens up.”

Cotkin’s explanation fits because the theme of The Maltese Falcon is illusion.  I would go into that more but I would hate to give out any spoilers for those who have not read the book or seen the movie.

Years later when Mrs. Flitcraft hires Spade to find her long lost husband, the detective discovers that he has settled down once again, this time in Spokane, living a similar life to the one he left behind.  He had a new job, new family, and name,  Charles Pierce (a reference to Charles Stanley Pierce, a nineteenth century philosopher who wrote about “random occurrence”).

Spade tells Brigid, “He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

Flitcraft’s wandering is a reaction to the capriciousness of fate.  But I think Spade is using the story to tell Brigid that regardless of whether or not she is being straight with him, in the end it will not matter, he will adjust, and he won’t play the sap for her.  In this way, Sam Spade, the iconic private detective, is like the Taoist sage who moves through life in boundless freedom, exuding wisdom, secure in the knowledge that beams falling, and not falling, is the natural order of things.

Adjusting is not the same as complacency, or “settling.”  Lao Tzu says that the sage avoids complacency, and yet does not try to make things happen.  The sage allows things to happen by themselves, and “helps the people find their own nature, while refraining from action.”

Life is series of happenings.  When we resist what happens, we open the door to problems.  So then, all this to say, let things flow naturally and go with that flow.

Dashiell Hammett was not the best writer of detective stories, but perhaps the most influential.  His innovation was to take murder out of the drawing room and put it back on the streets where it belonged.  He became about as successful a writer as one could be.  Then, with the years of money and success in Hollywood were behind him, he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and went to jail.  He was 57 years old and emerged from imprisonment, according to his partner Lillian Hellman, “a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker.”  But he had survived.  He adjusted to beams falling.

By the way, TCM is showing The Maltese Falcon today at 6:15pm EST (3:15 PST).  This superb version directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet, is extremely faithful to Hammett’s novel.  I consider it the first film noir and probably the best detective movie ever made.

If you miss this viewing, it might show up on TCM On Demand.

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“Wings of a Windmill” or It Happened Here

A demagogue becomes president of the United States by exploiting fear politics and promising to return the country to greatness!

No, not the President-elect.  Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who becomes President after running a populist-fueled campaign in It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  After Windrip, a Democratic Senator from a Western state, takes office he proceeds to take over the government.  He cancels Congress, takes control of the Supreme Court, and purges power from the states, establishing a fascist regime over which he has absolute power.

Lewis’ model for Windrip was Louisiana Senator Huey Long (1893-1935), who had also been Governor of the Pelican State and ruled it like a czar.  But Mussolini and Hitler’s rise to power was what motivated Lewis to write the book.  His wife, Dorothy Thompson, foreign correspondent for the New York Evening Post, interviewed Hitler in 1931 and wrote a book about it, I Saw Hitler.

Evidently, the hero of It Can’t Happen Here is a a small-town newspaper owner named Doremus Jessup, whose opposition to Windrip lands him in a concentration camp.  I say evidently because I have not read the book.

However, many people are reading it right now.  Suddenly there’s been a proliferation of articles on the internet calling it “the novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump,” and since the election, It Can’t Happen Here “has sold out on some major online book retailers, including Amazon and Books-a-Million.”

Years ago I did try to read Lewis’ earlier novel The Jungle (1906) but as I recall his description of the deplorable working conditions in the meat-packing industry was more than I could stomach.  Readers at the time were shocked, nonetheless the novel became a best seller and its popularity helped President Theodore Roosevelt (who disliked Lewis) push through the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

Sinclair Lewis was a muckraker.  That sounds derogatory but a muckrakers are people who expose misconduct in politics and public life.  So, being a muckraker can be a good thing.  Lewis’ 1922 satire of American culture and society, Babbit, was the work that was largely responsible for Lewis becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature 1930.   Before he died of alcoholism in 1951 at age 65, he authored a a few other once well-known books, including Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith and Dodsworth.

Well, it did happen here, or maybe we should say it might be happening here.  And not just America.  Fareed Zakaria in an article at Foreign Affairs writes that “Right-wing populist parties, on the other hand, are experiencing a new and striking rise in country after country across Europe.”  This new populism is different from the traditional brand associated with left-wing politics.  The trumpets of nationalism are beginning to blare, too.  I don’t know if it will lead to fascism taking root around the world or no.  I have a feeling, though, that whatever it leads to in America the next four years is not going to be much fun.

I put It Can’t Happen Here on my TBR list.  It’s already pretty long.  And it’s not only the list, there’s the pile . . .

Here is a short passage from the book I found online.  The subject is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip:

it-cant-happen-hereThe Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

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You Don’t Have to Know Your Limitations

Even if you’ve never seen one of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, you are probably familiar with the line, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I may or may not have seen the film that contains this line, I don’t recall (not a big Dirty Harry fan), so I can’t say in exactly what context the remark is made, other than I know he’s pointing a gun at someone. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t say this sentiment is always true.

In the Pali text, Majjhima Nikaya 62, the Buddha says to his son, Rahula,

“Develop a mind similar to space, then things of like and dislike will not take hold of your mind, nor will they remain . . . Rahula, abide in a mind like space.”

In Buddhism, the mind is often compared to space or to the sky. On one hand, the mind is a source of suffering, since negative thoughts and resulting speech and actions are causes of suffering. On the other hand, mind is a source of happiness, and is viewed as having unlimited potential. It is said to be as vast as sky or space.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i developed a concept he called i-nien san-ch’ien (Jp. ichinen sanzen) or “three thousand worlds in a single thought,” a way of expressing the notion that the mind is a microcosm of the universe. It is also limitless, permeating the entire universe. There is a theoretical way to understand this, and a practical way.

The practical implication of space-like mind is that we need not be restrained by self-imposed limitations; rather we should make a real effort to be rid of our limitations. We limit ourselves in many ways. As the passage above suggests, likes and dislike take hold of our mind. Our prejudices and preferences keep us in a specific mind-set, a comfort zone of the mind, and once we are settled in, it’s difficult to climb out. When we are reluctant, even afraid, to consider new ideas, new challenges, and so forth, we become prisoners in our own mind. Life is extremely limited behind bars.

Self-doubt is another way we limit ourselves. Self-doubt sends limiting messages to the mind. It also inhibits our ability to think freely, it inhibits our actions, causes depression, worry, dissatisfaction, leaving us feeling unfulfilled. Extreme self-doubt is obviously unhealthy.

There are times where reason and restraint are called for, when being realistic about our abilities will prevent us from making unwise decisions. So, perhaps it’s a good idea after all that we recognize some limitations, but we don’t need to be unnecessarily constrained by them. Our potential may not be literally unlimited, but it’s safe to say that it is far greater than we imagine.

Wayfarers on the Buddha path seeking to transcend sufferings and find happiness in this life should also be earnestly striving to transcend the limitations of the mind. Rebelling against self-shackling narrow mind and self-doubt is absolutely key to developing the boundless life we deserve.

“The capacity of the mind is as vast like space. It is limitless, neither round nor square, neither great nor small, neither blue, yellow, red or white. It is not above or below, or long or short. It is without anger and without joy, without like and dislike, without good or evil, and without beginning or end. The fields of the Buddha are identical to space.”

– The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

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Dutch’s Immortal Words

The late Cecil Day-Lewis, once Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, writing as Nicholas Blake, noted that a book “is the precious life-blood of a master spirit.” Nothing makes reading more pleasurable than experiencing a masterwork written by a master craftsman.

leonardOne of the masters of the hard-boiled crime novel passed away yesterday. Elmore Leonard was 87. He died at his home of complications from a stroke he had suffered a few weeks back.

From the 1930’s on, American crime/mystery fiction in the 20th Century, and to some extent today, was dominated by two interrelated genres: hard-boiled and noir. The only real difference between the two is the subject matter. Both concern crime, but hard-boiled generally revolves around a lead character who is a detective, while noir involves a male protagonist who is often an “average Joe” (although he can be police or a criminal) that meets up with femme fatale who leads him to his downfall. Leonard’s fiction straddled both sides of that fence with a definite lean towards noir.

The writing style of both hard-boiled and noir fiction is essentially the same, and it’s built around economy of words. These writers approach a novel in much the same way as a Japanese poet does haiku. Another key ingredient is great, pithy opening sentences. Consider the opening line of Leonard’s Freaky Deaky:

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.”

In just twenty-four words he tells us quite a bit about one of the chief characters in the novel, his job, employment status, his attributes, and gives us a good feel for what is to come. Other writers would have used many more words to tell us all that. Hell, Proust would have spent three or four pages on two in the afternoon alone.

Style may be king in hard-boiled and noir novels, but it’s rather empty without a good story and characterizations. The latter must be believable. And you’d be hard pressed to find any character in a Elmore Leonard story who wasn’t. They were gritty, quirky, misfits who spoke snappy, laconic dialogue that matched perfectly the narrative voice. Hollywood loved Leonard’s characters. 26 of his stories were made into movies: 3:10 to Yuma, Mr. Majestyk, Stick, Get Shorty, Be Cool, Jackie Brown . . .

I’m going to take my cue from “Dutch,” as Leonard was often called, and be concise here. As far as I’m concerned, he was one of the great American novelists. I will refer you to the obituary at the LA Times to learn more about Elmore Leonard’s life and career. For my tribute, and for your edification, here are his 10 Rules for writing, composed in 2001. It’s aimed at writers, obviously, but I think readers can learn a lot about reading from it, too.

WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

By ELMORE LEONARD

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

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