England is a pervading theme in this August's stories, especially early in the month. The first story allows the last three words of this review's title. After that we have a review of an Englishman's memoir; a story about looking at England 8,000 years in the past; another story of England, this one about seventy years in the past; and still another story set in England, this one more or less in the present.
I had trouble getting a handle on the main character in "Salt" by Lesley Bannatyne. Since she taught her ESL kids for thirty years she's got to be, realistically, fifty at least and probably older. Yet her friend Astrid, virtually the same age, comes across as someone in her thirties, and except for the references to the time spent teaching, and the one reference to wrinkles toward the end, Deb seems to be a woman in her late thirties or early forties. How many women over fifty would bare their breasts in public? The character would have been more solid if the author had allowed Deb to be realistically about thirty-eight or so.
I got a definite Dorothy vibe near the end. "She closed her eyes and breathed in the salt. It was her bedrock, this salt, here, this Quincy Bay salt, from where she was born, and where all that she had earned, and built, and planted, and loved, was." This really compares in tone with Dorothy's observation just before she clicks her heels: "...if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!" The adult (ery) encounter with Hal is the catalyst that spurs Deb's introspection to discover the same thing Dorothy's adventure revealed to her. There's no place like home.
"Letters to Soldiers" by Jon Arthur Kitson and "My Solicitor" by Derek McMillan have two obvious similarities. Both stories take place in England, and both stories, written by men, feature a woman as the central character. From there, though, they differ in almost every respect.
It could be argued that "Letters to Soldiers" isn't really a story. There is no plot, no conflict, no physical description of Cynthia at all. But at the end we see a story, a big one, packed into a very small package. The story is full of emotion without the use of any descriptions of emotion in voice or expression.
During the Viet Nam War one of the protest slogans was, approximately, "In nature children bury their parents. War violates nature, causing parents to bury their children." This is a paraphrase of a quote by Herodotus. This story reminded me of that. Very well done.
"My Solicitor" is totally different. It is indeed a fully constructed story with a plot, a conflict, and a solution. I really can find nothing to criticize, try as I might. It is entertaining, clever, and well-written.
"Tight Pants" has an opposite similarity (like that oxymoron?) to the previous two stories. The story, written by a woman, takes place in the mind of a male character. Bria Burton does a good job of portraying a wimp. And it took the worst day of his life for him to realize he was a wimp. I'm not so sure he started out that way, but judging from his thoughts regarding his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Natalie, he just can't stand conflict. It was probably his nature to begin with, and was then reinforced by parents, friends, co-workers, etc. He was like blood in the water to sharks. Everyone he met could sense his weakness and pounced upon it.
Has he realized it before this mugging? Almost certainly, yet it's been so much easier to just go along. Nothing was important enough to rebel against and get stubborn.
Fara saved his life twice. She saved him physically from possibly getting shot in the head, and then she gave him a shot—of inspiration—in his heart. His life can now be his.
I wonder what Natalie thought of the new man?
My only head-shake at this story was that he's not really dressed to go running with her. Running in skinny jeans has to be akin to dancing while wearing clown shoes or swimming in an overcoat. He better jog to the nearest clothing or sports store and get some shorts and tank tops. Oh, and running shoes would be good, too.
"Untethered" by Eric Erickson gives us a different look at the same problem as "Tight Pants." What, after all, is more tethering than skinny jeans? Art, however, is not the passive wimp from the other story. He was confident, free, and betrayed, though he didn't know it. In "Tight Pants" the narrator is given his freedom by a woman. Art's freedom, on the other hand, has been sucked away by the woman he has married. And he never realized it. She never shared his dream. It seems pretty clear they don't really communicate. He quit his job two weeks ago and she didn't even notice. She just wanted the house and the kids. Did he? We can't be sure, but he had 'em, wanted or not, because she did. Kate is practical. I get the impression that all through their twenty-seven years of marriage, except for that camping trip, she has kept him "grounded." That pressure of her hands on his shoulders and that matronly shake of her head are no strangers to him. And in his final attempt to be young again, to do what his heart tells him is right, Kate has squelched it with a gentle but unyielding practicality. That he hated that job makes no never-mind to her. His job assured the secure life she wanted.
The saddest part of all is that on the camping trip so many years ago, she did the free and irresponsible thing while he slept. He's lived with a delusion his whole married life. At the end, there is only silence. The delusion is gone and he has nothing to fill that void.
Another really good story that offers no opportunity for criticism. If this keeps up, I may have to return to creative writing for P&S.
But wait! There is one more story: "Looking Back" by Sarah Long. I took all the other stories in the chronological order of their appearance, but I skipped over this one. Now I'm going to look back on it because it invites the most discussion.
The word "impressive" means it left an impression. In that respect, this was one of the two stories that I found impressive. "Letters to Soldiers" was the other.
I'm not an astrophysicist, so I don't feel comfortable criticizing the science of the story. I liked the concept of looking back and seeing something totally unsupported by what we think we know. Alien visitors, and apparently not beneficent in their designs.
The idea of the old woman looking right into the telescope and advising "hide" was a cool touch.
But just before that and the rest after, problems developed. With the audience, sure, but also with the story.
The last time we see Frederick, he is holding her hand, and that's before the images appear. Then he just disappears from the story like he was never there. No mention of him releasing her hand, stepping away, nothing. The narrator and Anna might as well have been there without him.
The disturbance of the audience is well done, except that Frederick apparently had no reaction at all. But then suddenly two black-clad men show up, gas everybody except the mother and child because she has managed to hide.
Second objection (her husband's disappearance was the first): “All subjects saw the footage,” I hear one man’s muffled reply. “We destroyed them on site.”
No professional would say "destroy" when referring to people. "Terminate," or "neutralized" is far more likely. "Destroy" could apply to the footage, but footage is singular and the man said "them."
Third objection: We are led to believe that this is the first time this has been done, so how can the agents be so prepared for the application of gas to eliminate the audience? Plus, the agent's words imply that this has been seen before. How? When? An extra hundred words or so early in the story could have given a hint or some kind of background that would explain this.
Fourth objection: and I'll admit it is on the edge of justified. What happens to the mother and child does not have to be part of this story, so their jump out the window is a reasonable ending.
But what is going to happen to this woman? Will they survive the jump? Almost certainly. But she's wearing a cocktail dress, which implies high heels. Landing from a second story window in high heels is going to produce a shattered ankle or worse. Maybe they are jumping onto bushes or some kind of landscaping that will offer a softer landing? Maybe she chose to wear flats because she broke a heel. These are all things that could have been mentioned casually early in the story with only a few words, and allow the reader to hold out hope for their escape. But, again, what happens after is not part of this tale, so these things are not necessary for the completeness of the story.
But, dammit, I couldn't stop thinking about that landing!
One last bit of commentary. I want to review the review. "A Review of So, Anyway... by John Cleese" by Gael DeRoane, seemed contradictory to me. The reviewer approached it from a personal perspective, so I'm going to do likewise.
Like him, I do not "get" English humor. "Benny Hill," the one time I watched it, had me looking for a barf bag in ten minutes. I was at someone else's house and they watched it because (God forgive them) they thought it was funny. I bailed out and went elsewhere to watch a pinochle game. That was twice as entertaining.
I have never watched "Monty Python," primarily due to my experience with "Benny Hill." Because of those intentional avoidances, the references to Basil Fawlty were completely wasted on me.
I almost never read memoirs anyway, since I usually find more truth in fiction. So, I thought his first four paragraphs (minus the Fawlty reference) were great, and after that it all went downhill.
After reading this review I'm not sure if Mr. DeRoane wanted to dislike the book going in and was forced to change his mind by the quality of Cleese's writing, or if he liked it from the get-go and is just kidding the reader with his introduction. If the second, well done. But if the first, I wish he'd written the review without the build-down and just praised it to his satisfaction.
The best thing about the review was the author's suggestion that there be a worldwide Ministry of Good Manners. Whether putting Mr. Cleese in charge would be a good idea I have no opinion, but he is absolutely correct about the need for such a ministry.
The last two stories of the month betray the review's title, but I felt I could let the majority rule.
The end of August marks the unofficial end of summer. Kids return to school, most outside swimming pools will close a week or so later, and the days decline in hours while the nights get longer. This collection of stories served as a generally calm and collected way to usher out the heat and prepare for the cool.
It's said that writing is a lonely occupation. I haven’t found that to be true. My world is filled with international writer friends who meet regularly to exchange critique duties, to bounce ideas around, and to share the birthing process as our individual creations take shape.
Some of these friends form a local critique group. Attending meetings serves multiple purposes. It forces me to write. I feel obligated to have something ready to present at each meeting. But when that doesn't happen, I'm still ready and willing to make constructive comments on the other members' projects. Additionally, I benefit from the experiences of the other members, who are in different career stages and different places in the writing, publication and marketing process. And, of course, it's fun to hang with people I don't have to explain my quirky thought processes to.
On those rare occasions when I don't see another writer in person for a week or more, I connect with them on a website where I've been active for years. Again, I read and critique far more often than I submit work. It's there that I meet with other poets and ask the questions I need answered to improve this part of my craft.
Writing is never far from my mind. Even when I'm alone, I'm surrounded by my characters and by the "voices" of those wonderful and generous authors and editors who are my teachers. I like to try out new approaches and new forms. For this, alone-time is necessary, often late at night, and the notepad app on my tablet is invaluable.
All this activity is outside my work at Page & Spine. Here, again, I read and evaluate other writers' creations, often asking myself why something does or doesn't work while paying close attention to the editorial staff's evaluations. I’m always looking for an opportunity to learn something. Sure comes in handy when I have to plug a last-minute hole in an upcoming edition!
None of this interaction just happened. I sought out a local writers' group, answering a newspaper announcement. Best thing I’ve ever done in my writing life. I took a mail-order writing course, which led me to explore several writers’ websites, and I joined one. I devoted time and effort--I still do--to reading others' work and learning from it. I ask questions and make suggestions when it seems appropriate. One has to give as well as take for these associations to bear fruit. And the best fruit is a rainbow of reaction from the most literal readers to the most imaginative. It’s amazing how many interpretations a simple poem can have that the poet has never considered.
I'll tell you a secret. All that effort--and it is effort, as I'm very shy among strangers--is worth it. My writing improves because of the personal interaction, the exchange of ideas, and my appreciation of other writers' styles. And best of all, when I get stuck or need a quick edit there’s always someone there to give me a helping hand. (Thanks, Jade and Bonnie!)
Like I said, I never write alone.
Two book chapters I read this week got me thinking. Hey! I do that now and then.
The first was from a detective novel-in-progress. The detective had reached an impasse in his investigation and decided to bring the local police into his confidence. Thing was, it took several pages of romanticly leaving his sleeping lover and a lecture on city traffic density at various times of day before he got down to announcing his decision to the reader and acting on it. Talk about slowing down the action--darned thing nearly put me to sleep.
The second chapter I reviewed was from a memoir-in-progress. It was a "juicy" one with critical impact on the protagonist. Elegantly written with emphasis on the life-changing emotions involved, not one detail was committed to paper that did not have to be there to move the story along. As a reader, I had time to appreciate the significance of the episode, then the story moved on. I was neither bored nor diverted from the purpose for its inclusion.
Novels give the author a bit of wiggle room when it comes to backstory and explanation, but just as in a short story, too much extraneous information can leave even a riveted reader comatose. The second writer understood this. The first did not.
And so it goes with short stories. Say what you have to say. Say it elegantly. Don't bog the reader down with irrelevant information. He will thank you for it because, when it comes to unnecessary details, less is more.
John Cleese, the haughty, towering, stick-insect Brit, and one of the founders of Monty Python, has written a memoir. When asked which I prefer, Benny Hill or Monty Python, I invariably say neither, since I am not one of those people who “gets” English humor. I am, for example, more a fan of Inuit jollity, despite the preponderance of walrus jokes. Setting aside the moth-eaten quality of English humor, and recognizing that Mr. Cleese is a person of some renown, I will proceed to evaluate his memoir.
I should like to begin this review in the harsh manner of the famous Cleese creation Basil Fawlty, if he were a man of letters instead of the bristling hotelier eager to frogmarch lower-class guests from the premises.
First of all, the title of the memoir--So, Anyway…--has a lazy, tossed-off feel to it, like a phrase overheard among loafers at the greasy tables of a luncheonette. Another disagreeable aspect of the book is the author’s tendency to ramble on about his boyhood, college, and professional experiences, which, being thoroughly British, have nothing whatever to do with this reviewer’s life, and are therefore of no interest to him. I would have liked the memoir to have a more American feel to it. Finally, there is the book’s cover, which shows the top half of Mr. Cleese’s homely face (including part of his mustache, and I have never liked mustaches), and in particular his eyes, veritably popping out in a look of astonishment, though why he should be astonished is a mystery to me, since it was most certainly his idea to write the thing. All of this occurs against a white background, indicating the emptiness within. To top it off, the author’s name is writ large in letters of gold, as if he thinks himself royalty, an amusing bit of unintended irony since he made his bones by skewering the blue-blooded toffs in charge of shabby, merrie olde England.
Those are all of the reasons why you should not bother to buy Mr. Cleese’s memoir. If, however, you choose to disregard my advice, I will grudgingly admit that there are many passages in the book to delight readers who possess low standards and questionable taste.
John Cleese was born in 1939 in the small village of Uphill near the seaside of Southwestern England. Upon his debut at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Weston-super Mare, he learned the basic cruelty at the core of all humor when taunted for his surname by classmates who chanted “Chee-eese! Chee-eese!” Quickly growing to become the tallest boy in his form, and also the skinniest, he was tutored in acerbity by masters who bestowed upon him such epithets as “a prominent citizen” and “six feet of chewed string.” The author’s account of his childhood and adolescence is especially vivid, including a portrait of his rather eccentric and quintessentially British parents. His mother was gripped by so many anxieties and fears that young Cleese often joked that she suffered from “omniphobia.” Experiencing “the cosmos as one vast, limitless booby trap” forced her to concentrate only upon those matters pertaining to the avoidance of such traps, to the detriment of her general knowledge. Once, after hearing the name Mary, Queen of Scots, she asked her son who it was. When he informed her that Mary had been a Glaswegian darts champion killed in the blitz, she said, “What a shame.” Cleese senior, a “decent chap” who sold insurance, was also a worrier, mostly about finances. Although the family lived comfortably, he would purchase and then cheerfully extol “stylish Yugoslavian sports jackets, or top-class Libyan shoes, or premier quality Albanian ham that he had bought knowing full well that they would soon lose shape, or prove unwearable, or taste very odd indeed.”
Mr. Cleese’s talent for vitriolic portraiture in prose enlivens every chapter of his memoir. Early on he describes his maternal grandfather as a “red-faced bully” and “eminent coward” whose hobby was writing anonymous poison-pen letters. His summings-up of people are masterfully compact, as when he takes to task Malcom Muggeridge’s wife Kitty, who wrote that David Frost (whom Cleese greatly admires) “rose without a trace.” Cleese points out the disparity between Frost’s career and that of his critic’s, and advises the reader to “Look her up online if you have a spare twenty seconds.” But he can also be generous with praise, singling out not only Frost but others such as Peter Sellers and his Python cohorts for their talent and breadth of spirit.
Mr. Cleese has a way with an anecdote. His book is filled with amusing and instructive events he has witnessed or heard of, each rendered with the depth and detail employed by a skillful writer in full command of his craft. Here is one about Peter Cook, who, while waiting for a table at a restaurant, overhears a “big-shot local politician” upset that he, too, must wait. The politician shouts, “Do you know who I am? Do you have any idea who I am?” Cook steps forward and says, “Does anyone know who this man is? Can anyone help this poor man? He’s forgotten who he is…”
So, Anyway… succeeds primarily because of its humor. Mr. Cleese is funny on the page. One can hear()that familiar voice, known for bellowing, “Right!” followed by a dressing-down. But there is more to this book than laughs. Cleese’s remembrances are often tender. He is well-read, and despite his sniffings at the English school system, his education does him proud, as shown by the effortless weaving into his narrative of references to and stories about all kinds of people and places and things, including Auberon Waugh, H.G Wells, Psychopathia Sexualis, Lady Gaga, Venezuelan coming-of-age novels, and the history of cod fishing. I may be confusing those last four with gleanings from other books, but never mind.
Mr. Cleese is on point when musing about what it means to be a gentleman, the qualities of which include courtesy, grace, restraint, self-effacement, and other attributes “that would disqualify one forever from employment by the Daily Mail.” He cites as an example of gentlemanliness a story about “guests at royal banquets who had picked up the ‘wrong’ fork, whereupon the King had done likewise to avoid embarrassing them.” This put me in mind of our reigning culture of vulgar self-promotion and rude behaviors, and made me yearn for the creation of a worldwide Ministry of Good Manners, with Mr. Cleese in charge.
I suppose it is apparent by now that I have been compelled to doff the threadbare garments of the scowling Mr. Fawlty, and say what I really think about So, Anyway… A gentleman, Mr. Cleese would be embarrassed by continued fawning, so I will conclude forthwith by admitting that his book caused me to laugh out loud on()many occasions, and left me feeling warm and treacly in spite of my general peevishness. Well done, sir!
So, Anyway... by John Cleese
Crown Publishing Group, 2014
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.