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Author Archive | Jon Rieley-Goddard

Raymond Chandler’s *The Big Sleep* puts me in wide-awake mode

our cat bellaI cannot remember how many times that I have read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, but I know it has to be at least three.

rereading logoTo borrow a phrase from a fine modern theologian (Marcus Borg), it is like I am meeting this book again for the first time.

raymond chandler picI have been reading, and rereading, Chandler since I was a young man, and suffice it to say that one of the two words in that phrase young man, and one only, continues to describe me.

I figure my first reading was a mass market paperback, and then one or two more in trade paperback formats.

Make it three times.

When I sat down a few days ago to reread The Big Sleep, I recognized some of the plot details, the character Bernie Ohls, and the two crazy-wild Sternwood sisters.

And Philip Marlowe. Him I recall right well.

However, the flourishes of language and the finer points of the story came to me like snow on an outstretched tongue.

You well might ask me why I read a book, and read it again, and again, but isn’t it obvious?

Not really.

I reread books to glean insights into the craft of the writer, and in the case of a writer like Chandler, whom I owe a debt of gratitude, I also reread for the sheer and surpassing joy of seeing and hearing Language at Play like angels with pens.

What I take away like a thief in the night

The woman withdrew her gaze from some distant mountain peak. Her small firm chin turned slowly. Her eyes were the blue of mountain lakes. Overhead the rain still pounded, with a remote sound, as if it was somebody else’s rain.

 

Well, when I woke up this morning, I must have had someone else’s blues.

I swear I don’t know why.

My wife called me and said I got two checks in the mail I got a refund on my union dues.

When I pull my hands out of my pockets, I come up with a fistful of hundred dollar bills.

But when I woke up this morning, I must have had someone else’s blues.

Do you recognize the first quote?

It’s from the big finish of The Big Sleep.

Do you recognize the second quote?

It’s my mangled version of a favorite blues song.

The point?

I can appreciate, and I can copy, and I can mimic great writing, but in the end I am on my own, and reading, rereading, listening, borrowing, and stealing are ways of marking time between seated sessions at the keyboard.

What I have learned over the years from Chandler is that a novel that features a detective is vastly different from a detective novel, just like The Collected Letters of E.B. White is vastly different from Charlotte’s Web. Just like a series of books about a set cast of characters, even a fine series like Christopher Fowler’s titles concerning the Peculiar Crimes Unit, is not anything like the loosely connected novels of Chandler, whose glue is called Marlowe and whose pages stick to your mind like thoughts and feelings from on high.

As Robert Frost says, One can do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Would I remember if Frost had said, instead, that one can do worse than be a poet?

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About this series I call #rereading

I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.

However, the flow of books in and money out has finally brought me to a peaceful truce with my mania.

I have not bought a book for many weeks, and I intend to stay this course.

I have stopped mindlessly buying books, which means that I am free to read the books that I have on hand. For as long as I can remember, I have impulsively dreamed up research plans and purchased the books I imagined that I would need. Such dreaming is the work of a moment, and with the help of Amazon and single-click fulfillment, I have a number of piles ready and waiting for my attention.

Trouble is, I have been far better at the dreaming than the reading, like those who live to sleep.

A note on #rereading: Since my dreaming about these book projects revolves around moving from what I know to what I want to know, it is accurate to stress the re- part of the reading. Also, I like the idea of meeting books again for the first time.

Take your pick.

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A word about #rereading (a new series)

our cat bella logo

I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.

rereading logoHowever, the flow of books in and money out has finally brought me to a peaceful truce with my mania.

I have not bought a book for six weeks, and I intend to stay this course.

I have stopped buying books, which means that I am free to read the books that I have on hand. For as long as I can remember, I have impulsively dreamed up research plans and purchased the books I imagined that I would need. Such dreaming is the work of a moment, and with the help of Amazon and single-click fulfillment, I have a number of piles ready and waiting for my attention.

Trouble is, I have been far better at the dreaming than the reading, like those who live to sleep.

  • My first project, in a series I’m calling #rereading, is the works of Raymond Chandler AKA Philip Marlowe. The first post in that series [Here’s Why Chandler] follows this post.

A note on #rereading: Since my dreaming about these book projects revolves around moving from what I know to what I want to know, it is accurate to stress the re- part of the reading. Also, I like the idea of meeting books again for the first time.

Take your pick.

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Here’s why Chandler

our cat bella logoThe first order of business is a brief examination of the why question.

rereading logoWhy Raymond Chandler.

I like the reason that Ed Asner gave Mary Tyler Moore. He picked up a copy of Chandler’s short stories and read her the first paragraph of Red Winds —

raymond chandler picThere was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

That, Asner tells Moore, is good writing.

Something to that effect.

Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.

I intent to study not only Chandler’s neck but his nouns and verbs, his similes, his characters and plots, and anything else that moves on the mean streets of Chandler’s enduring genius.

In two nights of reading, I am halfway through The Big Sleep. I have made light pencil ticks next to wonderful writing that I do not remember from previous visits to Chandler —

The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.

• • •

Whoever had done it [dragged a body out the door] had meant business. Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.

• • •

Hair like steel wool grew far back on his head and gave him a great deal of domed brown forehead that might at a careless glance have seemed a dwelling place for brains.

Those are fine examples of Chandler’s writing, but this one stands out for me as the best of the bunch so far —

So she giggled. Very cute. The giggles got louder and ran around the corners of the room like rats behind the wainscoting.

By the time we get the simile, the giggles are already growing little feet and exchanging street names. Anyone, like a writer with his thinking cap on, can write similes. Chandler, it feels like to me, begets them.

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A book about maps is something like a book about books – in a lover’s eyes

our cat bella logoIt seems to be a reasonable thing to say that a book about maps is something like a book about books.

I can think of two reasons for this –

  • Maps, and books, guide us to places that we cannot find otherwise.
  • I like books, and I like maps. It follows that I like books about books and also that I should, and do, like books about maps.

jon books in reviewThe book in question is a recent hardcover issue titled On the Map, by Simon Garfield, a British author. The subtitle is A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks.

My brother would like this book.

My brother likes maps, and that is why I do, too. He taught me how to read topographic maps where we were kids. I can look at a flat topo map and imagine a world of three dimensions.

Nothing to it, once you understand contour intervals.

It’s like those who can not only read a musical score but also hear the piece in its full richness.

That sounds difficult, to me.

The map thing, though? That is second nature.

Garfield takes maps from their beginnings to the early years of the 21 century. The book, however, is not a textbook.

It is an intelligent book about maps, for map lovers.

on the map coverI appreciate that Garfield did not mine a vein of multiple magazine articles sprinkled over a number of years and call it a book. He wrote the On the Map as a piece, in a single effort. In a global fashion, if you will.

If you enjoy looking at maps, you will enjoy looking at On the Map.

Garfield in 445 pages of photos and text never says that “the map is not the territory.” For that alone, he deserves your patronage.

His style is workmanlike and helpful at all points, with an occasional and pleasing simile or similar flourish, such as this one –

There is, of course, still quite a lot to be said for getting lost.

Being British, Garfield does use the phrase spot on more than once, which he is welcome to do. My wife, however, is under orders to beat me senseless with a shovel if I ever write that phrase even once. Ever (except when my use of the phrase is meant to be derisive).

For me, it’s out damned spot.

Ya know?

If maps are not of interest to you, you can try Garfield’s penultimate title, Just My Type, an examination of type fonts. My copy is on my on-deck pile. Perched atop Team of Rivals like a top hat.

And my wife has no instructions concerning my occasional use of a word such as penultimate.

  • Simon Garfield’s book are available at Amazon.
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Who holds this book also holds a man – Joe Queenan’s *One for the Books*

our cat bella logoSomewhere along the way, and way back when, Walt Whitman wrote something like, “Who holds this book holds a man.” If memory serves, it was in Leaves of Grass.

Googling the phrase shows me to be half-correct. Accurate as to the poem, but inaccurate as to the quote. What Whitman sez is, “This is no book,/Who touches this, touches a man.”

jon books in review 150xOnce again, Memory serves up Correspondences.

And Google keeps me honest, one more time.

After reading One for the Books, by Joe Queenan, that quote came to mind in its slightly mangled form as descriptive of holding up, and reading, this author.

Queenan is easily more angry than I am, and that is not an easy thing to achieve. If you have read his response to his alcoholic father’s 12-Step apology for any harm he might have done to his son, which if memory serves ran in Time magazine’s endpaper essay spot several years ago, (and seems to appear in one of his memoires, Closing Time),  you know that this guy is not serene – though he may be clean.

I remember being grateful that Queenan had the guts to stick his father’s apology sideways where the sun don’t shine. Many of us need that kind of permission in dealing with toxic parents. I also reflected on my sense of what goes around comes around. Still, I admired Queenan’s rage and appreciated its full expression.

one for the books coverQueenan’s latest book give you two things –

  • A full sense if who this writer is.
  • A selection of finely written pieces from a lover of books, particularly palpable books in print on paper (though you can, oddly enough, buy the book  for your Kindle).

As a fairly typical liberal, I believe that reading writers like Queenan can be a timely correction of the excesses my cohort is heir to and prone, to, too. I don’t listen when the devil quotes scripture, but I do pay attention when a writer who is his own free thinker has something to say that is worth reading.

I even paid full price for the privilege. In hardcover. My copy will sit beside my other books on books.

One for the Books has only fresh material, which I am grateful for. If the copyright page had cited previous publication of parts of the whole, I would have given the book a miss. If I want warmed-over stuff, my memory will suffice for that.

Good job, Joe.

  • Queenan’s many books are available on Amazon.
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Here is another book about books – when space is and isn’t a problem

our cat bellaFor those of us who buy, beg, borrow, or steal books, space is not a problem. We simply find ways to add to our stacks.

As is the case with those who have personality disorders, we have no problem, but others especially spouses, parents, or roomies may very well have a problem with our zeal for the word on the page, stacked randomly by volume, to the ceiling (and beyond, frankly, if we could but figure out the mechanics).

The divide is between maniacs and neurotics. Right?

jon books in review 150xLately, I have enjoyed a small-format hardcover (The Overlook Press, 2012) concerning private libraries, Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet (translated from the French by James Salter).

From the time my brother would read a book given to him as a gift and leave it behind when he returned to college, thus adding to my budding adolescent collection of books, I have been a buyer and forager of books as well as a reader.

I would borrow books from mom and tools from dad, and the borrowing was permanent unless one of us complained.

I never did.

When I was young and mobile, I would load all my belongings in the back of my old pickup and move to a new place. Boxes of books were the bulk of the load.

When I moved across the country to attend seminary, quitting a good job and jettisoning most of my belongings, 24 boxes of books went ahead of me by parcel post. I found out that I was notorious, though not at all popular, when I arrived a week or so later, by car.

I was the nut who sent all those books that overwhelmed the closet-sized seminary mail room.

bookshelvesFor most of my reading, for a very long time, I bought trade paperbacks (loved the razor-sharp edges), shunned mass market paperbacks (the cheap ink made my eyes itch), and rarely bought hardcovers (because of the price differential). All that changed when I took up the selling of used books. I suddenly had a huge supply of hardcover books costing $1 each at library sales. I had to expand my shelve space. Using a simple design that is based on No. 2 pine boards 1 inch thick and four inches wide (well, ¾ by 3 ½ in finished size), I had almost enough shelf space to accommodate my horde. For the space of a day, anyway. When I ran out of wall space for shelves, the piles began to grow.

That’s just a bit of my story as a reader who hangs on to what he reads and who buys books, frequently, on a whim. I claim 3,000 volumes, but who’s counting?

My spouse, maybe?

phantom of the bookshelves djBonnet has many, many more books than that, and a system for keeping track of them, and no print-generated piles on the floor, one presumes.

That, however, is not the point.

If you love to read about books as books, this slim volume and the slightly dazed book person behind the writing will please you. His thoughts on the differences between collectors and accumulators is worth the cost of admission. And I was excited to take from his bibliography a list of novels new to me that include personal libraries prominently in their plots.

Now I am getting ready to prune my books by a factor of X, since I no longer sell used books online and have about 1,200 volumes to sort. One pile for donations and one pile for keepers.

The promise of empty shelves lures me on.

  •  Phantoms on the Bookshelves is available as a hardcover or Kindle file from Amazon.

 

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From the Dept. of Self-Promotion

our cat belladaily double coverJon Rieley-Goddard, co-pastor, will do a reading from his newly published second novel, The Double Daily Double Murders, on Sunday, Dec. 16, at the Environmental Cottage of Riverside-Salem United Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ, on Grand Island, New York.

Jon read from his first novel, The Mystery Man Murders, last December after the book came out. Copies of both novels, the first two titles in a series called Grimoire – The Bros Grim Breakfast Serial – a story in pieces, will be on sale for $10 per copy in trade paperback.

Themes in the books include the nature of public life, trust vs. truth, and the spy in each one of us.

We meet from 4 to 6 p.m. Sundays, at the Environmental Cottage, Riverside-Salem UCC/DC, 3449 W. River Rd., Grand Island, New York.

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Three book lovers’ books

our cat bellaMention Paris in the title, and I probably will buy the book. That’s a promise.

The word book itself will get my attention.

jon books in review 150xDescribe a bookshop of vast proportions, with a resident population of birds flying in the dusty distance, with shelves towering over my head, and you will be my friend forever.

Three authors whom I have read lately have given me the book fantasies that I so much appreciate –

  • In A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness, the plot moves on the discovery and concealment of a manuscript that will either unite or destroy a world of witches, vampires, daemons, and warmbloods that the writer builds before our eyes.
  • In the latest book available in English translation by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Prisoner of Heaven, that vast bookshop with the dust, the birds, and the book with your name on it makes another appearance, to give me dreams of the beauty of the word, on the page, crowded together on the shelf.
  • In a first novel for book folk, Robin Sloan, In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, sticks that magical realism of the book on the shelf and gets a perfect score of 10.

I have recently sung the praises of the two books in a trilogy promised by Deborah Harkness. I have reveled in the third book in English from Zafon, who writes in Spanish, about Barcelona, and sets his story in a bookshop, with an even more amazing bookshop lurking on the edge of the reality of the story – a bookshop where you can buy but one book and only once. That is praise and promise enough for me. When it comes to the offerings of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, I am a big fan.

penumbra picHowever, in this review I wish to focus on the third of the book lovers I am considering. Robin Sloan has produced a first novel of perfect pitch. The characters satisfy, the plot grabs. Of the three writers in question, this one has the least of magical realism in his approach, but his story would not fly if he had not earned his wings in understanding the magic of stories that turn on the mystery and power of books on the shelf.

Mr. Penumbra himself, halfway between the dawn and the dusk, on a cloudy day of diffuse light, runs a bookshop in San Francisco that has shelves of truly towering size, and books that defy readers who lack the inside knowledge of how to unlock their secrets.

The hero of the story, Clay Jannon, badly needs some magic in his life, to get him going on a career path. What he secures, in becoming the graveyard shift clerk in the 24-Hour Bookstore, proves to be not just something to keep the pot boiling but also a path to a future bright with promise.

On Clay’s way from misery to mastery, there is this geeky girl who works for Google; Clay’s best friend, a dot com millionaire; and Clay’s two housemates, who bring quirky and necessary skills to the table.

If you like books about books on the shelf, you will love this permutation.

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Rules and/or tools for the language: Being right vs. being in relationship

our cat bellaIn reading The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary by David Skinner, with attention to the Webster’s III dictionary that is the subject of The Story of Ain’t, I have been musing on the difference between a labyrinth and a maze.jon books in review 150x

A labyrinth, I know from personal experience, is a geometric path meant to promote an attitude of prayer and meditation.

A maze, I know from various depictions in movies such as The Shining, is a random set of paths meant to frustrate you to the point of angry prayers of the I give up, so help me sort.

The distinction between labyrinth and maze, in itself, is a contrast worthy of attention, but a related and larger issue has been bothering me for some time — the question of whether language is best-served, and whether we as users of language are best-served, by adherence to rules that govern our  use of words or by celebration of diversity that sees words as tools in our service.

What happens when each person is the arbiter of standard usage?

How importance is it that the difference between a labyrinth and a maze gets no acknowledgment in a dictionary as widely consulted as Webster’s III?

I have some thoughts.

I bounce between two poles – permissive celebration of the power and vitality of language (tools) and prescriptive grumbling about the poor state of the language (rules).

I bear inside me a lifetime of attention to the details of words. I can edit a piece of writing to conform to the conventions of standard English usage, which is for me a source of pride, a source of income, and a source of fierce protective feelings.

I want to celebrate the music of the street.

I want to distinguish between the regular beauty of a labyrinth and the maddening convolutions of the maze.

I want both rules and tools.

I want your books and my books to be free of typos and glaring inaccuracies based on simple ignorance or inattention.

I want speakers and writers to be free to communicate with me without my sneering and grumbling striking them dumb.

In sitting with these desires, I have come up with this idea –

When I write, I will make sure that my writing is the best that it can be. When I read, I will seek to find the deeper levels of intent that the writer has. If I notice typos or poor usage, by my standards, I will bracket those concerns and look for the peace hidden in the confusion. Above all, I will cease and desist in pointing out the blemishes that I see in others.

In the end, I am not worried at all about the state of language. I am concerned with the ability of each of us to communicate what is most dear, in a way that others can apprehend, appreciate, and respond to.

I will split infinitives, I will make mistakes, I will be one who stands with real people and seeks to understand their strange and wonderful songs.

I ain’t no elitist. I ain’t no elitist. I ain’t no elitist.

You know what I mean.

I would rather be in relationship than right.

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The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary by David Skinner is available in hardcover on Amazon. As is Webster’s III.

Note: I do not embed any link to an associate account when I link to books on Amazon or anywhere else.

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Christian vampires, clueless witches, and those bleeping lil daemons

our cat bellajon books in review 150xI came to Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness by my usual path. A year ago, I bought a book that caught my magpie eye at the local Barnes and Noble, A Discovery of Witches, also by Deborah Harkness.

It was a near thing.

deborah harkness dj picI noticed the author photo was of a pleasing-seeming woman of a certain age.

I noticed that the book is the author’s first work of fiction and the first of a promised All Souls trilogy.

So far, good and better.

I noticed my personal associations with other authors of the genre as I imagined it and almost put the book down.

Historical fiction usually does not interest me.

However, I do like reading about witches, and vampires, and I did like the fact that books and libraries figure strongly in the story. I find it hard to pass up books about bookshops and libraries, and manuscripts.

So I bit.

Glad that I did.

two books in seriesThe  books pair —

  • … a professor who spends a lot of her time with rare manuscripts …
  • … with a scientist with an odd interest in genetics.

She is a witch. He is a vampire. They come together like oil and water. In this world, vampires can be Christian, witches can be clueless about their spells and gifts, and daemons exist to keep everyone in an uproar worthy of any penny-ante Borderline Personality type. The two books in the trilogy that are currently available have 600-plus pages apiece of pleasure for anyone who follows such matters.

Witch and vampire unite in every imaginable way, to save the world as they know it and all the creatures together. Plus us warmbloods.

I recommend starting from the top, with the first title. I do this as often as feasible (I seek first edition hardcovers with dust jacket intact, if I can afford the result. You may not be as picky.  Important thing is to read and enjoy.)

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 Next (from my magpie eye): Books about books, bookstores, typography, and the plural of codex (gotta Google that) – comparing and contrasting Deborah Harkness, Robin Sloan, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

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A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness, are available on Amazon.  The first book in the series is available for Kindle and as a hardcover or paperback. The second book, newly released, is available for Kindle and as a hardcover.

(Note: I do not embed any link to an associate account when I link to books on Amazon or anywhere else.)

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