Thursday, April 26, 2012

2012: The Year of the Forgotten Book?

The recent announcement that this year's Pulitzer Prize fiction committee has declined to grant a winner this year left me feeling quite angered. In an era when the arts are being threatened by cuts, and when serious fiction seems to be ignored in favour of trends, people need to be motivated to read, and the Pulitzer, among other popular prizes, normally helps generate excitement in literature. This act sends a number of uninspiring messages to the public, most prominently that 2012 has given us plenty of material for future articles on "forgotten books." I was infinitely pleased to see Ann Patchett's article in The New York Times, "And the Winner Isn't...", which I found not only thoughtful but quite impassioned, and her article made me more excited about this past year's American fiction than the entire industry known as Pulitzer.

Thoughts lead to thoughts lead to thoughts, and among the many thoughts blaring noisily in my head is the idea that perhaps there might have been a year more deserving of not having a prize presented. Every year every single award bestowed can lure appropriate criticism for or against the selection, and while I disagree with many (most) award choices, the winners themselves are not generally utterly undeserving. My favourite example is the awarding of the Man Booker Prize to Ian McEwan for his satire Amsterdam. I admire McEwan's work, but there were far better books that year, and McEwan himself wrote FAR better books, including Black Dogs, Enduring Love and Atonement. It doesn't make the book undeserving, however, and there is certainly a large divergence between the tastes of prize judges and the reasons they select any particular book. Prizes are notorious also in that winners are frequently the result of a compromise between judges. Three judges have each their single favourite, but since their own tastes and selection logic differ vastly from one another, they agree to go with the fourth book, which, while nobody's favourite, is a safe bet, and at least this way they can all stop bickering and go home to their families.

My vote for the year the Pulitzer board should have declared no award is 1975. The award recipient that has always boggled my senses is Michael Shaara'a The Killer Angels. I understand that the novel represents much of the Pulitzer's mandate (yet doesn't David Foster Wallace's The Pale King in its own right?), and I also understand the novel has led historians to re-examine the roles of certain players in the Battle of Gettysburg. This is wonderful for historians and Civil War enthusiasts, but not necessarily for literature. The selection committee was likely influenced by the fact that there was a resurgence in interest in the American Civil War in the early 1970s, not too long after the event's centennial, and likely the Pulitzer board has been waiting a long time for the next Red Badge of Courage.

The Killer Angels was written by a struggling pulp writer after visiting the historic Gettysburg site. The novel is somewhat passionate, yet it is written as though it were for a small-time pulp rag of the 1960s. The author's sentiments are clear, without any objectivity toward character and events, except perhaps for the detailed military stratagem. Much of the novel is detailed fighting, which got tired early on. The novel lacks proper pacing, developed characters (regardless that its peopled by historical figures alongside the fictional) and most importantly it lacks good writing.

Among notable 1974 American fiction we have Joseph Heller's Something Happened, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, Peter Benchley's Jaws, and the small press Arkham House posthumous collection of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Collected Ghost Stories. There were many more, of course.

Let me know what year you think the Pulitzer, or any other major fiction award, should have abstained from selecting a winner.

For a list of other books forgotten this week by Pulitzer, and most others, do yourself a favour and visit Patti Abbot's site.

[Edit: someone reminded me that Richard Adams is British, and hence Shardik is not a "notable American fiction." Thanks for the note.]

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Speed Reading: Part One in a Series

First, some quotes by the unique Steven Wright.
  • "I just got out of the hospital. I was in a speed reading accident. I hit a bookmark and flew across the room."
  • "I took a course in speed waiting. Now I can wait an hour in only ten minutes."
  • "I took a course in speed reading. Then I got Reader's Digest on microfilm. By the time I got the machine set up I was done."

I've always been a slow reader. Not due to a lack of focus or that I'd rather be doing something other than reading. In fact, I'm more than happy to spend a day with a few good books and articles, and my retention rate is, I've recently learned, well above average. My problem is subvocalization. Essentially, when I read (and when I write, normally long-hand) my brain pronounces the syllables of each word. This is a habit left behind from early reading practice which apparently causes me to lose 0.2 seconds for every word that read, totalling three to four hours for each book. Why have I, now in my thirties, managed to retain early reading habits? I believe it's because as a child I was learning three languages simultaneously, and attended kindergarten in my third language.

I was twelve when I first noticed that I was a slow reader. My grade seven English teacher assigned the class Josephine Tay's classic mystery novel The Franchise Affair. We were instructed to begin that class with a half hour or so of silent reading. My friend David sat to my right, both of us reading quietly along, until, being a friend and undoubtedly from pure concern, turned to me and whispered, "Geez you're a slow reader! I'm already on page so-and-so." As I was a mature twelve year-old, I replied without hesitation, "Yeah me too, I just needed to flip back to double-check something." Well, for the rest of that silent reading period I watched David as he flipped from page to page to page, seemingly engrossed in the mystery, whereas I was only trying to keep up with him, skimming lines and skipping paragraph, and of course without a clue what was going on in the text. (This, by the way, prejudiced me towards the book and its author for years to come, though I do plan to re-read it and give it a fair chance.)

Over the years I've always been frustrated with the rate of my reading. I have two English degrees, have published books reviews as well as my own fiction, participated in literary seminars, workshops, conferences and so forth, and I always feel I am the least widely read individual present. While doing my graduate work, with the incredible number of novels and theoretical texts we had to consume weekly, I was not always able to keep up and left many texts only partially read.

Several times I've considered taking courses and have looked into ones offered through the university I work at, but the price is always steep and I've stubbornly told myself that I could be a self-taught average reader. How idealistic and utterly deluded. Recently, however, I was given the opportunity to enroll in an online speed reading course and quickly jumped at the chance. Inexpensive compared to the courses I'd previously encountered, and with the belief that life is short so the time devoted will be time gained, I promptly registered.

The course is offered through the site, begun by a certain Grzegorz Grzegorcyk, an apparent speed-reading instructor who has also published a book on the craft. The course promises a significant increase in not only reading speed, but also in comprehension. I have begun the lessons yesterday and will be tracking my progress on this site.

Having completed my first lesson, I have discovered the following:
  • I read 187 words per minute, and anything between 150 to 200 is considered "slow" (no term is offered for those who read less than 150).
  • My comprehension, on the other hand, is 70%, while the average person falls between 50-60%.

The lessons are not simple and can be irritating, but I have lain my faith in Mr. G.'s system and will follow his plans blindly, hopefully for my benefit.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Anthony Berkeley: Trial and Error (1937)

Berkeley, Anthony, Trial and Error, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1937
______, Trial and Error, New York: Dell Books (Great Mystery Library), September 1967. 316 pp (my edition, below right)
______, Trial and Error, London: House of Stratus, 2001. 396 pp (bottom left)

For other Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's pattinase.

Trial and Error at Goodreads
Martin Edwards's informative article on Anthony Berkeley Cox

Rating: 8/10

Its excellent premise is what attracted me to Anthony Berkeley's original, innovative and highly entertaining Trial and Error. Mild-mannered Lawrence Butterfield Todhunter learns that due to an aggressive aneurism he doesn't have much time left on this earth. Wanting to commit a great, humanitarian act before he goes, he throws a dinner party and tosses out a hypothetical, which leads nearly everyone to declare that great can be achieved through murder, so long as the victim is deserving of death. Hence Todhunter decides that before his impending doom he must seek out an appropriate victim and commit this terrible act.

Anthony Berkeley's novel has been out of print for some time, since the late 1960s it appears, with the exception of a small print run in 2001 by House of Stratus. This is a terrible shame because Trial and Error is an excellent read, a unique mystery that reads almost like an epic novel as it spans various significant episodes, each one a small book on its own, from Todhunter's seeking the perfect victim to the murder itself and its eventual trial. The book is split into five parts, each part dealing with a substantial leg in Todhunter's journey. There are a number of twists and I won't reveal anything more about the central plot.

The novel also boasts great characters, dialogue and attention to detail that is simply riveting. The world Berkeley manages to create is very real, and the geography of the various UK locations are clear; we always know where we are and where the settings lie in relation to one another. Moreover, the novel is filled with a good deal of humour despite its premise and its incessant focus on death. Yet what elevates Trial and Error from a good British mystery to a great novel is its notions of absurdity. Throughout the novel is a pervasive sense that despite the high dramatic aspects of life, both selfish and altruistic actions are governed by nothing more than chance; no matter how we strive for control the idea that we can influence destiny, our own or someone else's, is ridiculous. It is clear that the universe has its plans and the minutest element can thrust and thwart our plans in any seemingly random direction. And in the final scene even these ideas are challenged, as Berkeley twists the entire story into something altogether different.

Trial and Error is additionally a success due to its innocuous protagonist. Lawrence Todhunter is barely a character, a simple man with simple ideas, impressionable and easily influenced, harmless in every dimension of his being. While it initially appears that such a character would undoubtedly fail in maintaining interest in any kind of novel, Todhunter succeeds in growing on the reader, not necessarily through his altruism, but through his determination and particularly because he does indeed transform. Not static at all, this Todhunter. Berkeley also risks creating an over-sentimental character, particularly as he is nearing death, and yet does a wonderful job in being direct with his story and avoiding overblown sentimentality.

The novel's only weak point is at the early stage of the trial, when Berkeley feels the need to restate details which the reader is already familiar with. This portion of the work suffers a little in its pacing, but once the cross-examination begins, the writing, particularly the dialogue, is so riveting that we nearly forget the slow progress of the previous thirty or so pages.

Anthony Berkeley's Trial and Error is a rare find that is absolutely worth seeking out.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Casual Shorts 8: Robert Arthur, "The Aggravation of Elmer" (1955)

Arthur, Robert, "The Aggravation of Elmer"

Gold, H.L., editor, Galaxy Science Fiction, Galaxy Publishing Corporation, May 1955. pp 43-49

Robert Arthur is known primarily as the creator and author of ten of the early books for the Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators series of books first published in 1964. His other great achievement is ghost-editing a number of excellent anthologies for Random House from 1957 to 1971. These anthologies were attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, who had nothing to do with the books aside from lending his name to the series. In the 1960s the popular anthologies were expanded by Random House to include a number of "Alfred Hitchcock" anthologies for young readers, such as Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery (1962) and Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Spellbinders in Suspense (1967).

Yet Robert Arthur was actually quite a prolific genre short story writer. While he write mysteries and science fiction shorts, his works were primarily fantastic in nature, involving witches, ghosts, genies and inexplicable scientific inventions. His stories are generally short and humourous in tone, and have often been reprinted in fantastic anthologies for younger readers, including many of his own for Random House. Since he was so prolific and since only two full-fledged Robert Arthur collections were ever published (Ghosts and More Ghosts in 1963, and Mystery and More Mystery in 1966), many of his stories have never been reprinted, and this includes his 1955 science fiction comedy "The Aggravation of Elmer."

On a hot day amid unbelievable traffic Bill takes his wife Marge and their neighbours' daughter Doreen to his electronics shop, which is thankfully air-conditioned. And where Bill can watch the first ever baseball game televised in colour ("the Giants versus the Dodgers"). Doreen carries with her a hatbox, claiming that inside it is "an unhappy genie." It turns out that Doreen's thirteen year-old cousin from South America is a fantastic inventor, having built for himself a colour television set larger than Bill's. Moreover, Elmer believes grown-ups are stupid and that "silly-zation" is doomed.

The story is overall quite enjoyable, and while genre humour of the 1950s is more often irritating than actually humourous, it works well here. The play on words and particularly Bill's unsympathetic attitude make for a good read: "I gave [Doreen] a foolish grin. I wanted Marge to get the idea I was really a family man at heart." The ending is a play on words with the title, and is unpredictable. What makes the story work well is that the setting and situations are all linked closely with the main idea, unlike with "Killerbot!" (the article I posted earlier this morning).

The illustration is by CAVAT, and I find Doreen is a little too devilish for the purely innocent character that she is. Perhaps this is just as Bill sees her?

Casual Shorts 7: Dean R. Koontz, Killerbot (1969)


  • Pohl, Frederik, editor, Galaxy Science Fiction, Galaxy Publications, May 1969. pp 85-96
  • Koontz, Dean R., Dark of the Woods / Soft Come the Dragons (as "A Season for Freedom"), November 1970. pp 85-97
  • Hoskins, Robert, editor, The Future Now: Saving Tomorrow (as "A Season for Freedom"), Fawcett Crest, 1977. pp 146-159
Rating: 3/10

Best-selling horror author Dean R. Koontz began his writing career with a surprisingly long list of silly science fiction novels, often published under the pen-name Deanna Dwyer. With titles such as Beastchild (1970) and Anti-Man (1970), I am not surprised that they haven't been rolling off the printing presses since their initial publication. Some of his early novels were published as part of the series of Ace Double Books which combined two shorter novels by unknowns in order to tempt better sales. Koontz's first, Star Quest (1968) was published alongside a title that was dated even then, Doom of the Green Planet, written by wholly forgotten (if ever known) author Emil Petaja.

The year after it was first published in Galaxy, Koontz's short story "Killerbot!" was re-titled "A Season for Freedom" and included in a Koontz Ace Double, one side of which was his novel Dark of the Woods (never reprinted), and the other a collection titled Soft Come the Dragon which included the reprint. "A Season for Freedom" last saw print in a paperback anthology edited by Robert Hoskins, idealistically titled The Future Now: Saving Tomorrow. This anthology, while mostly forgotten, gave Koontz a fair amount of exposure as he was included among established science fiction authors such as Ursula K. Leguin, Isaac Asimov, Pooul Anderson and 1969 Galaxy editor Frederik Pohl.

Normally when a story by a popular author hasn't seen print since the mid-1970s, it's often telling of the story's dated theme or naive idealism. Surprisingly though, "Killerbot!" is not a terrible story, and is even somewhat interesting. Unlike many of Koontz's works, this one has a point. Don't get me wrong: while not terrible it's certainly not a good story either.

Somewhere in an undefined future Euro and Noramer are at war. Euro has changed the face of the war by creating killerbots: humans who have been transformed into killing machines, with a limb or breast removed and replaced with a weapon, either a dart or a gun. Phil Jacobs is called in to take down a bot that has appeared in a downtown building, and he soon realizes this machine is different. For one thing it has both bullets and darts, and for another it appears to be sentient.

The bulk of the story deals with Jacobs and his men trying to take the bot down, and only at the end, following a little twist, are we given a didactic speech along the lines of what have we done to ourselves. The story would have worked better had it dedicated more space to these future nations, and we could learn about the society a little. There are some distracting technological inconsistencies, as humanity has the ability to build cyborgs as well as cars that respond to fingerprints and are self-driven, yet buildings and furnishings are all of wood and concrete and telephones sit in their cozy cradles. I do like the title "Killerbot!" (though would do away with the exclamation mark), as it's evocative and frightening (though as evocative or frightening as the title of his earlier story "The Kittens"). The story was re-titled "A Season of Freedom" likely in order to generate better balance between adventure and social commentary, which it doesn't. In fact, the social commentary sticks out so much that I wonder if Galaxy editor Frederik Pohl was partially responsible for the additional emphasis.

Finally, in line with my review of Koontz's horrid novel Twilight Eyes, a novel that made me swear I'll never read another Koontz book again, I will take a moment to poke at a few sentences. First there's "...Cullen said, anxiety riding his voice with keen spurs." To add to the technological confusion, we have have metaphors evoking the old west. And then there's ... but I can go on too long.

A final note: the story has no accompanying illustration. (Personally I would've liked to see the darts exploding from the woman's breasts.)

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