Thursday, September 21, 2017

Blogging note -- moving to new address

Informal Inquiries will cease "publication" today, and I will be moving my erratic, impulsive, obsessive, and compulsive blogging activities to a new address:

The name of the new blog (linked above) should tell you all you need to know about the focus: Poe's tales of ratiocination (and a few of his other stories) and, of course, Poe's many descendants in the world of crime, detective, and mystery fiction. Postings will begin appearing soon, and I invite you to join me at the new address.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Maxwell Perkins -- Editor as Handmaiden

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Today is the birthday of Maxwell Perkins, the most famous American editor. He discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. His fellow editors at Scribner wanted to sign more experienced writers thinking they were a sure thing, but Perkins looked for new talent, and he struck gold.

Perkins became the model for a new kind of editor. He did much more than clean up a book for publication; he looked for a writer he believed in who still had a lot of work to do, and then nurtured the book until it reached its final form. He suggested changes to the plot, he came up with book titles, and was a friend to the writers he published. 

Perkins was not good at spelling and punctuation, and he was a very slow reader. His gift lay in spotting talent, particularly in writers who didn’t have reputations yet. He was also talented at getting those writers to respond to criticism of their work. He said that Fitzgerald was very sensitive to criticism, that “he could accept it, but as his editor you had to be sure of everything you suggested.” Hemingway was a perfectionist, and claimed to have written parts of A Farewell to Arms over 50 times. Perkins said, “Before an author destroys the natural qualities of his writing — that’s when an editor has to step in. But not a moment sooner.”

But his biggest challenge by far was Thomas Wolfe, who was a chronic over-writer who struggled to delete a page. Wolfe would write his novel Of Time and the River (1935) standing up, using the top of a refrigerator as a desk (he was 6’6’’), and then he would throw each page into a box without editing or looking at it. Perkins had to go through the mess of papers and put the pages in order, based on his best guess. Over time, they became estranged. In 2016, the movie Genius came out dramatizing their relationship, with Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe.

Later in his career, he also published Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Despite his huge success, he was a modest, idiosyncratic character who liked to stay out of the limelight. The way he thought about editing contrasts with how people thought of him. He was famous for having discovered so many important writers, but he thought editors shouldn’t draw attention to themselves for the work they did on other people’s books. He said: “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. […] An editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing."

And there is this personal postscript:

If you want to know more about Perkins and his impressive influence upon American literature in the 20th century, I highly recommend this brilliant 1978 book -- Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. It is the best book you will ever read about books, writers, and publishing. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Into My Own" by Robert Frost

First there is this poem by Robert Frost, "Into My Own":

ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day       
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track        
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

Readers who have followed my erratic blogging adventures over the years will not be surprised by this admission: I know not very much about poetry. Oh, yes, I know a little bit about figures of speech, diction, forms, meter and rhythm, rhyme schemes, and a few other aspects. However, I do not really understand why poetry exists. That must seem like an odd statement.

So, trying a different approach, let me reframe that notion into a question -- Why does poetry exist? -- and let me invite you to stop for a moment and tell me what you think about that question. I look forward to hearing from you. 

Moreover, you might want to talk about Frost's poem, "Into My Own." It deserves explication.

So, what do you think?

Friday, September 15, 2017

The final poem by Basho

Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields
                 — Matsuo Bashō

Personal Postscript: 

Death poems were a tradition in some East Asian cultures -- read more about the poetic form here -- and I cannot improve upon Basho's offering, so I will not attempt the impossible, but I will simply leave his death poem here for you to ponder.

Light the candles on Agatha's birthday cake

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of English crime novelist and playwright Agatha Christie (1890) (books by this author), the best-selling novelist of all time. Christie's books have sold more than 2 billion copies around the world and been translated into more than 103 languages.

She was born Mary Clarissa Agatha Miller in Torquay, Devon, to an upper-middle-class family. She was home-schooled by her mother until she was 16, when she was sent to school in Paris to study piano and mandolin. Her father died when she was young, which threw the family into financial upheaval. Rice pudding became a frequent meal, but Christie still described her childhood as "gloriously idle." She adored her mother, who dabbled in Unitarianism and theosophy, made her own dolls and doll furniture, made up ghost stories with her sisters and mother, and favored the nonsensical books of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. 

Christie worked as a nurse at the Torquay Hospital during World War I, learning much about the poisons that would later populate her novels. She began writing stories, mostly about spiritualism and the paranormal. She set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo and used the pen name "Monosyllaba." The book was rejected by numerous publishers. She tried again with a book called The Mysterious Affair at Styles  (1920), which featured an extravagantly mustached Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot. The book was a hit, and Christie was off and running. Hercule Poirot would be featured in more than 33 of Christie's novels, though she admitted she found Poirot "insufferable and an egocentric creep." She actually killed off Poirot in a novel titled Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, in the early 1940s, and had it stored in a bank vault to safeguard it from Nazi destruction during World War II. When the book was published in 1975, the New York Times ran Hercule Poirot's obituary on the front page. 

Agatha Christie's formula was simple: assemble eight or nine people on a snowbound train, a girls' school, or in a remote country house and add a murder. She had a strong dislike for guns, so she devised other methods to dispatch her victims, poison being the most common. In one novel, a child dies by bobbing for apples. In another, a character is electrocuted while executing a specific chess move. Christie stored a corpse with tennis rackets at a club and once had her detective squirt soapy water to subdue a murderer. She often employed red herrings and double bluffs. In one book, the killer turns out to be a dead man. In another, the killer is a child. And in another, it turns out that all 12 suspects have committed the crime, together. 

Christie created the character of Jane Marple, an elderly spinster, for the 1927 short story, "The Tuesday Night Club," which appeared in Royal Magazine. Marple appears in 12 Christie novels, including The Thirteen Problems (1932). Marple is a nosy old woman and amateur detective living in the village of St. Mary Mead. Christie said Marple was, "the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my step-grandmother's Ealing cronies — old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl."

Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap, originally written as a radio sketch in honor of Queen Mary's 80th birthday, is the world's longest running play. It was first staged in 1952 and has been running ever since. Agatha Christie was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1971 and died in 1976. Her books include Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962). 

When asked about her writing method, Christie responded, "The disappointing truth is, I haven't much method." She worked out her plots in school exercise books, making lists of victims, culprits, and MOs, and then picking the best combinations. For most of her life, she pumped out one novel per year, admitting that she often felt like "a sausage machine."

On writing, she said, "Three months seems to me to be quite reasonable to finish a book, if you can get right down to it."

And there is this personal postscript:

I've read quite a few by Christie, seen many of the Poirot and Marple mysteries on TV, and should try to read and see even more.

Now let me offer you a mystery to solve:

My favorite by Christie would be ______________________ because of the profound ethical problems at the core of the crime and the sleuth's solution.

Tell me about your favorites (and then I will fill-in-the-blank with the title of my favorite).  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Stained Glass

I apologize for some of my recent postings -- too political -- and I will henceforth try to limit myself to postings that focus upon fiction, biographies, histories, plays, and poetry. Here, one of my archived BookLoons reviews, is an example of my limited focus.

Stained Glass: A Father Dowling Mystery by Ralph order for
Stained Glass
by Ralph McInerny
Order:  USA  Can
Minotaur, 2009 (2009)
Read an Excerpt
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Having published twenty-eight Father Dowling mysteries, half a dozen Andrew Broom mysteries, a dozen other mysteries set at the University of Notre Dame, and a distinguished body of nonfiction, prolific author Ralph McInerny has repeatedly proven to fans of the deadly genre that McInerny is a superb storyteller. Now, in the latest Father Dowling installment, Stained Glass, the priest-and-sleuth finds himself involved in one of his most challenging investigations.

Father Dowling's church, St. Hilary's in Fox River, Illinois, is suddenly included on a diocese list for closure and demolition. Several obstacles, however, stand in the way of St. Hilary's demise: a group of senior citizens is determined to petition the diocese, a wealthy family matriarch is determined to protect the church, and the sublime beauty of the church's stained glass windows may be the parish's saving grace.

Complications arise when a woman is found murdered in the garage owned by someone with connections to the well-connected matriarch. Very quickly, though, the police realize that the dead woman's identity adds another peculiar wrinkle to the murder investigation. More than that, as investigators learn more about the victim's relationship to others, and as the body count escalates in Fox River, Father Dowling becomes more involved in the mystery. Only when he is able to expose old secrets and circumvent church politics will he be able to help the police solve the crimes. And the key to everything is, of course, the exquisite stained glass windows of St. Hilary's.

Finally, the bottom line is this: No one who cherishes the guilty pleasures of tautly plotted mysteries populated by intriguing characters will want to miss out on the recommended Stained Glass. If you have not already read Ralph McInerny's highly regarded mysteries, you should do yourself a favor by accompanying Father Dowling on his latest adventure.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

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Handel runs into controversy in Tennessee

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah  oratorio on this date in 1741. Librettist Charles Jennens had finished the text in July, and he handed it off to Handel with great expectations. He wrote to a friend, "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject." Handel worked at a furious pace, doing nothing else but composing from morning to night, and completed the oratorio in only 24 days. Messiah tells the story of Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection. It was originally written for the Easter season, and it debuted in Dublin at a charity concert the following April. The event attracted 700 people; to accommodate such a crowd, gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home, and ladies were requested to remove the hoops from their skirts. The Dublin News-Letter reported that Messiah "far surpass[ed] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom." It remained one of Handel's favorite works for the rest of his life, and grew to become a beloved holiday favorite — but at Christmastime, rather than Easter. Even Mozart was reluctant to change anything about the oratorio when he supervised a new arrangement in 1789. "Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect," Mozart said. "When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."

And, with a focus on a Tennessee and atheists, there is this article.

Finally, there is this personal postscript:

I wonder what Handel would think of the dispute in Tennessee. What do you think?