Showing posts with label Dale Andrews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dale Andrews. Show all posts

18 February 2014

Gone South: Doing Something About February



by Dale C. Andrews
 Shakey crashed through the door of the bar looking like the last day of February
                                                     Herschel Cozine
                                                     Shakey's Debt
February, when the days of winter seem endless and no amount of wistful recollecting can bring back any air of summer.
                                                     Shirley Jackson
                                                     Raising Demons
February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March.
                                                     Dr. J. R. Stockton


Frazz, February 1, 2014, ©2011 2011 Jef Mallett/Distr. By Universal Uclic


     When my wife and I each retired in 2009 we had a shared goal. We wanted to never again endure the month of February in Washington, D.C. So far we have made good on that quest, and this year, as in previous Februaries, we are holding forth in a rental condo in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

       Mao Tse Tung was an advocate for the battle tactic of planned retreats, and in no year has a planned retreat from the frozen north made more sense than this one. When you look at those weather maps that have been so common this month, with that bulge of blue swallowing up the Midwest and the entire East Coast, we are right down there at the bottom -- where, in the course of a few scant miles, the color of the weather map on most days shifts from blue, to green, and then finally to yellow, where we are. It doesn't always work -- this year in our first few days here we did find ourselves in the path of that ice storm that hit the south, and that left us apartment bound for a day, but by and large we enjoy 60s when our home in D.C. has to tolerate 20s.  And this week it is all sunshine and mid-70s.

The only time this year that February
caught up with us at Gulf Shores
       So we run away before the cold. And in doing so we escape the dreary and dreaded month of February, at least as it is experienced up north. Paradoxically, while only 28 or 29 days, February nonetheless plays out as the longest month of the year. It is cold, the days are short, and it invites the onset of cabin fever. When you are held captive by the deranged beast that is February -- that is, when pressures of life conspire to hold you in place, precluding that planned retreat -- the result challenges even the stalwart optimist in each of us.  It can tempt us, in fact, to retreat from rational thinking in our quest for an escape.

A cargo cult's "runway"
       When I was a sociology major back in college I remember studying the cargo cults of the South Pacific -- island tribes that, watching the cargo-rich U.S. air fleets in World War II fly overhead, were inspired to build mock runways on their islands in hope that the planes would land there as well. We smile and shake our heads at the naive innocence of all of this, pinning hopes on magic.  But every year on February second, no doubt in trepidation of what lies ahead, we trot out analogous witchery. We gather in ritualistic regalia, we sometimes require that only German is to be spoken, and we scrutinize awakening groundhogs in an attempt to discern whether they will see their shadows.  All in the hope that ritual can somehow foreshorten our misery.

       This year, as reported in the Washington Post, Phil the groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania saw his shadow, which, per legend, meant six more weeks of winter.   The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has dismissed statistically any soothsaying abilities of Phil and his cohorts, and on bright and warm days we smile and shake our heads at the whole cargo cult ritual of this annual event. The planes do not arrive for the cargo cults, and spring does not arrive for us.  But that does not stop us from showing up each year to watch the groundhog. And this is not limited to that town in Pennsylvania. The Washington Post reports that other groundhogs, also sought out each year in a quest to short-hop the miseries of February, include:


       And in Washington, D.C., we add Potomac Phil to the list. The Washington would-be prognosticator is actually a stuffed Groundhog, but it nevertheless somehow manages to impart a prediction annually at a gathering at Dupont Circle.

       It is not just those of us in the United States who behave this way. In Serbia, for example, on February 15 during the feast of celebration of Sretenje or The Meeting of the Lord. celebrants watch a bear that is awakened from winter sleep. According to legend there if the bear sees its shadow it goes back to sleep for another 40 days, and winter continues. European folklore generally also looks to badgers or bears, usually on February 1, in hope of a signal that winter will end early. But, again according to NOAA, approximately 75 percent of the time there is no early spring, and our hopes are in vain. Regardless of the vagaries of animals’ shadows we, like those South Sea islanders tempting the planes to land, get nothing.

       In fact we do worse -- we get February.

       All of these February rituals simply evidence our desperation. Those who face February without the possibility of retreat can be rendered senseless and desperate in their endurance. A resort to witchcraft is but a small step where nothing rational works.

       So. Where did this affront that is February come from in the first place? As one might suspect, the dratted month owns a checkered past. No such month existed in the early Roman calendar, a ten month affair that simply left the period that is now January and February a nameless blot of bleak days. In effect the early Roman calendar at the end of December said That's it.  See you in March.  When February (along with January) eventually was added to the Roman calendar, around 700 B.C., it was a period of varying lengths -- 23 to 27 days -- and a thirteenth month, Intercalaris, was inserted between it and March as a device to re-align the calendar with the seasons each year, a necessary tool since the year, but for Intercalaris, was calculated out at 355 days.

       Under the reforms instituted with the Julian calendar, Intercalaris was abolished, the year was set at 365 days, and February was likely assigned 29 days. I say “likely” because there is some argument as to how February became a 28 day month (except in leap years). According to popular history this reduction occurred as a result of rivalry between Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. Julius Caesar had already requisitioned and re-named the seventh month of the year “July,” in honor of, well, himself. Then, so the story goes, when Augustus Caesar ascended to power he decided he needed his own month as well, and we were given a re-named eighth month -- “August.” Up until that time all months (except for February) were either 30 days or 31 days, alternating on an every-other month basis. But Augustus wanted his month to be as long as Julius Caesar’s, so he robbed a day from February and placed that day in August, making it 31 days as well.

Washington, D.C. earlier this month
       Fear not. There is a demented rhyme to the madness of today’s discussion. Our dread of February, as evidenced, among other things, by that groundhog fetish, coupled with our willingness, evidenced by the Romans, to first invent, and then re-invent the length of February, provide something of a spring board for creative thinking. Even when we are not free to run south in front of the dreaded second month of the year, might there still be some other alternatives that we could pursue?  Something that does not exactly solve the problem of February but still offers more than a mere placebo? We cannot end winter sooner, but is there some lesser measure that, while realistically ineffective at combating winter, could nonetheless help to avenge the wrongs done to the tortured and shivering masses better than that resort to groundhogs, bears and badgers?

       I have a modest suggestion.

       We all accept that February already differs from other months in the number of its allotted days. And the Romans have already fiddled with that number, as discussed above, before agreeing on our present 28 day (and 29 day leap year) approach. Since the month is already demonstrably too long at 28 (or 29) days, my proposal is simply this: Chop another week off of it. Make it 21 days -- a three week sprint from January to March. And then take that extra week, the one we just chopped, and plop it down smack dab in the middle of June -- a month that often seems too short.

Gulf Shores Alabama -- View from our condo
February 17, 2014.  72 degrees.
       What about leap year? you ask. Simple, again. Leap year day should be designated a national holiday. The holiday would float, and would be used, as needed, as an extra day adjacent to July 4, thereby ensuring that Independence Day would always at the least be a two-day holiday. I know, I know -- I see all of you math majors waving your hands, eager to point out that the extra day would be needed whenever Independence Day falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and that these alignments occur more than once every four years. The solution remains simple -- just take those extra days, as needed, out of February.  If the second month of the year ends up less than 21 days, I mean, who is going to complain?

       I could go on. But I am off to the beach.

21 January 2014

Elegy


by Dale C. Andrews

                                            She stands in the cold water, facing
                                            south toward an invisible island. 
                                            In the Sunday morning quiet 
                                            the redwing blackbirds 
                                            shuffle nervously in a thicket 
                                            behind the beach. The loon 
                                            makes no sound at all in its 
                                            purposeful passage. 

                                            For sixty years and more 
                                            she has tested the waters 
                                            this way. Soon she will 
                                            take the plunge. Intrepid swimmer. 
                                            For her there is never 
                                            backing out. Never. She will dive 
                                            into the salt waves and there will be 
                                            friendliness and fellowship and 
                                            sisterhood, and a spot of
                                            solitude. 

                                            Her landlocked husband, a creature of air 
                                            and dirt, leans against a boulder 
                                            and watches her. His silence 
                                            goes with her, and with the loon. 
                                            He guards towel, glasses, sandals, 
                                            His heart flutters in the thicket. 
                                            He rests quietly at the margin 
                                            of the liquid world, waiting. 
                                            When she rises, rebaptized, 
                                            from the sea, she will find 
                                            a harbor here. 

                                                                    James Lowell McPherson 
                                                                    "She Stands in the Cold Water"

       Last month I posted an article that largely praised the wonders of computerized research and our ability today to secure virtually any bit of information by merely clicking the correct keys on the nearest available laptop. At the time I wrote that post I intended to also address the flip side of the equation -- the things that we lose as we spiral down into that all-knowing ethernet vortex. But I have this problem (likely already evident) -- once I get started I can have a tendency to “write long.” The previous article sort of outgrew itself, leaving no practical room for a second chapter.  Also I came to realize that the rest of what I had to say was not only about losing the more personal side of the research process, but about losing people themselves.

       As noted in that previous article, ready access to the troves of information now available on the internet comes at a cost -- studies indicate a trend toward the reduction, and at times near disappearance, of short term and long term memory. As we come to rely on information assembled and cataloged on the internet more and more, our need to store facts in memory decreases, as does our ability to do so. What we potentially lose when this happens is the personal clothing that facts otherwise wear; the human side of the dry answer. 

       Dr. Kathryn Walbert, a professor at North Carolina University, has set the stage for the problem we face: 
Historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can rely on extensive correspondence and regular diary entries for information about life in the past. But in today’s world, telephone, email, and web-based communication have largely replaced those valuable written records. Without oral history, much of the personal history of the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries would be lost to future historians.
       Now we risk losing even that if personal memories, anecdotes and remembrances, upon which oral histories are based, are no longer being retained by our galloping brains, which have concluded this congeries of entangled memories and recollections need no longer be stored. 

       And what do we risk losing, here? How better to illustrate than with an anecdote. 

Jim and Phyllis
on the deck of the Mandalay
     Twenty-eight years ago my wife and I were on a Windjammer cruise -- 14 days, Antigua to Grenada, all under sail on a lovely ship that held 74 lucky passengers. The first night, at dinner, I glanced over at the couple sitting next to us and did a double take. They were in their sixties (to our 30s). He had shoulder length hair tied in a ponytail and sported a full beard; she had waist length hair. Both were dressed in tie-dye. Wow, I thought.  Relics of the '60s!  These are folks I need to meet.  

       That encounter, on the tall ship Mandalay, was the beginning to a 25 year friendship with two of the most interesting people we ever knew. 

       I referenced Jim McPherson and his wife Phyllis King in that previous article, specifically in reference to Jim's amazing facility with words.  Both Phyllis and Jim were poets, each an observer of all things past and present, and each a raconteur of the many adventures and lessons they had experienced in their varied lives. Over the years we spent many more vacations with Phyllis and Jim. And when they came down to Washington D.C. from their New York City apartment on Riverside Drive for visits we would spend memorable evenings in our backyard, or in our living room, drinking scotch and regaling each other with stories and observations. 

       One of the things I did not mention in that previous post was that Phyllis worked for twenty-five years at the telephone reference desk at the New York City library. I do not know how that desk is now run, but in the day -- in her day -- anyone could call in with a question and be assured that, for the number of minutes allotted each call by the library rules, the caller would have the undivided attention of a library employee who was both knowledgeable and willing to help them find the information that they sought. 

       All of this does tie back to our theme here. And here we go.

       In 1989 a short article by the well-known author and photographer Stanley P. Friedman appeared in The New York Times, The article was also published in the December 1990 edition of Reader's Digest, from which I quote. 
       I needed to do some research for an article I was writing, so I called New York City’s library information service. A woman whose mellifluous voice I’ve recognized for years came on. Her willingness to help has been boundless. “What do you want?” she asked.
       “I don’t think you’d have it. It’s sheet music. I need lyrics.”
       “Which?”
       “It’s a ‘40s song: ‘Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.’”
       “Oh, yes. That’s from a Deanna Durbin movie.”
       Pause. And then, would you believe it, she started singing it to me. Mind you, sing, not recite. The lyrics tripped along swiftly.
       They took me back to the London that I was writing about. September 1944. V-2s in blossom.... We met in the Strand Palace Hotel bar. We were both lonely and 19. We went to see Christmas Holiday with Deanna Durbin. She sang “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.”
       End of flashback. Back to the Singing Librarian. At song’s end I said: “That was beautiful. You broke my heart. But you’ll have to say the words slowly so I can write them down.”
       She did, I wrote, then I asked, “What’s your name?”
       “We’re not allowed to give that information.”
       “That’s okay,” I said. “I know you.”
        So do I.  No rules here:  That was Phyllis King. 

       Google will give you the lyrics to that Deanna Durbin song, but there is so much more that it will not be able to do. Life has a poetry to it that is beyond Google’s keen.  And that is what we risk losing.

Thomas Point Lighthouse
       Phyllis died in 2007. Jim brought her ashes, encased in a brightly colored origami wrapper of corrugated paper, down to Washington, D.C., and with him we struck out on our 1982 Carver, motoring up the Chesapeake Bay to Thomas Point Light. As Amazing Grace played over our speakers we set the origami boat afloat in the Bay. It bobbed a few times, testing the water, and then pointed down, just as Phyllis always did, and dove for the depths. 

       One year later Jim died. His ashes are spread on the shore, looking out toward the waters of Thomas Point Light. There with the boulders. Watching. 

                                                When I am gone
                                                I will not haunt 
                                                with sad face 
                                                and mournful cries. 
                                                I will follow you like a child’s balloon 
                                                bobbing at your shoulder, 
                                                bumping your face 
                                                with my red or pink 
                                                or blue surface, 
                                                touching you, 
                                                saying I am there.

                                                              Phyllis King 
                                                              "Early Morning Balloon Poem"
                                                              November 10, 2005

07 January 2014

"S." -- The Triumph of Marginal Characters


by Dale C. Andrews
SAN ANTONIO — Texas has seen the future of the public library, and it looks a lot like an Apple Store: Rows of glossy iMacs beckon. iPads mounted on a tangerine-colored bar invite readers. And hundreds of other tablets stand ready for checkout to anyone with a borrowing card.
                                                Associated Press, January 3, 2014
                                                Describing San Antonio’s new “bookless” library

       There is no debating the fact that the movement, of late, has been away from the hardcover books that were the staple of the golden age of mysteries. Today much reading (mine included) is on tablets, and our personal libraries (and San Antonio's public library) are composed of texts that are stored in the cloud. But whenever something is gained in technology we run the risk of leaving something valuable behind. We will get to that, but first a little backstory.

       Back in September I posted an article titled Herewith, the Clueswhich discussed the development of “fair play” mysteries, the hallmark of the “golden age” of detective stories. In that article I summarized the birth of the fair play mystery as follows:
An organized approach to writing fair play mysteries dates at least from the 1930s when a number of famous (or soon to be famous) British mystery writers, including Christy, Sayers and Chesterton, to name but three, established the Detection Club with the intention of establishing standards for “fair play” detective stories. Each of the members of the club took the following oath, reportedly still administered today:
Do your promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?
The members of the Detection Club went on to establish rules of fair play that, by and large, have governed the writing of fair play detective stories ever since. The most important of those rules is that every clue necessary to solve the mystery must be revealed, in advance, to the reader.
       There have been different experiments over the years focusing on how best to lay out all of those clues before the reader, and my prior article went on to discuss various mysteries that have taken the fair play approach to some intriguing extremes. In that vein, the early “Criminal Dossier” works of Dennis Yates Wheatley and James Gluckstein Links, and the recent best-selling Night Film by Marisha Pessl, were singled out as examples of mysteries that literally served up the clues to the readers -- physical evidence, newspaper articles, written reports, all bound within or otherwise contained in the original volume.

       Turns out I wrote that article too soon. I hadn't anticipated the recent publication of “S.” , co-authored by movie and television visionary J.J. Abrams and professor, Penn/Hemmingway nominee and three time Jeopardy champion Doug Dorst. To paraphrase Mr. Abrams' re-boot of the Star Trek series, "S." boldy goes where no fair play mystery has gone before. And make no mistake -- "S." is unapologetically a book in every sense of the word.

       To date "S." is available only in hardcover, and if you order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble you are likely to encounter a “temporarily out of stock” notice. (It took about a week for my volume to arrive from Amazon.  "S." is currently listed as out of stock without a delivery estimate at Amazon; Barnes and Noble is projecting shipment no earlier than mid-March). When you do finally get your hands on your own copy of this mystery you will begin to understand why, despite strong interest and positive reviews, sales have out-stripped production by the publisher.

       If you order the volume and then wait patiently for delivery, here is what you will eventually hold in your hands -- a handsome cardboard book sleeve containing a hardcover volume, battered and worn, titled Ship of Theseus, purportedly by an author named V.M. Straka. The cardboard box is sealed, and cannot be opened until the paper seal -- the only portion of the book containing the title “S.” -- is broken. Once unsealed, the book presents as a very used library book -- a publication date of 1949, stains on the inside front cover, a “Book for Loan” stamp, a list of check-out stamps on the back inside cover.  There is a library index number affixed by sticker on the spine, and the spine itself appears “broken” from frequent opening.  When you open the book yourself, it immediately becomes evicent where we, as readers, are headed.

       Ship of Theseus is a 453 page novel, complete unto itself. The novel is a good read even standing on its own. But the magic here is that it does not stand on its own. Scribbled throughout all of the pages are notes and annotations by two readers -- Eric, a graduate student who is obsessed with the mysterious Straka, and Jen, a college senior, who has just discovered the author. The premise is that each of them has taken the book from a library shelf, read it, and then returned it to the shelf for the other to re-claim. Eric has initially annotated certain portions in the margin, and Jen responds with her own annotations. Thus begins a dialog that becomes a separate story, sprawling through the pages of Ship of Theseus. In the margins the annotators meet, flirt, and then get down to the task of uncovering the mysteries surrounding Straka and Ship of Theseus, which purportedly was the last of 18 Straka novels (the others are dutifully listed at the front of the book). As if all of this were not enough, as the two annotators discover additional clues or bits of information surrounding the mysterious author, or his equally mysterious translator F. X. Caldeira, they place these snippets of information, or their hand-written summations of what they have uncovered, in the book, at relevant pages, where the reader can extract the clues and follow the evidence at his or her leisure.

       And make no mistake -- “leisure” is the right word here. This is a book to be savored, not rushed. In fact, you probably could not rush this book if you wanted to.  The reader is called upon to keep track of the underlying Straka novel while, at the same time, following the separate dialog in the margins speculating on the book and the many mysteries surrounding its author. In this respect the book shares some commonality with the underlying theme of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, discussed at some length in that previous article. The mysterious Stanislas Cordova, who is largely un-seen but occupies the heart of Pessl’s mystery, is eerily similar to the equally-unseen V. M. Straka, who is at the heart of "S.". But back to the point, be prepared to take your time with this book -- you will be rewarded with a near total immersion into the story, a new reading experience that can easily become mesmerizing.

       Transforming the concept of the book into a market reality has been a supreme technological challenge, as explained by Abrams in interviews in The New York Times and on CBS. And the problems of the approach continue -- librarians (Rob might like to weigh in here) are perplexed with the challenge of including the book, with all of its loose-leaf clues, on lending shelves, characterizing the task as “a processing nightmare.”

       While an ebook version of "S." has been hinted at, it is hard to imagine how this could work. The book, after all, is a throwback -- it is an homage to the published word. In ways it resembles an art book as much as it does a mystery.  Could it also be a vanguard?  The New York Times had this to say:
Charles Miers, the veteran publisher of the art-book house Rizzoli NY, sees “S.” as part of a larger trend toward such elaborate books, now that digital technology and inexpensive Asian labor have made production newly affordable. “There’s a real interest in the book as an object of permanence, as a direct counterpoint to the digital world, that I haven’t seen before,” he said.
        The original inspiration for "S." is traceable to the earlier "Mystery Dossiers" of Wheatley and Links, specifically their Who Killed Robert Prentice?, also discussed above and at length in that previous article.  In a Los Angeles Times interview Abrams fondly recalled reading that volume:  “It had a torn-up photograph in these little wax paper envelopes. As a child, I remember seeing those. That always stayed with me, that idea of getting a book, a packet, that was not just like any other book.” Abrams also acknowledges another catalyst for "S.", a book lending trend that has as well been the subject of some discussion here. According to The New York Times:
Mr. Abrams stumbled upon the idea for “S.” more than a decade ago, when he found a worn Robert Ludlum paperback at Los Angeles International Airport. “Inside, someone had written, ‘To whomever finds this: Please read it, take it, read it and leave it for someone else.’ ” Mr. Abrams said he began thinking about the way his college books had been riddled with marginalia. “What if, instead of putting it back for someone else to read it, the person who received the book saw those notes and felt compelled to continue the conversation?”
       But perhaps the most remarkable thing about "S." is the way it stubbornly defies modern trends in publishing. This is a book that cannot hope to work well as an e-book. It would never work as a narrated mystery on Audible. It’s hard to imagine that the authors are looking down the road to a paperback edition. What "S." is is an homage to published books -- big, hard cover books, intended to be read and then placed affectionately on a shelf to be retrieved and re-examined in the future. It is about the love affair that can grow between the reader and the volume. There is as much art in the concept as there is in the story -- and this is not meant to denigrate the story, but rather to elevate the concept. Again, according to Abrams:
This is a story about how a book is used as a means of communication and sort of a catalyst for a great investigation that is also a love affair. It is sort of a celebration of ‘the book,’ that physical, analog thing.
       There may be no room for "S." in that new bookless San Antonio library. That is their loss, but it need not be yours.  

24 December 2013

Dickens' A Christmas Carol – at the Movies



by Dale C. Andrews


Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.  
       As I wrote in this space two years ago, so begins one of the most popular novellas in English literature. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published just before Christmas in 1843, rushed to the press since it had only been completed several weeks earlier by Dickens. That previous article discussed the back-story of this little classic in some detail, but today lets look in the other direction. While many of us read this slim volume annually as part of our holiday ritual, it is safe to say that many more revisit the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in versions of the story that have been adapted for the screen. 

Tom Ricketts as Ebenezer Scrooge, 1908
       By Wikipedia’s count, which is close enough for present purposes, there have been 42 filmed versions of A Christmas Carol over a period now spanning more than 100 years: The earliest, a 1908 silent version filmed by Essanay Studios in Chicago, starred an uncredited actor named Tom Ricketts as the miser on the cusp of redemption; the most recent, a 2009 animated motion-capture version of the story filmed in 3-D by Disney and starring a very credited Jim Carrey. Rather than discussing each of the 42, lets cull the list a bit. After all, if you are sitting in front of the tree today with your eggnog while you surf the channels looking for some filmed holiday cheer, there are really only six versions of A Christmas Carol that you are likely to encounter over the air or on DVD. And as to those, here is my holiday viewing guide.

     A Christmas Carol (2009) As referenced above, the most recent filmed version of the story is the ambitious 3-D adaptation released by Disney in 2009. The film, written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a followup to his previous holiday offering The Polar Express. As is so often the case when the adjective “ambitious” is used, in many respects the mighty efforts here have produced a version of Dickens’ story that is flawed. First, and notably, the motion capture technique that Zemeckis uses here and in Polar Express, while visually stunning, is also a bit creepy in its rendition of characters. Second, stated carefully, Jim Carrey is not for everyone. And while he works hard at his Scrooge he is still, well, Jim Carrey, an actor not known for subtle performances. Third, the movie was one of the first of the new batch of 3-D films, and as such it employs some of the older 3-D tricks – like throwing things at the audience – that James Cameron subsequently managed to leave behind a few months later with the release of Avatar. Particularly embarrassing is the prolonged scene in the Third Stave of the story, where Scrooge is shrunk to the size of a mouse and then slides down a roller coaster-like incline. When that comes on, think of it as a commercial and act accordingly. (In other words, leave the room for another drink.) The movie does have its moments, however. When not reaching for gimmicks, the 3-D can be beautiful, even stunning, And Zemeckis’ version provides an interesting new perspective for the story, situating Scrooge and the ghost of Jacob Marley above much of the action, as they stare down through the transparent floor of Scrooge’s rooms. The film received mixed reviews, although Roger Ebert gave it four stars. 

       A Christmas Carol (1999) is graced by the presence of Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart is not only a gifted actor, he is also a long-time fan of Dickens’ story and has performed it as a one-man reading in London and New York for years. The film was produced for the TNT television network and is generally available over the air during the holidays. Unlike some other versions, at least the early parts of Stewart’s interpretation have a somber, gloomy aspect to them, much in keeping with the original tale by Dickens. The approach is realistic and I like it. Remember that, as discussed in the earlier SleuthSayers’ article, Dickens intended his story as a morality tale – a condemnation of British child labor laws and the plight of the poor in England in the mid 1800s. Stewart’s version toys with the original a bit, offering up more of the backstory of Scrooge and Marley, but this works well even if it involves scenes not envisioned by Dickens. And in addition to Stewart’s bravura performance as Scrooge, watch for a good turn by Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Also watch for the montage, early on, of various denizens of the English working class -- in mines, on boats, in a lighthouse – setting aside their troubles to sing Silent Night. The scene is original to Dickens, but only rarely portrayed in filmed versions of the story.

     A Christmas Carol (1984) is yet another television adaptation of the story, this time starring the late George C. Scott as Scrooge. The film was produced by Hallmark and aired for years on NBC each December. Like the Stewart version Scott’s Scrooge is depicted in early scenes that are not found in Dickens' novella, including (again) in scenes fleshing out more of the backstory of Scrooge and Marley’s beginnings. Scott was reportedly anxious to participate in this production since he had long believed that Scrooge tended to be portrayed by others in too broad a brush. Scott’s goal was to present Ebenezer Scrooge as a hard man of business, conservative and strict, but not someone who was mean simply for the sake of meanness. Beyond Scott’s performance, highlights of the version include Anthony Walters’ portrayal of Tiny Tim. Unlike some other child actors called upon to breathe life into that role, young Walters actually looks the part – managing to convey innocence, kindness and frailty in his demeanor. Another highlight is the superb performance by the late Edward Woodward (who played the lead in CBS’ The Equalizer) as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Toward the end of Stave Three Part Two of the book, Dickens has the Ghost of Christmas Present turn like quicksilver from jovial to fed-up as he listens to Scrooge.  He looks Scrooge in the eye and delivers the following line: 
'Man,' . . . if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. 
No one, and I mean no one, delivers this line as effectively as Edward Woodward. Essayist Lewis Bayard, writing for Salon.com, called this “the best Christmas Carol ever.” Even if you don’t agree, you can’t go wrong watching this one. 

       Scrooge (1970) This version of our story is the Leslie Bricusse musical adaptation, starring Albert Finney as Scrooge, which was filmed for theatrical release. I like the version, but it is sort of an acquired taste and decidedly not for everyone. Telling a story as a musical, with certain exceptions, becomes an invitation to tell it as a musical comedy, to play it too broadly, and that light air certainly has its effect on the brooding morality of Dickens’ original story. As an example, the most hum-able song in the score, the Oscar nominated Thank You Very Much!, is sung by those who owed Scrooge money as (unbeknownst to Finney, who is joyfully singing along) his coffin is wheeled down the streets of London. Also a bit strange is the casting of Finney, who decidedly is not a singer, although, according to rumor, the score was originally written for another non-singer, Rex Harrison, who ultimately turned down the role. The film also adds an excruciating scene after the Ghost of Christmas Future in which Scrooge falls into his grave and ends up in Hell, as an accountant to Lucifer. The scene, often cut (thankfully!) in the televised version, was likely added to give Alec Guinness, portraying the ghost of Jacob Marley, one more scene. If it is still in the version you find yourself watching, well, think of it as another invitation to refresh your drink. But don't get me wrong, this version does have its treasures, including the best metamorphosis of Scrooge’s door knocker into Marley’s face ever filmed, a wonderful stint by Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Laurence Naismith, who delivers the absolute best Fezziwig of all time.

     Scrooge (1951), released in the United States as A Christmas Carol. Many (myself included) believe that this modest British production is the finest film version of Dickens’ story. Alistair Sims is so perfect as Scrooge – tall, skinny, gaunt, tortured -- that he played the role not just once, but again in 1971 when he voiced it in an animated version of the story. Interestingly, Sims was reportedly a substitute for Basil Rathbone, who was originally to have played the part. But that is mere trivia – Sims' portrayal is perfect and wonderful. The production also is true to Dickens in the sense that it is presented darkly – for me it plays better in the original black and white than in the colorized version of several years ago. In the black and white film one feels, particularly in early scenes, the desolation of the English working class that is at the heart of Dickens’ story. But at the same time Sims’ version goes beyond Dickens in some respects and, like the George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart productions discussed above, delves into Scrooge’s past life with Marley and Scrooge’s evolution into the miser that we meet in Stave One. Watch for a young Patrick MacNee (later John Steed in The Avengers) in those early scenes portraying the young Jacob Marley. 

       A Christmas Carol (1938) This is likely the earliest version of Dickens’ story that you will find on broadcast channels or streaming video. It starred Reginald Owen, who was also a last minute Scrooge substitute, taking the place of Lionel Barrymore who stepped out of the production because of arthritis, but still provided the film’s opening narration. The film is a good rendition and, perhaps, its only fault is that it has a sort of sunny disposition that makes it difficult to find the London of Dickens. Cratchit looks too well fed; Tiny Tim, too big, too healthy.  The two starving children, "Want" and "Ignorance," who Dickens revealed hidden in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present, do not even appear in this version.  But watch for Leo G. Carroll, who later starred on T.V. as Topper and then as Mr. Waverley on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and who delivers a great ghost of Jacob Marley. Also of interest is the fact that the Cratchits are portrayed by Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, married in real life, and that one of their daughters, in an uncredited role, is played by their real-life daughter June Lockhart, who went on to a career portraying television mothers in both Lassie and Lost in Space

       Finally, if you are looking for a spoken word version of Dickens, over the years there also were many radio adaptations of A Christmas Carol. One of my favorites was a 1975 episode of CBS’ Radio Mystery Theatre starring E.G. Marshal as Scrooge. Marshal was the host of the series and this episode, as an interesting aside, is the only one in which he also appeared (er, was heard) as an actor. This adaptation is available for downloading on line. 

       So if you are looking for a little Dickens this year, you will not go completely wrong with any of the versions discussed above.  And, as noted, there are some real gems out there.

       Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and see you in 2014.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

03 December 2013

Our On-Line Age


by Dale C. Andrews


St. Louis Central Public Library
       In a week when a lot of us of a certain age were reflecting back to events of 50 years ago I found myself off on a related tangent, thinking about how different the task of researching is now from what it entailed back when I was an early teenager in 1963. Some of this was sparked by a comment from Fran to my last SleuthSayers post recalling what it was like to visit a library back then. All of this rang true for me. I remember the process of researching term papers back in the 1960s -- taking the long bus ride to the downtown St. Louis Central Library, spending the morning poring over three by five cards in the card catalogs, filling out a request for various reference texts and then waiting while the librarian gathered the materials and wheeled them out of the stacks. The process was tedious, and if those books piled in front of me spawned their own questions, the follow up research meant starting the whole process over again. It was far easier to forego tracking down a question arising from the review of that first pile of books than it was to follow the thought thread through to fruition.

       The way most of us research and write now bears no relation to that process. A laptop and an internet connection is all that is needed to find just about every factoid imagineable. Personally, I am happy with all of this. But whether we are, in the long run, bettered or hindered by our easy electronic access to information today is a subject that is still open to some debate. It is, in any event, easy to come up with examples of how the ways in which we answer our own questions have changed in a computerized wifi world.

       Personal example one: Some years back two older friends of ours from New York City, Jim McPherson and his wife Phyllis King, were visiting us for the weekend. Jim and Phyllis (now deceased and sorely missed), both poets, were two of the most intelligent and well-read folks you would ever want to stumble across. (Jim was named poet laureate of West Virginia, one of only three in the State’s history, in 1942 at the tender age of 20.)  On this particular visit we were sitting in our living room reading when I came across the word “bookkeeper” and stopped cold, looking at it closely, perhaps for the first time. I turned to Jim and said “Can you name a word in the English language that has three consecutive double letters?” Jim thought a minute and said “bookkeeper.” I was floored -- “did you know that already?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “It’s just the only example I could think of."  That, in a mind, is astonishing. But with the advent of the internet it is no longer a big deal to secure an answer to that question. Pose it on Yahoo and you instantly get “bookkeeper” and (icing on the cake) “sweettooth” for dessert.

The Little Lost Child (1894)
       Personal example two: When I was a child my maternal grandmother, while working around her house, would repeatedly sing two lines of a song from her childhood. She had long-since forgotten the rest of the song, but remembered that it was about a policeman who found a lost child and, through a convoluted series of verses, the child turned out to be his own. She sang those first two lines so much that the song, over the years, became somewhat of a joke in our family.  Eventually my mother and I tried to find the rest of the lyrics, searching out song encyclopedias at the library, all to no avail. Some years back I even tried a computer search using the first two lines, the only ones my grandmother remembered: "Once a police man, found a little child.” All you get from from an internet inquiry using those words are stories about abducted children. But last week, thinking about this column, I decided to try again. I added the word “lyric” at the beginning of the search. That was all that was needed: The song, lost to my family’s collective memory for probably more than a hundred years, is The Little Lost Child. My grandmother’s memory was wrong -- it actually began “A passing policeman . . . .” But once the inquiry is framed as a search for a lyric, even with that erroneous first word, the internet promptly spits back the complete lyrics to the song, a Wikipedia article about it and (this I could hardly believe) a You Tube rendition. And all of this (as you can confirm by listening in) for a song that is truly terrible and (ironically) would probably have been best left forgotten. But that’s not the point -- the point is that you can now almost instantly find almost anything -- even facts that are largely useless.

       When we have this much researching power at our fingertips you can expect some pretty profound changes to occur in the writing process.  Ready access to such a power allows some research to be performed that simply could not have been done in the past, or at least not without more time and effort than the task warranted. Those followup questions that I ignored late in the day in the St. Louis library back in 1963 are no problem now. 

       Some argue, however, that there may be a dark side to this as well. A notable study of teenagers in Korea, an on-line country where reportedly 65% of all teens have grown up using smartphones, has revealed the prevalence of a condition that the study coins "digital dementia," or deterioration of thinking and memory. A UPI news report concerning the study provides the following example:
Psychiatrist Kim Dae-jin at Seoul St. Mary's Hospital recently diagnosed a 15-year-old boy with symptoms of early onset dementia due to intense exposure to digital technology -- television, computer, smartphone and video games -- since age 5. He could not remember the six-digit keypad code to get into his own home and his memory problems were hurting his grades in school. "His brain's ability to transfer information to long-term memory has been impaired because of his heavy exposure to digital gadgets," the psychiatrist [reported].
       But is the negative connotation involved in calling these symptoms a form of “dementia” really correct here? We know, going all the way back to the writings of William James, that thinking involves the interaction of long term and short term memory.   It is theorized that short term memory cannot handle more than roughly 7 chunks of information (otherwise stored in long-term memory) at any one time, and that the process of thinking involves juggling concepts and facts back and forth between the two in those manageable chunks. Psychologists have also long recognized that we already “share” long-term memories with others and depend on others to fill in our own blanks -- I remember how to do some things, my wife remembers how to do others, and if I was trying to think of a word with three consecutive double letters, well, Jim McPherson would have been my go-to guy.  What we are now learning to do instead is to depend on the computer and the internet to perform this function of data retention and sharing that previously we commited to long term memory -- either or own or others'.  Now what becomes important is not the fact, but how to get to the fact on the computer, e.g. adding that word "lyric" when you are looking for a song.

       A Harvard study, as reported in an article in Science Express examining the effects of a world where information is readily available at the tap of a key, seems to confirm all of this:

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies [conducted by Harvard] suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.
       A recent Columbia University study reaches similar conclusions, arguing that we are now using the internet as personal external memory drives. Summarizing that study the Los Angeles Times had this to say:
We’ve come to use our laptops, tablets and smartphones as a 'form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside of ourselves . . . . We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where information can be found.
St. Louis Library -- Atrium where those stacks used to be
       And this, in turn, sounds all in all like a good thing in many respects. Certainly readily accessible information is a boon to those of us who write, and certainly to all of us producing scheduled articles here at SleuthSayers. Reflecting on information and sharing those reflections are far easier tasks without those trips to the library research rooms of our youth. Stated another way, an article such as this one would not have been written if the only sources available were those in the stacks in the St. Louis Central Library back in 1963. Who had the time?

       We are not the only ones changing as the internet renders irrelevant many of the volumes that used to be housed in library stacks.  The St. Louis Central Library that I relied on for research 50 years ago has moved along with the rest of us.  The newly renovated building, scheduled to re-open to the public this month, replaces those stacks where I researched as a teenager with a multi-story sunlit atrium.  There is also a coffee shop where we can wile away some of that time we save.

19 November 2013

Free Range Books


by Dale C. Andrews

       Several weeks ago I was walking down Connecticut Avenue in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C. I had a little spare time on my hands and, on a whim, I decided to stop by the Cleveland Park branch of the D.C. Public Library. During law school I lived two blocks from the library and had spent a lot of time there, but I hadn't been inside in over 35 years.

The Cleveland Park Library, Washington, D.C.
       The library had changed a bit from the way I remembered it -- computer stations, some re-configurations. But all in all there was also a lot that was the same. The mystery section, for example, was right where it was when I had last visited it, and it was to those shelves that I headed. I remembered checking out and reading Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil back in the mid 1970s, and there it was on the shelf. I pulled the volume and opened to the back page, where the check-out list was affixed to the back cover. To my surprise, there was the date that I had checked out the volume -- back in February of 1974. But even more surprising was the fact that in the intervening years there were only 7 other checkout dates stamped in the book. Had this volume really been on loan only 8 times in the past 39 years? 

       Perhaps library checkouts are handled differently nowadays, and maybe that stamped sheet at the back of the book was just a relic (resident librarian Rob -- help me here!). But regardless, the experience got me to thinking: What happens to all of those books that people stop checking out from libraries? Are they all sold at used books fairs? And what happens to purchased books when they have been read by everyone in the family?  Do all of them sit around on private bookshelves forever? I, for example, keep every book I have purchased and was very happy when e-books came along -- I was almost out of shelving space.  But what are the options for the non-hoarder?

A Micro Library in Capitol Hill, D.C.
       Actually there are a number of ways (beyond re-gifting) that second hand books move around. Sharing books on an informal basis is not new -- most of us have seen “take a book, leave a book” bins in resorts, ships, hotels or community centers.

       A newer take on this is the “micro library.” While it is sometimes difficult to trace the origins of new cultural waves one of the earliest organized deployments of micro libraries reportedly began in the U.K. From there the idea spread, including to the U.S. Here in Washington, D.C. you likely will not walk very far in any urban neighborhood without encountering a street-side micro library. These run the gamut from crude crates affixed to a post to carefully crafted dollhouse-like structures, each offering several shelves of books and a sign inviting passers-by to take a book and leave a book.

       In New York City you may stumble upon something a bit more elegant. There a project that is the brain-child of urban architect John Locke involves the re-use of telephone booths, as he explained in a July, 2012 interview in World Literature Today. 
Typical NYC Micro Library sharing a phone booth
I was . . . drawn to the technological, and maybe even psychological, symmetry between physical books and phone booths. I think there is an innate feeling of loss toward both, in that one has already been rendered obsolete by a new technology—cellular phones—and the other is seemingly on the cusp of obsolescence as well, both through the proliferation of e-book readers and the general waning of literature as being part of the wider cultural discussion. And I think there is always a sense of hesitation, maybe even nostalgia, when something that once seemed so prominent and important begins to disappear.
       Locke’s reaction to all of this, as shown in the picture, above, was to populate under utilized or even abandoned New York City phone booths with shelves of books. A similar approach has been used in England, where micro libraries have been established in iconic U.K. phonebooths.  Once established, each micro library is largely free of supervision -- books are taken, books are left. Locke notes that each location predictably takes on characteristics of the community in which it is located -- the range of books that is available evolves and the overall character of the offerings changes in a manner that reflects the reading habits of the neighborhood. 

A phone booth micro library in the U.K.
    Micro libraries are by no means restricted to the Big Apple and London, however. As noted, they are on lots of corners in Washington, D.C. and in other cities all over the world.  One of the overseers of the national (and international) deployment of street corner libraries (insofar as an anarchic movement such as this can be overseen at all) is Little Free Library, a Wisconsin organization that began with a mission to build 2,510 micro libraries -- the same as the number of “real” libraries built by Andrew Carnegie after he was done with his Robber Baron days. Little Free Library and its followers reached their numeric goal in 2012. Their website notes that “the original models [for libraries] had all been built with recycled materials. Each was unique but all shared the theme of exchanging good books and bringing people together for something positive.” The website estimates that there are currently between 10,000 and 12,000 micro libraries, many of which are registered and appear by location on the Little Free Libraries map.

       While the micro library movement began as a sort of guerrilla “occupy the streets” approach to sharing books, as noted above it now has at least the semblance of order, with organized locations and world-wide location maps. If you are interested in sharing books but find that all of this is still a little too organized for your own guerrilla soul there is yet another avenue for each of us to send forth our books after we have read them. 

     Back in 2001 Ron Hornbaker, software business owner and book lover, came up with an idea to share books in a slightly less organized and more individual way. As explained in his BookCrossings.com website, his flash of genius was to send each book out on its own. Hornbaker’s idea was that it would be both useful and fun to surreptitiously abandon a book in a public place -- coffee shop, restaurant, bus stop, what-have-you -- and then sit back and watch what happens. 

       How does this work in practice? Well, first the book is registered in advance at the BookCrossings web site. This is a simple process, easily accomplished on a home computer. Once the book is registered the site assigns it an individual tracking number. Before “planting” the book for adoption, the owner affixes an identification tag like the following one: (available for download either for free or for a nominal price from the BookCrossing web site) prior to release. 


       Then the now former owner of the book sits back, relaxes, and waits to see how far the book goes. Each recipient, as explained on the identification tags, is encouraged to report in and, if all goes well, each book can then be traced on its travels through various owners on the BookCrossing web site using the individual assigned tracking number. How is all of this working so far, almost thirteen years later? According to the Bookcrossing website “[t]here are currently 2,263,401 BookCrossers and 10,021,193 books travelling throughout 132 countries. Our community is changing the world and touching lives one book at a time.” 

       That copy of Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil has been sitting sedately on the shelf of the Cleveland Park library for almost 40 years. I've got books some on my own shelves that have been there even longer. Think where they could have traveled!

       Books set all of us free. There are some interesting ways that we can return that favor.

05 November 2013

Hoax


by Dale C. Andrews
Amazingly, not a single online dictionary contains a definition of the word “gullible.” 
       Last week many of you may have stumbled onto an online article reporting that, in an interview with Fox, Sarah Palin described at some length how Jesus celebrated Easter with his disciples. The article quotes Palin as stating that “[w]e need to return Easter back to the way it was when Jesus was still alive.” According to the article Palin explained this as follows:
When Jesus celebrated Easter with his disciples there were no Easter bunnies or egg hunts. There were no Easter sales at department stores or parades in the street. Easter was a special time of prayer and Christian activism. 
       I was on board for all of this. It was absurd but still barely credible. But then I came to the following quote: 
Jesus would gather all the townspeople around and would listen to their stories about the meaning of Easter in their lives. Then he would teach them how to love one another, how to protest Roman abortion clinics and how to properly convert homosexuals.
       Well, heck, I concluded. I had been punked.  But at least I was not alone, and at least I got out early. Piers Morgan of CNN, by contrast, tweeted the story on his Twitter account as . . . err . . . “gospel.” 

       Hoaxes can broadly be divided into two categories. The Palin article, which appeared on the satiric website The Daily Currant, follows a pattern that is typical for the well-crafted satirical hoax: Start with a premise that is just barely credible, and then start ratcheting it up. Make each claim just a bit harder to believe and then watch to see at what stage your audience begins to jump ship. The purpose of the satirical hoax is that the reader will eventually catch on and then laugh at themselves. Or, even better, a reader like Piers Morgan might swallow the whole thing hook, line and sinker, allowing the rest of us to laugh at him. The other broad category of hoaxes are meant to be taken seriously -- they are trying to pull off the scam without ever raising suspicions. They are crafted to sneak by, leaving the reader completely unaware of the hoax that is being perpetrated. 

Illustration of the triumphant balloon from Poe's article
       There have been a wealth of hoaxes of both varieties over the years, and a surprising number arise in the literary world. One of the earliest hoaxes was perpetrated by none other than Edgar Allan Poe who, in 1844 wrote a series of newspaper articles that, in great detail, recounted the first crossing of the Atlantic ocean by balloon. The story ran on the front page of the April 13, 1844 edition of The New York Sun under the following banner headline: 
ASTOUNDING NEWS! BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK: THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON'S FLYING MACHINE!!! Arrival at Sullivan's Island, near Charlestown, S. C., of Mr. Mason, Mr. Robert Holland, Mr. Henson, Mr. Harrison Ainsworth, and four others, in the STEERING BALLOON "VICTORIA," AFTER A PASSAGE OF SEVENTY-FIVE HOURS FROM LAND TO LAND. FULL PARTICULARS OF THE VOYAGE!!!
       The story, however, was an utter fabrication on Poe’s part. It is still debated why Poe wrote the ruse, particularly since it could not be sustained for more than a few days at best before it would unravel under close public inspection. But, at a time when financial matters might have had a more preeminent place at the publishing table, the story sold a record number of copies. And the retraction, published on April 14, did almost as well. 

       Poe was not alone here. In a December 28, 1917 New York Evening Mail article entitled “A Neglected Anniversary” H.L. Mencken offered a detailed, and completely fictitious, history of the bathtub. The article is still, at times, relied upon as authority for the (erroneous) propositions that the bathtub was first invented in 1842 and was first used in the White House by Millard Fillmore. Over thirty years later Mencken still marveled over the lasting power of his hoax: 
The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me. It was taken gravely by a great many other newspapers, and presently made its way into medical literature and into standard reference books. It had, of course, no truth in it whatsoever, and I more than once confessed publicly that it was only a jocosity ... Scarcely a month goes by that I do not find the substance of it reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions. 
      There have also been numerous examples of literary hoaxes that were never meant to be found out -- usually scams concocted with a dollar sign at the hoped-for finish line. Who can forget The Hitler Diaries, which had their 15 minutes of fame in 1983 when the German magazine Stern paid nine million marks to publish thirty eight volumes of the “autobiography” of Adolf Hitler that turned out to be crude forgeries riddled with historical inaccuracies and copied in large respect from other volumes? And who can forget Clifford Irving’s attempt in the early 1970s to fake an “authorized” biography of Howard Hughes, based on interviews between Irving and Hughes that never happened?

       But, to my mind, the really great hoaxes are those that are concocted with tongue planted firmly in cheek and with a point to make. My favorite of these is the Atlanta Nights hoax, which centers around what may be the worst book ever written.

       To really savor this hoax a little background is necessary. As any writer knows, there are many publishers out there, some legitimate, some less so. Around fifteen years ago a new one, Publish America, entered the fray Since its beginning Publish America has gone to great lengths arguing that it is not a vanity press. But many authors have nonetheless complained that Publish America operates by publishing any manuscript it receives and then making its profit by enticing the authors to buy large quantities of very expensive volumes of their own work so that the authors can sell these to friends, relatives or (perhaps) friendly bookstores. Throughout all of this Publish America has claimed that it is a legitimate publishing house that only publishes works that it has reviewed and deemed meritorious. It goes so far as to suggest that it has an 80% rejection rate for manuscripts. It’s website proudly makes the following claim to aspiring writers: 
If indeed you have been dreaming of getting published, and you want us to review your work, please fill out the form below and let us know who you are and what you have written. Your manuscript will be reviewed by our Acquisitions staff, who will determine whether your work has what this book publisher is looking for.
        Sometimes you need to be careful when you throw down the gauntlet. A number of writers from the Science Fiction Writers of America, under the general direction of James D. MacDonald, the author of many successful science fiction novels and a long-standing opponent of vanity presses, decided to put Publish America to the test. He gathered a group of fellow SciFi writers and they collectively agreed to write a book. But not just any book. The writers committed to do all they could to produce the worst book imaginable. 

       Following a general outline written by MacDonald each writer was assigned one chapter and asked to write it as horribly as possible. None of these authors was privy to the complete outline, and no one of them knew what the chapters other than their own were to contain. Here is a sample of the prose they produced, taken from the book’s website: 
Richard didn't have as sweet a personality as Andrew but then few men did but he was very well-built. He had the shoulders of a water buffalo and the waist of a ferret. He was reddened by his many sporting activities which he managed to keep up within addition to his busy job as a stock broker, and that reminded Irene of safari hunters and virile construction workers which contracted quite sexily to his suit-and-tie demeanor. Irene was considering coming onto him but he was older than Henry was when he died even though he hadn't died of natural causes but he was dead and Richard would die too someday. . . . 
       Not only is the book consistently clumsy, a clod of words riddled with grammatical and syntax errors, its internal structure is designed to strain credulity well beyond the breaking point. Chapters 13 and 15, written by two different authors, cover identical events in the narrative. Chapter 21 is missing, while chapters 4 and 17 are identical, word for word. Chapter 34 is “written” by computer story generation software that constructs the narrative from a word analysis of previous chapters. Toward the end of the book one chapter reveals that all that preceded was in fact a dream, but then subsequent chapters continue the narrative (such as it is) with no reference to that revelation. The genders of key characters periodically switch and then switch back. The book is, in a word, a mess, contrived to be the worst novel ever written. And finally, with a nod to Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, the initials of the characters taken together in the order of their appearances spell out the phrase "PublishAmerica is a vanity press."  Take a look at the complete manuscript online -- it is a masterpiece of terrible writing.

       The hoax here is utterly apparent to any objective reader. But that is not the reader for whom Atlanta Nights was written.  It had one, and only one, reader in its sights. You guessed it. Following submission, Publish America promptly accepted Atlanta Nights for publication

       One is left to ponder:  What is the real hoax here? Atlanta Nights or Publish America?