It’s the stuff of fiction. Ian McEwan’s mother had an affair with an army officer and became pregnant while her husband was away fighting in World War II. She ended up giving away the baby via a newspaper ad saying “Wanted, home for baby boy aged one month: complete surrender.” After her husband was killed in the war, however, she married the baby’s father and went on to have Ian, who didn’t know about his long lost brother until recently. According to an article in The Independent, McEwan’s brother David Sharp is turning the story into a book.
Perhaps you’ve seen it on the news. A historic and potentially catastrophic storm, Hurricane Katrina, is about 24 hours from plowing into New Orleans. If there ever was a “big one,” this is it. Sustained winds are at 175 mph, and some experts think it may maintain this strength all the way to landfall. Despite the fact that New Orleans lies below sea level and needs levies and pumps to keep out the water, Mayor C. Ray Nagin has only just now ordered a mandatory evacuation. Many experts think it’s already too late. If you want to keep an eye on this storm here are some links. Blogs: Dr. Jeff Masters, Steve Gregory, Eye of the Storm, Brendan Loy, Fresh Bilge. Links to TV coverage on the web at Lost Remote. The National Hurricane Center. I may add more to this post as I find more links.
A few years ago, I was standing on the platform at College subway station in downtown Toronto. It was 9 pm, well beyond the evening rush. Further along the platform and also waiting to board the next train was someone I recognized – a colleague from work – older and embittered, a grumbling and grouchy sort. I’d barely spoken two words to him in the newsroom and wasn’t in any mood to increase those numbers.The train arrived and this happened: A few people piled out and then one person in particular came out of the train and stood face to face with my grouchy colleague on the platform. They began punching each other in the face as if they were sworn enemies, all the while adjusting themselves on the platform so that Grouchy could go into the subway car, and the other guy could come all the way out. It was as if they were doing a dance. Before the doors had closed, and after at least a dozen punches had been thrown as they did their subway ballet, Grouchy was in the car and the other guy had gone up the stairs. I was within earshot – not a word had been spoken, not an insult slung. I guess some people just piss other people off.So that’s my subway story. That and the time I slipped on the top step at an outdoor entrance to Leicester Square tube station in London and tumbled down an entire flight of stairs, to the bemusement (and in many cases, indifference) of London’s commuting throngs.Every commuter or traveler seems to have his own subway story. The front page of a recent Globe and Mail Travel section takes the reader into the subways, undergrounds, tubes and metros of cities around the world. Writer Mark Kingwell, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, is the tour guide, expertly guiding the reader through some of the world’s buried treasures. It’s a fascinating read, and includes bits by other writers and travelers, each sharing subway anecdotes. All packaged with some fine photos.All of which leads me to a book I purchased a few years ago – Underground: Travels on the Global Metro – a coffee-table book featuring some stunning work from photographer Marco Pesaresi. The cities explored are: New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Calcutta, Milan, Mexico City, Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid. Each section is prefaced by a short essay. The book even has an introduction by none other than Francis Ford Coppola.Pesaresi is a remarkable photographer. His camera sometimes conspires with the passenger – causing a pose, an attitude (Mexico city). Sometimes, it is seemingly invisible (Milan) capturing but not appearing to intrude on a pre-existing mood (Tokyo). Sometimes it seems to be lurking, capturing quiet moments that likely would have been shaken off by the subjects, had they been overwhelmed by a more intrusive photographer.
So, I’m done with journalism school. It was a quick fifteen months. I’m excited about the journalistic climate of these times; I’m very caught up in all the heady things being said about blogs and the new medium in general. It’s an exciting time to be in this business. But then again I suppose journalism has always been exciting. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of journalists, I realize that they are a backward-looking bunch – which isn’t to say that they are anachronisms, just that they are very conscious of their history. I don’t blame them. It’s a very rich history. One thing I learned in journalism school is how our newspapers are shrinking – and one day they may shrink into nothing, living only on the Internet. Newspapers used to be much bigger than today’s, but high newsprint costs and the changing tastes of readers have made newspaper companies skew smaller and smaller. At the turn of the last century, though, newspapers were quite big, and, as it turns out, at least one of them was very colorful.It’s an odd experience looking at pictures from the The World on Sunday (found here and here), a New York paper from more than one hundred years ago, because I think that we’re trained to think of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a black and white world. These colorful images have recently gotten some attention thanks to Nicholson Baker and his wife Margaret Brentano who rescued the papers from the refuse pile of the British Library and used them as raw material for a book that came out this fall: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898 – 1911). As Jack Shafer said in his column on Slate:But what made this vivid copy sing was its graphic and typographical presentation. Pulitzer’s people bulldozed the dreary, gray newspaper design template. The World ran headlines across a couple of columns, not just one, or completely across the page if it really wanted to provoke readers. Halftone photos, dramatic and comic illustrations, inset graphics, hand-lettered headlines, and buckets of color enlivened these artful pages.The Internet promises photos, audio, video and all kinds of interactivity. I love that, but I’m a little sad that newspaper like The World won’t be showing up on my doorstep any time soon.Earlier this month, Ron at Beatrice.com singled out this book as great gift idea, and I have to agree. This is the perfect gift for any fan of the news (and for future journalists, as well.)
I first experienced ennui while solving a crossword puzzle — no, not the actual feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction; rather, that’s when I first encountered the word. My adventures in a new tongue had begun, a strange language called Crosswordese, which consists of words used often by crossword makers but rarely experienced in the real world. (By the way, in Crosswordese, a crossword maker is known as a cruciverbalist.)
Do you speak Crosswordese? When you lose a button from a shirt and can’t find the sewing kit, do you ask your partner where the etui is kept? Might you sometimes mischievously refer to margarine as oleo? Have you ever stridden into a church just to point out what a great apse it has?
I started a life of crossword-solving as a teenager, almost three decades before my first novel, Black Chalk, was published, and I give credit to the world of puzzles for helping foster my interest in language.
But crosswords are about more than accumulating words: crosswords are about having fun with words; crosswords are, in fact, about loving words.
Among my favorite crossword clues are the following (answers at the bottom of this piece in case you want to solve):
HIJKLMNO? (5 letters)
Site of unexpected change? (4 letters)
Where there’s a Will? (12 letters)
See, crosswords encourage you to play with language. And, as a novelist, I get to play in the sandbox of words every day. But more than just aiding in a love of language, more than just encouraging you to have fun with words, crosswords also stimulate skills such as lateral thinking, humor, and synonym use. You could say that crosswords are the ideal training tool for a novelist.
But the ways in which puzzles have affected my life as a novelist go deeper than the mere enjoyment of solving crosswords. In my early 20s, having discovered that I absolutely loathed Law (the subject of my college degree and subsequent training, and the area in which my parents wished me to work), I needed to find a job. I had known for some time that I wanted to be a novelist, but at that tender age I think I felt too young to write fiction. (And I know I felt considerably too scared.) So instead of turning to novels right away, I got a job in another area I loved: puzzles. And for years, I edited and compiled all sorts of puzzles — crosswords, logic problems, word searches, sudoku, riddles, spot the difference…How could all of this fail to leach into my fiction?
If Black Chalk reads like a puzzle (and many reviewers have stated as much) then it is as much because of my work in that field as it is because I enjoy challenging myself — I really do like tormenting myself with plot problems, it seems. As a writer you sit on your own in a small room for a very long time — and one of the ways I like to keep myself entertained, it turns out, is by constantly pivoting and twisting my plots like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube until I come across a pattern I find particularly pleasing.
It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible.
Because, let’s face it, what better way is there than solving puzzles to stave off the feeling of…I’m stumbling for the right word here…It’s something like boredom…Dammit, I’m supposed to be good at synonyms…Ah, that’s it: ennui.
⅄∀M∀H⊥∀H ƎNN∀ ؛∀ℲOS ؛(¡O oʇ\ᄅ H) ᴚƎ⊥∀M :sɹǝʍsu∀
Image Credit: Flickr/Chip Griffin