Friday, February 10, 2023

Answering questions about my reading history and habits

It's a quiet Friday night. Or at least as quiet as it gets in a house with 14 cats. They just had some cheese, and most of them are now resting. It sounds like one of them is trying to eat a chair in the other room, which is the biggest commotion at the moment. To my left, Nebula is a little riled up, but nothing too bad. Spice, Monkey and Titan are asleep to the right of me.

For fun, I gathered some "Questions for book lovers" from various websites and thought I'd just give it a whirl at answering some of them. 

1. What book are you reading right now? The photo above is staged. The actual answer is Maude Adams: Idol of American Theater, 1872-1953, by Armond Fields. I wrote about it on January 31 and am near the end now. 

2. What’s your next read going to be? I have no idea. Choosing the next book is so hard. I often end up staring at the shelves for a long time. Usually, it comes on a whim; whatever genre I'm in the mood for at a particular moment. So we'll just have to see...

3. What’s your favorite childhood book? Longtime followers of this blog know that's an easy one. It would be a Ruth Manning-Sanders book. I'll go with A Book of Wizards, because that's the one that stuck in my memory enough from the early 1980s so that I could track down a used copy in the early 2000s. There were plenty of other favorites from throughout childhood, too, including Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary's books (especially the Ramona series), The Three Investigators and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald (which I've yet to really write about).

4. Can you remember what your parents used to read you before bedtime? I'm sure it happened, but I don't have any specific memories from that far back. If Mom were still alive, I'm sure she could answer this question.

5. How many different books do you manage to read at once? I typically have one primary book that I'm reading, and then three or four other books beside my bed that I might pick up depending on my mood and/or if I only have a few minutes to read. One of them is always a browsing book, while there's also usually a collection of ghost stories in the pile.

6. Can you name a book that kept you up at night? When I was a teenager, I could read late into the night, perhaps plowing through a hundred or more pages. Most often, those were Stephen King books. Now, it doesn't matter how great or compelling the book is. If I read for 15 minutes before dozing off, it's an amazing accomplishment.

7. What is the saddest book you read? Most of the literary fiction I read these days is sad and/or downbeat. Two that come to mind from recent years are Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera and Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika.

8. Which horror book did you find the scariest? I think the younger you are, the scarier the scary books are. I enjoy ghost stories and horror novels now; I find them entertaining and a nice form of escapism, because it's the real world that turned out to be scary. I'm sure I'm forgetting some that traumatized me as a kid, but a few that stick out are The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson (yes, it's a novel), the "ghost hunter" books by Hans Holzer and Susy Smith and, from Stephen King, probably It and Misery. And, when it came to Generation X getting an early education that the real world was far more terrifying than anything horror writers could muster, there was nothing scarier than the Helter Skelter paperback, with its blood-red lettering on the cover.

9. Do you prefer e-books or physical books? Physical books! I've still never read an e-book.  

10. Do you enjoy audiobooks? They're fine, but I rarely find myself in a situation where listening to them is something I want to do. I've occasionally listened to them on long drives. I know some folks who listen to audiobooks while multi-tasking or doing chores. I don't want to do that. If I'm interested enough in a book, I'll read it. And if I'm listening to an audiobook, I need to give it my full attention. If I'm going to listen to something, I'd rather listen to a podcast, as there are so many good ones out there.

11. Do you read out loud? I sometimes read out loud for my job with the newspaper. When I'm editing copy or going over something that I wrote, reading aloud can help me make sure I didn't miss anything and that it reads smoothly.

12. What are your favorite and least favorite genres? I have many favorite genres! I will read almost any topic when it comes to nonfiction, because I always want to learn something new: history, science, health, computers and technology, sociology, anthropology, architecture, civil rights, weather, film history, books about books, nature, hiking, farming, transportation, food, mythology, gaming — and the list goes on. I also enjoy most kinds of fiction, but will admit that westerns and romances aren't my cup of tea. I've never read much poetry, but I'm trying to make a concerted effort to mix a little of that in.

13. Do you ever annotate books? Occasionally. I've found myself doing this with some books that would fall under the rubric of sociology or personal essays. Two authors, of many, who give me a lot to think about are Rebecca Solnit and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I fill those with highlighting and marginalia.

14. Do you write reviews about the books you read? I generally find myself more interested in reading reviews and analysis by others. I like to seek out perspectives I might have missed, praises and criticisms after finishing a book. I am more likely to review a book if not much else has been written about it. I figure that's when I can best contribute to the vast ocean of knowledge on the internet. For example, I posted my thoughts on Ruth Manning-Sanders' 1938 children's novel Adventure May Be Anywhere on Goodreads.

15. Did you ever buy a book you had already read? Only with a select few books, if I like the design or cover of another edition. I have a few different duplicate books by J.R.R. Tolkien, because the covers are so gorgeous. And I am strangely drawn to the various covers for William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland.

16. Do you want to visit a city or place just because you read about it in a book you loved? Does Hay-on-Wye count for this question? I'd love to go there. I like reading books about bookstores and their history, and I'd love to visit some of the iconic bookstores in the U.S., which is probably more feasible than hopping the Pond to get to Hay-on-Wye.

17. Have you ever met a writer in real life? I have many, many friends, colleagues and classmates who have written and published books. An incomplete list includes: Larry Alexander, Buffy Andrews, Ted Anthony, Mike Argento, Alisa Bowman, Joan Concilio, Dan Connolly, Bridget Doherty, Kimi EiseleMegan Erickson, Andrew Ervin, Leigh Gallagher, Mike Gross, Jessica HartshornDennis Hetzel, Tom Joyce, Bill Landauer, Lauri Lebo, Jim LewinCaroline Luzzatto, James McClure, Rissa Miller, Isabel Molina-Guzman, Kevin NaffDana O'Neil, Gregory Scopino, Leslie Gray Streeter, Beth Vrabel, Michael Weinreb and Laura Wexler. Go check out their works and discover something new to read!

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Weekend things: "The London Nobody Knows" and "Marjoe"

This is my worn-but-fine copy of The London Nobody Knows, which was written and illustrated by Geoffrey Fletcher (1923–2004) and first published in 1962. This is the 1965 Penguin paperback; so, it's not bad for a 58-year-old softcover that's been through multiple owners and bookshops. 

The nonfiction book's title is fairly self-explanatory, but the blurb on the back cover gives additional insight: "Geoffrey Fletcher, as the Sunday Telegraph has said, 'has an eye for what most of us miss.' His delightful scrapbook of off-beat London, with its clean drawings and entertaining text, is as enticing as Portobello Road on a Saturday afternoon." Fletcher checks out the "enamel advertisements, seedy terraces of perfect proportions, decorated cast-iron public lavatories, monumental masonry and fallen arches. Here is a rococo Victorian funeral parlour, there a splendid Hawksmoor Church, threatened by indifference and the breaker's hammer. And look! here is positively the last Yiddish theatre in London."

Of course, many things have changed in the six decades since this book's publication. Some of Fletcher's hidden gems are certainly gone forever. But there is good news, too. The "Hawksmoor Church" mentioned above is Christ Church Spitalfields, designed in the 1700s by Nicholas Hawksmoor. This book was written during its low point, but a multidecade restoration has returned much of the structure's former glory, as Wikipedia notes:
"By 1960 Christ Church was nearly derelict and services were held in the Church Hall (an ex Huguenot Chapel in Hanbury Street) as the roof of Christ Church itself was declared unsafe. The Hawksmoor Committee staved off the threat of wholesale demolition of the empty building — proposed by the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddleston — and ensured that the roof was rebuilt with funds from the sale of the bombed out shell of St John's, Smith Square, now a concert hall. ... In 1976 the Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields, an independent charity, was formed to raise money and project manage the restoration. ... the church was restored to its pre-1850 condition, working from the original building documents where possible, a process that stretched over more than 25 years."
Fletcher does most of his exploration on foot and many of his observations are of the type one can only glean via shoe leather on the sidewalk. In the chapter about Islington, he writes of the sights to be seen along Chapel Market: "The weeks before Christmas are the best time to go there, for it is then that market is most fully stocked with fruit, vegetables, poultry, and toys. Here the crowd gathers round a man selling boxes of cheap crackers, and a hawker with several days' growth of beard sells magic mice  —  white mice which run up and down his greasy sleeves. Those who buy them will find that there is nothing but a mouse of white wax inside the bag; the secret is in the manipulation; that is all."

I was surprised to learn that this 1962 book served as the basis for a 1969 documentary of the same name, which features actor James Mason as the guide/narrator. 

Much had changed — culturally if not structurally — in the seven years between 1962 and 1969. So I'm guessing the documentary has a different flavor. 

One IMDb reviewer, writing in 2011, describes the documentary as "a perfect artifact of a Britain before the almost complete Americanisation of its streets, industries and culture that was to come in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s." Another reviewer recommends it for fans of psychogeography. And I love this comment from a 2007 review: "I never had James Mason pegged as one to go wondering around the back streets of Spitalfields (where, then, some were still alive who could remember the Ripper murders....), old theatres in Camden, and Salvation Army hostels interviewing the unfortunates there."

Speaking of documentaries... 
... on Friday night I finally caught up with the Oscar-winning 1972 documentary Marjoe, and I'm still trying to wrap my brain around all of it. What an incredible story and historical document it is. 

For those unfamiliar, Marjoe Gortner (who recently turned 79) was forced into preaching by his parents at age 4; perhaps not a surprise, given that his first name is a portmanteau of Mary and Joseph. For more than a decade, his parents parlayed his speaking talents and precociousness into a cash cow on the revival circuit. He never saw any of the money (he says they made millions) and set out on his own in San Francisco at age 16. Eventually, in need of money as a young adult, he returned to the only thing he'd ever been taught: deploying his charisma and persuasive speaking about God and the Bible as a traveling preacher. The money was great, but he grew tired of the deception. 

So, in 1971, he agreed to let a documentary crew "out" him as a charlatan during one final tour of the revival circuit. The documentary switches back and forth between Gortner's sermons, all of which end with his call for parishioners to "get our your wallets," and hotel interviews in which he conveys a sense of self-loathing but also anger at how that type of evangelism is a rigged to separate the faithful from their money.

Gortner knew the gig would be up for him after the documentary was released, and in fact that's what he was counting on, so that he wouldn't be tempted to live his double life any longer. He worked as an actor throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly, many of his roles cast him as a villain or deceiver, including the TV movie The Gun and the Pulpit, Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (co-starring Lynda Carter) and the movie that critics tend to his consider his best performance, When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?

With a running time of less than 90 minutes, Marjoe has a dizzying amount to say about bad parenting; the lifelong effects of childhood trauma; the greed, deception and hypocrisy of some religious institutions and leaders; the gullibility of the masses and the state of America in the early 1970s. And this was before that decade's rise of televangelism, which allowed people to be separated from their money without even having to leave their homes.

I think this headline on one IMDb review sums up Marjoe well: "Award-Winning Documentary that Had No Effect on Americans." 

(As an aside, it's also incredibly depressing to watch the young documentary filmmakers, who are often in the shots in which Gortner is interviewed, essentially chainsmoking through each scene. But the rise and marketing of Big Tobacco to generations of Americans is a topic for other days and other documentaries.)

Watching a documentary as compelling as Marjoe often jump-starts me down a rabbit hole of finding other documentaries about niche elements of culture and our world, especially from the 1960s and 1970s. I already mentioned 1969's The London Nobody Knows. A few others I now want to track down include 1967's Holy Ghost Peoplethe 1967 Soviet documentary 235 000 000, and 1971's The Moon and the Sledgehammer. Other recommendations heartily welcome!