Friday, August 30, 2019

Keeping bookstores alive

As part of our campaign to keep traditional bookstores alive, we go, my wife and I, to our local Barnes & Noble once a month at least, enjoy a cup of coffee, and peruse a selection of books, some of which we buy.

Today, I was happy to spot two new novels by authors I have long admired: Pat Barker, whose Regeneration trilogy about World War I and shell shock, is a fine writer from England.  In her latest work of fiction, "The Silence of the Girls," she looks at the Trojan War through feminist eyes, specifically, and with graphic detail, at what a woman sees and thinks of the male world of war and violence.  Barker has kept her literary focus on the effects of war, this time seeing Achilles not as a god-like hero but a butcher. Innovative and written with her great intelligence and sensitivity.

The other book is by Richard Russo, whose American novels of the middle class and academia combine great humor with memorable characters. His latest, "Chances Are," chronicles the lives of three men in their sixties as they remember their college years and all that followed.  I recall laughing out loud at "Straight Man" and admiring "Nobody's Fool," and now, having read the opening of Russo's latest, I look forward to savoring every page.

As we left the bookstore, we couldn't help wondering how many more years it would be still standing, given the online sale of books by and to people like me.  Do I feel guilty keeping Amazon profitable?  No since the convenience of home delivery for dozens of items is unbeatable; but when I buy books, I want to see and feel and hold a book in a bricks and mortar store in a cozy cafĂ© with coffee and other readers. . . .Wait a minute: isn't my new cat book* available chiefly on Amazon?  Where else?

*The Cat Who Converted the Pope, a comic tale with a moral about mindfulness, by Gerald J. Schiffhorst, just published this month.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Visiting my new home

When my wife, Lynn, who has a wicked sense of humor, refers to our cemetery lot, she usually refers to it as  "our future home."  So when the monument maker called this week to say that the granite marker we had ordered in the spring was ready to be installed, I asked her, "should we invite people to a wine and cheese--like a housewarming party?"

Laughter is certainly helpful in dealing with matters of mortality, the topic we Americans tend to avoid (except when we indulge our love of guns and watch our fellow citizens being shot nearly every day).

It was a positive approach to death and dying that led me last year to give a talk at our church on "Making Friends with Death."  The resulting essay is now almost ready for publication on Kindle.  And then this year to order a "pre-need" monument for the graves where one day our remains will lie.

I found that writing about my deepest fear was the only way to deal with it, and that talking about it with others was essential. I am not, as they say, getting any younger.  It was also useful to find quotations from wise men and women over the centuries who have, without being morbid, reflected on the fact that, as Shakespeare wrote, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."

Now, having made some basic funeral plans and preparations, I feel a bit less anxious. I try to see death as an inevitable part of life and a great transition--to what? To that unknown realm where so many people dear to me now dwell.

To talk about death is to talk about the meaning of life and the need for faith in coping with the darkness. I want to feel comfortable with the darkness, even with the fact that my identity, memory and consciousness will be forever erased when my body dies.  What remains will be, I hope, happy, at least free from the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet again, sorry).

As the great 16th century poet and mystic St. John of the Cross wrote, "I don't know what lies on the other side, when everything for me is turned into eternity; I only know that a great love awaits me."

I thought of this when Lynn and I went alone this week to look at our new monument, carefully carved with our names (spelled correctly, to my relief). There was no need for a party.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Brilliant Writing

When would-be authors ask me what great writing is, I usually ask them what they've read and am invariably distressed to see how little reading they do.

A better response might be to ask them, "Do you read Anthony Lane in the New Yorker? You should. You will learn what great writing is."

Lane is the main reason I maintain a subscription to that magazine since his witty and literate film reviews are gems. Not long ago I found on sale his book of reviews (book as well as movie reviews) called "Nobody's Perfect."   As I skim through these brilliant essays on everything from The Godfather to obituaries in the New York Times to T. S. Eliot, whose work he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, I delight in the wide range of his interests and tastes, from high to low-brow. He puts just as much attention on the latest Hollywood non-starter as on Nabokov or Shakespeare on film (the topic of one of his longer essays).  And it is obvious that he has honed and polished his sentences to a high gloss, a great gift to any reader.

I read Anthony Lane with (I must admit) a bit of envy at not being a Brit, the kind of highly literate guy who seems to have read everything and seen nearly everything else and who expresses himself with panache.  American critics and actors rarely seem to have the range and depth that make writers like Lane sparkle without being snobbish.

In his most recent review (August 26, 2019), Lane makes a memorable comment about the importance of listening, about how it is the most "delicate of the dramatic arts."  He cites an anecdote from the life of Alec Guinness, who was told by a senior actor doing Shakespeare, "Don't just look at me. Listen. Listen."   What applies to intelligent actors also applies to everyday life. I spent several hours at a dinner party recently across from a couple who were interesting to talk to but whose faces registered no feeling, no interest in who I was; they were not really paying attention to who I was. We shared opinions and experiences but went away as strangers.  They never asked me any questions in an effort to know me. They heard  what I said but never really listened.

That evening, I watched Ingrid Bergman, in close up shots, in Hitchcock's "Notorious" and I saw a woman I could know, a face that registered fear and love and regret and so much more.  She was really listening.

I am grateful to Anthony Lane for mentioning this topic in his typically thoughtful review, and I am grateful to writers like him who make the ordinary (movie review) into something special, a work of art in itself.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Home Movies: A Manifesto about Subtitles

Like many of our friends, we are fans of Netflix and enjoy watching recent and not-so-recent films at home.

The only problem I have has nothing to do with Netflix but with the DVD producers, who provide subtitles so small that they are mostly useless.

Last night, we watched "The Aftermath," set in post-war (1945) Germany. Though an English-language movie, it of course contains dialogue in German, some of it important but none of it intelligible to us since the small white subtitles were of no use.  The week before, we had an foreign film with white subtitles against snowy scenes and white backgrounds: we had to return the video, unwatched.  This is a common problem with a simple remedy.

There should be an industry standard requiring that all subtitles be done in yellow, in sizeable type. For some reason, most of the credits in contemporary movies are done in what I call an elegantly minimalist style: small and narrow, perhaps fine on the big screen but certainly not created with the home viewer in mind.

I hope that, in putting this issue "out there," someone will know whom to contact to make proper subtitles on DVD movies a reality.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Cats, books, and editing

The sequel, of sorts, to my 2003 book, "Writing with Cats," will at last be published this week.  After six weeks of editing and formatting and working with my designer, and interfacing with the printer and doing technical things I didn't know existed, at last the process is complete.

Writing THE CAT WHO CONVERTED THE POPE was great fun (and those who've seen the  cover love it), but fussing with the details of online publication is not for sissies. I was amazed that, after reading the final text six or seven times, my wife and editor, Lynn, found three typos; after I made those changes, but after the printing began, I found another error (word missing).  @#!!  Howl, howl.....

Now I am asking friends to spread the word via social media and look forward to local book signings in Oct. and Nov. before I order a second (corrected yet again) edition.

Taking a break from producing this book, I turned to some internet reading and at once encountered the kind of recurring error that boggles my mind: educated people who think the plural of life is LIFE'S....Why is it that even writers with college degrees can 't master the apostrophe? They can deal with algorithms and ibuprofen and countless other scientific names, but the humble mark of punctuation that shows possession (Jack's book) is beyond reckoning.

Today on the internet I saw the word "shes": the writer meant she's or she is. Here the apostrophe is used for a contraction, to signal a missing word. But it is NEVER used to form the plural--except (there is always an exception) in those rare cases when we have the option of pluralizing initials: "know your ABC's" or "three M.D.'s"

My plea to the world: do not add -s to words to indicate plural; just add an -s (or -es, if needed) to most words: Book, books; box, boxes.

But having learned in completing my new book that having three sets of eyes is often not enough to detect errors, I vow to be more tolerant of bad editing (and the speedy writing that leads to it) and smile and carry on.

My other request is that anyone who wants a laugh, even if they don't like cats, or anyone who wants a reminder abut the need for mindfulness and calming silence should rush to and look for THE CAT WHO CONVERTED THE POPE.  You don't have to be Cat-lick to love it.  To dog lovers, I say: cat books make great gifts.

Now  I will give you an idea of the back of the book:

The great thing about cats is that they combine dignity with comicality”—T. S. Eliot

           The great thing about Gerald Schiffhorst’s new book--


      --is that it is both amusing and spiritual, with lessons about mindfulness for today’s busy readers, whether they’re “Cat-licks” or not.


          In this book by the author of Writing with Cats, Professor Gerald Schiffhorst shows why cats are models of mindfulness.  The story of a fictional Pope and his unlikely feline adviser, Simon Goodfellow, reveals what “Cat-licks” can teach us, and the Guide to Feline Spirituality explains why silence and meditation are important in an overly busy, noisy, stressful world.                                                                                                                                 

“I loved Simon Goodfellow’s wanderings, but his ponderings about being quiet and calm are the best part of this enjoyable book.” --Kurt Navratil, Roanoke, VA

“The author of this delightful book certainly knows how a cat’s mind works.”—Cynthia Gerken, Winter Park, FL

2019              $15                        ISBN 978-0-9745531-1-15