Saturday, September 29, 2012

Two Excellent Storytellers

I'm visiting home for the weekend, and had waiting for me two books by two men I've admired for a long, long time and who turned out to be wonderful storytellers.

The first book is called Forerunners Courageous: Stories of Frontier Florida, written by LeRoy Collins, subject of my last post, and published in 1971.  In the book I mentioned in that post, Martin A. Dyckman's Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins, Dyckman quotes a poem called "Growing Up," which Collins wrote.  It treats of his youth in Tallahassee, a small Southern town, and how the things he saw around him affected him.  In that poem, we see the seed of the governor and the man he became.  It's a wonderful poem, and I had to read the entire thing, which is why I bought Forerunners Courageous.

I would have to say that Forerunners Courageous is to LeRoy Collins what Profiles in Courage was to John F. Kennedy.  Each book gave a glimpse into the man, into what each valued, the common denominator of which was courage.

Collins's genteel, gentle sense of humor comes through as well, in the parts that are originally his.  Much of the book consists in his retelling of old Florida tales such as the duel between Leigh Read and Augustus Alston, a tragic story of the consequences of taking the law into one's own hands.  But there is a great deal of himself, in his own words and thoughts, in the chapter titled "Reflections of a Part-Time Beachcomber."  That title refers to his summer home on the Gulf of Mexico which, during his governorship, provided a refuge from the towering problems he had to deal with, a place to think and reflect.  The chapter includes the poem, "Growing Up," and prose musings as well.  The last part of the book is devoted to the life and family of one of Florida's territorial governors, Richard Keith Call.  Collins's wife Mary was a Call, a direct descendant of the territorial governor.  The chapter weaves its story within a framework that centers upon The Grove, a mansion in Tallahassee, next door to the present governor's mansion, and which was the seat of the Call family.  In fact, when Collins became governor, the governor's mansion was in such terrible condition that Collins and his family lived at The Grove, which Mary had inherited.  The old governor's mansion was eventually torn down, and a new one built on the same lot.

Reading this book, and having read Dyckman's biography, I am glad that I have admired LeRoy Collins, and glad that I did have that chance on one balmy day in Tallahassee to meet him and talk with him for a brief time.  I like thinking men, and I like LeRoy Collins.

I also like handsome men, and to my eyes one of the handsomest of the 20th century was Robert Stack (though LeRoy Collins was no slouch in that department, either!).  Robert Stack is most famous for being the host of Unsolved Mysteries and also for his role in the 1959-1963 series The Untouchables, in which he portrayed fictional exploits of a very real historical character, Prohibition agent Eliot Ness.    Stack is the author of the autobiography Straight Shooting (1980), a title which refers not only to his direct style of speaking but also to his career as a champion skeet shooter.  He held many records during his lifetime, and taught famous actors such as Clark Gable, how to shoot.

Robert Stack likewise reveals his sense of humor in these pages -- a sense of humor a good deal more earthy and bawdy than that of LeRoy Collins!  That sense of humor is more often than not directed at himself, as he tells stories of Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system.  Robert Stack grew up in Hollywood, second son of a wealthy, socially-prominent family of old Californians.  Many of the lights in the Hollywood firmament were family friends, including Carole Lombard, the beautiful actress who died tragically in an airplane crash.  She was 13-year-old Robert's first crush.

Alex Haley once wrote, "An old person dying is like a library burning."  Robert Stack grew up in Hollywood, knew many of the famous and not-so-famous, and when he left this life early in this century, he took with him massive volumes of Hollywood lore.  Some of that is preserved in these pages.  He was not an elitist, from what he tells us.  He hung around with mechanics and stablemen and other "common" people, and seems to have gotten along with all of them.  (In that, he reminds me of my husband, who can carry on great conversations with millionaires or mechanics, and have a great time doing it.)

Robert Stack's wife, Rosemarie Bowe, an actress and model, has a chapter in the book as well, and it is as funny and engaging as her husband's chapters are.  Her sense of humor about herself shows that they were a good match for each other.  She was a gorgeous lady, and a very lucky one, from where I'm sitting!  (Though I have my own good luck, too.)

I love books that can make me laugh out loud, or say, "Oh, my gosh!" or even bring a tear.  These two books are lively and full of the love of life, poignant in places, and revealing of two very human and humane men.  They are highly recommended.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Floridian of His Century

One of the books assigned for the class Florida Politics Since World War II is Martin A. Dyckman's Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins.

Collins was elected in 1954 in a special election to fill out the term of Governor Dan McCarty, who died in office of a heart attack.  Collins defeated the "Pork Chop Gang" member Charley Johns, who, as president of the state senate, had become acting governor upon McCarty's death.  The "Pork Chop Gang" was a small clique of North Florida rural senators and representatives who held power out of all proportion to their numbers due to a crying need for reapportionment which had gone unheeded for decades.  A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1967 finally resulted in proper apportionment, which eliminated the power of the "Pork Chop Gang" and provided for more equitable and reasonable representation in Florida.

Collins, born and raised in Tallahassee, was raised in the racist, segregationist tradition of the South.  However, he was blessed with a mind and a conscience, and with the ability to examine his beliefs and values, and to change when change was needed.  And it was needed.

Collins won re-election to a full term in 1956, and through his evolving stand on civil rights, calling discrimination an offense to "moral, simple justice," became probably the greatest governor Florida has yet had.  He wanted to be the one to institute the reapportionment mentioned above, but was thwarted by the "Pork Chop Gang."  He also wanted a constitutional revision to update the existing constitution, which dated from 1885, and which was inadequate to the needs of a rapidly-growing Florida.  He did not succeed in either one.  Reapportionment took a federal Supreme Court decision, as mentioned above, and the constitution was not replaced until 1968.

After his term as governor was up, there being term limits in those days which limited a governor to one term, he went on to serve in other ways.  He was able to have that full term after the first two years in which he filled out McCarty's term because of a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that a governor was entitled to a full term.

I met LeRoy Collins one day in Tallahassee, in 1969, when I was an undergraduate at Florida State University.  Three roommates and I, who had been together in another residence, rented an apartment in an old house which had been broken up into apartments.  Our landlady was LeRoy Collins's mother. She was a genteel, gentle lady with impeccable manners to all.  One day, one of my roommates came up the stairs, having been out, and told us that LeRoy Collins was downstairs.  We all tromped down the stairs with, "Oh, Governor Collins.  It's such an honor to meet you."  He smiled broadly, appearing flattered to be the object of attention from such a gaggle of enthusiastic young women.  He shook hands all around, and talked with us for a while, then we tromped back upstairs to leave him with his mother.  We were on a cloud, having met one of Florida's living heroes.

Anyone wanting to read an engaging biography of an engaging man who was in the right place at the right time at an important juncture in this state's and this nation's history could not do better than to read this book.  More radical people could criticize Collins for not having pushed harder, but he was wise in knowing that pushing too hard could have caused more violence than Florida did experience.  His moral leadership made a difference in a number of ways, not least of which was to inspire my generation in Florida much as John F. Kennedy inspired us across the nation.  The stand that LeRoy Collins did make was bold at the time and in the place in which he made it.

He deserves his place in Florida's history.
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Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Numbers Behind NUMB3RS

I just finished reading The Numbers Behind NUMB3RS: Solving Crime with Mathematics by Keith Devlin and Gary Lorden (New York:  Plume Books [Penguin], 2007).  Devlin is NPR's "Math Guy" and Lorden was the math consultant on the TV series NUMB3RS, to which this book is related.

The book discusses some of the mathematical tools and theories that we see math genius and professor Charlie Eppes use on the series.  I confess that I did not nearly understand all of the book, as I am pretty much a mathophobe.  However, I enjoyed NUMB3RS, as did my mathematically-inclined husband, because it was a well-written and well-acted series with interesting stories. The Detective/Police genre is my favorite (as if one could not tell from references in entries on this blog).

Possibly the authors could have explained some of their points in a way that laypersons such as myself could better understand, but I don't regard this as a serious complaint.  I was intrigued by a number (not to be punny) of the concepts dealt with in the book, and how these are being applied in crime-fighting today.  Nice to know that such fine minds as those described in the book are applying themselves to solving problems in crime detection and the pursuit of perpetrators.

An appendix gives a "mathematical synopsis" of plots of the episodes of the first three seasons (the book was written while the series was running).  I have all six seasons on DVD, a Christmas gift from my husband.

People who enjoy reading the story behind the story, those interested in reading about the sciences in general, those interested in math, and people as enchanted as I was by the TV series will enjoy this book.  Even if you, like me, do not completely understand all of the explanations.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

"The Untouchables" Drinking Game

This is just for fun.  It's peripherally related to a book, actually to one I read when I was a teenager.  That is to say, The Untouchables by Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley.  It was this book which was the basis for the television series that aired from 1959 to 1963 and starred Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, the U.S. Treasury agent who formed a special squad of incorruptible men to take on the beer empire of Al Capone.  They weakened Capone enough so that the Internal Revenue Bureau was able to come in and audit his books, building a case against him for income tax evasion. 

The book is, to be kind about it, embellished in its telling of the tale.  There are liberties taken with facts.  But it is a good and exciting read, at any rate.  I also enjoyed the TV series, and am enjoying it again on DVD.  I have the first three seasons, and season 4 comes out in July.



Game requirements:
1.  The episodes (four seasons) of the original Desilu Productions series “The Untouchables” (1959-1963) starring Robert Stack.
2,  This list.
3.  Beverages of choice.
4. Players – the more, the merrier!

Instructions:
While watching an episode, when a condition of this list is met, take the recommended number and type of drinks.  A “sip” is just that – a small amount of beverage.  A “gulp” is a large amount of beverage.  A “chug” is to drain your glass.  Refill as needed.

Warning:
            Remember, you are watching “The Untouchables.”  As you are imbibing alcoholic beverages, be warned that you could be raided.

I.  Generic actions

A dress worn by an actress or extra in a previous episode
            is worn by another in the current episode.                  1 sip

A dress worn by an actress in a previous episode is worn
            by the SAME actress in the current episode               chug

Someone kills someone else instantly while his
            gun seems aimed at something  (or someone)
            other than the intended target                                      chug

A prop you have seen in another episode turns
            up in this one (not including guns or cars)                  1 gulp

A prop looks like something that might appear
            on Antiques Roadshow                                                1 gulp

You actually have seen that prop on Antiques Roadshow       chug

Stock footage is used                                                               1 gulp

The stock footage used reveals a temporal anomaly
            (i.e., cars from the 1940s or 1950s, etc.)                     chug

A temporal anomaly turns up in a non-stock scene                1 gulp
            (such as Anne Francis reading “Prevention”
            magazine – not published until the early 1950s –
            in “The Doreen Maney Story”)

Someone is wearing glasses, but there are
            no lenses in them                                                         1 gulp

A woman screams                                                                   1 sip

Mountains show up in the background when
            the scene is set in a place where there are
            no mountains (Illinois, Indiana, Florida)                    chug

Someone – good guy or bad – fires more
            that six shots from a .38 revolver                               1 sip per gun

A flute solo plays when someone dies or
            is about to die                                                              1 sip

A man slaps a woman                                                             1 sip

A woman slaps a man                                                             1 gulp
 
A woman is the boss of whatever criminal operation             1 gulp

Someone takes out a pack of cigarettes, lights a
            cigarette or is in a smoke-filled room                       1 sip per weed

Someone takes a drink (this will get you plastered)               1 sip

Someone takes a drink and spits it out because it
             is rotgut                                                                      1 gulp

Someone takes a drink directly from a bottle                          1 gulp

Someone drinks directly from a bottle, then someone else
            drinks from the same bottle                                         1 gulp

Someone (other than Eliot Ness) breaks a bottle                     1 sip

II.  The Ensemble Effect

An actor who played a good guy (including one of
            the Untouchables) in one or more other episodes
            plays a bad guy in the current episode                         1 gulp

An actor who played a bad guy in one or more other
            episodes plays a good guy (including one of the
            Untouchables) in the current episode.                          1 gulp

Any actor or actress makes a repeat appearance                      1 sip

An actor makes a repeat appearance in the same role              1 gulp

A bad guy shows up repeatedly, played by the same               1 sip
           actor (Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti does not count)

A bad guy shows up repeatedly, played by different                1 gulp
           actors
 
III.  Eliot Ness

Ness pushes his hat up just a bit                                                1 sip

Ness hits a wall or a table with his fist                                      1 sip

Ness hits some hood with the back of his hand                        1 sip

Ness goes out of control on some hood and the
            other guys have to restrain him                                     1 gulp

Ness throws himself on the floor to fire at a bad guy               1 gulp

Ness says he’ll protect someone and
            they end up dead                                                           1 gulp

Someone asks to meet with Ness but is murdered
            before the meeting can take place                                 1 gulp

Someone tries to bribe Ness                                                      1 gulp

Someone orders a hit on Ness                                                   1 gulp

Ness lights a match with his thumbnail                                     1 gulp

Ness breaks a bottle.                                                                  1 gulp

A woman makes a pass at Ness.                                                1 sip

A woman slaps Ness                                                                  1 gulp

Ness gets slugged, beaten, or otherwise injured                        1 gulp

Ness actually mentions his wife                                                 chug

Ness hooks a thumb on a trouser pocket                                    1 sip

Ness taps his thumb or finger (either hand)
            while thinking, debating, talking,
            or deciding something                                                    1 sip

IV.  The Untouchables (singly or as a group)

The team stands in the open with bullets flying
            all around, and none of them get hit.                              1 gulp

Untouchable Jack Rossman has no lines                                    1 gulp

One of the Untouchables gets shot and no one
            reacts or goes to his aid                                                  1 gulp

 One of the Untouchables dies       Stand and raise a toast to a fallen hero.

The Untouchables get a government
            car or other government property trashed                      1 gulp

One of the Untouchables holds a loaded gun so that
            it points to another one or to a civilian                          1 gulp

An Untouchable who died in a previous episode
            shows up in a later one                                                   1 gulp

An Untouchable is beaten up, shot, or otherwise
            assaulted (includes single blows)                                   1 gulp

Any of the good guys respectfully removes his
            hat in the presence of a dead person                               1 gulp

The Untouchables grill a suspect under bright lights                 1 sip

A wiretap installed by the Untouchables is found out
             and destroyed                                                                1 sip


The bad guys put a wiretap on the Untouchables                      1 gulp
One of the team brings the rest coffee                                        1 sip

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The TRQ

TRQ is the abbreviation I and friends of mine use for "to-read queue," the list of books we have waiting to be read.  Since I will be starting graduate school in the fall, I am planning to spend the summer reading at least one, if not two, books per week.  And as I will be concentrating on history, and specifically on Florida history, here is my TRQ for the summer:

Paul E. Hoffman, Florida's Frontiers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).  A graduation gift from friends.  I told them I was going to have fun with this one, because I've had some bones to pick with the author.


Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession: Europe's Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Margaret R. Greer, Walter D. Mignolo, and Maureen Quilligan, eds. Rereading the Black Legend: The Discourses of Religious and Racial Differences in the Renaissance Empires (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).  The "Black Legend" refers to the reputation the Spanish gained for brutality and greed in the conquest of the New World.  This legend arose out of accusations made by Bartolomé de las Casas, whose writings castigated what he saw as maltreatment of aboriginal peoples, and was fueled by Great Britain, as it was to her advantage to 'diss' Spain.

 Marc Bloch.  The Historian's Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It (New York: Vintage Books, 1953).  Big title, small book, and the title says it all.

Georg G. Iggers.  Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997).

Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, eds. The Houses of Hisory: A Critical Reader in Twentieth Century History and Theory (New York: New York University Press, 1999).

José Rabasa.  Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

José Rabasa.  Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century New Mexico and Florida and te Legacy of Conquest (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

Matthew Restall.  Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

I also plan to indulge in some light reading, some of which I haven't selected yet.  It looks like a formidable list.  It will be good practice!
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Sunday, October 23, 2011

I Beg to Differ: Outlining is not a Killer

The Blog Quips & Tips for Successful Writers says in this entry that we should not outline because, briefly:

It kills creativity.
It dulls the urge to tell a story.
It makes writing a duty rather than fun.
It organizes (rather than inspires) your writing.
It leads to "dull, stale writing."

Eh. Well. Yes and no. Or perhaps just maybe. It depends, first of all, on the individual. For shorter pieces, such as blog entries, I do not sit down and write out a formal outline. I don't even jot down ideas. But I have a mental outline. What do I have to say on the subject? What points do I want to use to support my argument? It isn't fancy or detailed, but it is there, because it is a guidepost to try to keep me from going too far off the rails.

I need it because I very much have a tendency to go off the rails. So I have to have something that tells me, "Hey! Get back on topic!" An outline, for longer pieces, does that for me.

One point mentioned above is that outlining dulls the urge to tell a good story. The blogger writes, "Probably the worst aspect of outlining is that, by its nature, it emphasizes the importance of fact over story." Now, I can take that in at least two ways. What I think the blogger means is that we do not want to have our writing become dull and dry, like the history books we had in high school, because we are concentrating too much on marshaling facts than on making the prose readable. But as a historian, I have to be sure my facts are straight, that they are properly sourced, and that my argument is logical and supports my thesis. Without the plan of an outline, I cannot be sure that these criteria will be met.

Will outlining dull my prose? Not a bit of it. Because I will not allow that. The writer must not give up responsibility for the clarity and flow of her or his prose. That is our responsibility. My responsibility. One review of my first book, Booking Hawaii Five-0 said that my prose is "crisp and elegant." It did not get that way on its own. I worked at it. I polished it. I rewrote, revised, and edited until I was blue in the face. Writing very often is more work than fun; it is the nature of the beast.  So, yes, sometimes it does seem more like a duty than a lark.  That's the real world, dearie.  Cope.

I see nothing wrong with writing being organized.  I prefer to read organized prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, than disorganized nonsense.  I really do not see that organization and inspiration are mutually exclusive.  Organize first, then open yourself to that inspiration.  Frankly, I think it works easier that way. 

The blogger in question is promoting mind mapping, a technique of loose association, which she says will lead more surely to the "Aha!" moment than any outlining could possibly think of providing.  For some people, I am sure that is so.  However, I find that most of my "Aha!" moments come when I'm in the research phase, when I'm discovering the facts and making my notes and reading documents and thinking -- all the time, day or night (and staying awake longer than I need to) -- about my project in all sorts of ways.  Maybe what is happening there is that I am doing my "mind mapping" internally rather than externally.  I can accept that, embrace it, even.  So by the time I get to the outline, I have usually had a whole bunch of "Aha!" moments, and I find as well that as I am outlining and marshaling my thoughts and facts, I can check again for associations which might be new discoveries, more "Aha!" moments, and see that this all logically hangs together.

So there are those of us who can do better with outlining, who find that it does not harm our writing in the least.  As we used to say in the 1960s, do your own thing!
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Help for Writers, Hurt for Writers

There is a great website maintained by the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) with some assistance from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and the Romance Writers of America (RWA).  It is called Writer Beware, and it exists to provide information to budding writers about the publishing industry, agents, and those seemingly ubiquitous slime who prey on the unwary with scams. There is a particularly disturbing undercurrent going on, about which Writer Beware has posted.  There is a group out there, about which you can read in the posting (highlighted on the words "disturbing undercurrent"), which has apparently dedicated itself to attacking anyone who would perform "watchdog" services for writers by pointing out scams and schemes of which they need to beware.  I am not going to mention their name here: I do not feel like it.

On Goodreads, they had posted unfavorable criticism of the books written by people affiliated with Writer Beware, including people who merely commented on the blog postings to thank Writer Beware for alerting them to scams.  They consisted not in literary critique of the work in question, but in a one-liner saying that the book had been "banned."  I always have a problem with someone who adversely remarks on a book (or movie or other form of art) without having first READ or VIEWED the thing!  As a former librarian, I also have a problem with anyone who would presume to set themselves up as censors.

But there is one tactic they have proposed which I find deeply disturbing, even the mere mention of it: They said they were going to organize a book-burning of books by authors whom they had put on their "propaganda watch list."   Again, these are all writers who are affiliated with Writer Beware, even if only having made a comment on a blog posting.

Even today, more than 65 years after the end of World War II, the phrase book-burning conjures up one image:  See it here.

Enough said that these people have put themselves in with some extremely unsavory company.
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