The Silent Gift — Review by Chris

Carole can tell a story. In fact, her entire family has the gift: a trip to the grocery store that afternoon or remembering how television channels were changed "back in the day" can make me laugh so hard my face hurts and want to talk until all hours just to hear how it turns out.

Even when regaling the story of a movie or television show, the clan can rock. However, there is a difference: when they do not own the story, there's a distance between the storyteller and the tale.

For them, it's not bad. For Michael Landon, Jr. and Cindy Kelly, it's a deal-breaker.

Landon and Kelly have that problem with The Silent Gift. They don't own the story, so they tell it from a distance. The writers try too hard to create nonchalance in their story, but they can't hide the stress of too many wrong words too carefully chosen to create clumsy clues that blurt out the storyline, rather than provide a foreshadowing or creating a path that carries the story forward.

The novel begins with a rush: a terrible, exciting scene involving fast driving, death and birth, beginning and the end. Then the reader goes from 60 to zero when we meet the characters in their everyday life.

Mary is wooden and stilted, but there's no clue as to why, so she remains simply clunky rather than reserved and complicated. Every plot complication is due to her unexplained, unexpected action. All we see, all we know is what's on the page, and that's scant at best. Jack is almost invisible — which should be impossible, considering the third-person narrative focuses on Mary and she's focused on Jack. Jerry is a caricature who doesn't really even deserve a name, let alone any space in the narrative. He sweeps in with everything and nothing. The reader doesn't know, and with Mary's leaden characterization, the reader doesn't really care.

The story evolves around the action of a deaf-mute boy who cannot communicate. Out of nowhere he has skills he was neither taught nor would he understood what they meant. His mother, who after spending one night on a Salvation Army cot, suddenly becomes an expert in scripture, making connections between her son's actions and a complex book she admits to never having read herself, and not having even listened to since she was a child. It's not a miracle, just an unlikely plot complication. I just don't believe it.

Full disclosure: I didn't finish the book. I didn't want to. I have been reading long enough to know how many pages to give a book to make its case. I gave this book 93 pages, which is only a quarter of the novel but far more than it deserved, and it never captured my attention and imagination. I didn't find myself wondering what comes next. I didn't delight in the characters, despite their hardships. I didn't try to guess how the story would unfold. I have no idea what Mary looks like, what Jack looks like. I can't picture their surroundings, the cities in which they find themselves. I can't see it, and that only happens when my imagination is not engaged. When I see only the words on the page, I put down the book.

I wanted to like this book, but I didn't.


Electronic Books: Would I Go There?

Electronic book machines are coming out of the woodwork these days, surprisingly enough, in time for Christmas. As a lifelong reader, the question arises: would I go there?

Well, I already have, in my own way: I read my news on the computer.

I read the Washington Post, New York Times, AP News and BBC News on my computer daily. Those sources are in my browser toolbars, and I click on them before I open any other pages. I peruse the headlines and scan the pages to see what the media think I need to know. I regret to admit that I do not subscribe to any print news sources or newspapers (though I would be glad to support the Web sites I use with a subscription).

I do receive sales papers on my doorstep — and, when my neighbor Kathy is home on a Sunday, her copy of the Sunday WaPo. (That's Washington Post, for those of you outside of the metro D.C. area.)

As a former newspaper reporter, I should be ashamed. I should have ink flowing through my veins. I don't. I hate newsprint ink on my fingers, hands, arms and clothing after reading the paper. (No, I don't roll around in the paper to get that dirty. Try carrying newspapers in your arms and see how much ink winds up on your clothes. Smarty.) However, I love the news. Good heavens, I just realized: I'm a news junkie!

But back to the topic. I like the neatness of e-newspapers. I can read news stories on the computer all day. Well, let me clarify: I can read news articles for short bursts on and off all day. I do not stare at the screen for hours absorbing the news, not even on the weekends.

News articles have shortened to the point that Jeff Goldblum's character noted in The Big Chill: you can read the articles while on the toilet. (You're welcome for the paraphrasing.) I still read, and love, longer articles — but I rarely find them, and often wind up having to read them in installments, especially those from The New Yorker magazine. (The cartoons, thankfully, I still can read in one shot.)

But books — would I go "e"? No, books for me are not meant for the monitor or LCD, even when it's small and pocket-sized.

Some multi-feature cellular telephones have book-reading applications, but I don't want to use my cellular telephone to read a book. I'd go blind. The 3-inch screen is not meant to do more than show me what the phone is doing at that very moment.

I don't want a machine I carry in my purse, briefcase or backpack. I've tried viewing my digital camera's LCD screen in the sunlight, and I don't want to have to fight the sun, which is supposed to make reading easier because of its helpful light. I don't want to worry about dropping it and having to shell out a few hundred dollars more to replace it. I don't want to have to worry about it falling in a pool or getting splashed at the beach. My family kills electronics in water or finds their phones wiped clean of all information, and I don't want to follow suit with something I can't afford to replace regularly.

Would a machine make it easier to carry around my library? Would it reduce my pathological hoarding of books? (I have regaled my friends time and again with stories of the 25¢ copy of The Phantom Tollbooth for the home library, so I can lend out multiple copies at a time, or a dime for Franklin's autobiography.) Could I get some classics for free online and carry them with me to read at any time? Absolutely.

And yet....

I enjoy the heft of a book in my hand. I take pleasure in reading in direct sunlight (or by flashlight, even). I feel at home surrounded by stack of books on my nightstand and thousands of books piled on every flat surface in my home. I like perusing the spines to see what looks good, both at home and in commercial settings. I am gleeful to find Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth in the thrift store bookshelves.

If I drop it in the tub, a book will dry, ultimately (though it never will be the smooth volume it once was). I can (and have) dropped my books down the stairs, lost a grip on an entire box of them and watched them crash to the ground or come to a stop on the landing. The cats have knocked over stacks, curled up on whatever I set down on the bed or table and chewed the corner or two of whatever distracted me from them.

My favorite place on the planet was Acres of Books, the now-defunct used bookstore in Long Beach, Calif., whose name was a literal description of the store and its inventory, with row upon row of towering bookshelves only shoulder-width apart. (Vicky would spend short bursts of time with me in there, bless her claustrophobic heart.)

In short: I love books. I do not plan to surrender them for anything "e."

Someday, I may change my mind. I suspect my love affair with the printed word will strain next year when David and I pack what most likely will be about a hundred boxes of books when we move. Someday my eyes may need assistance that only a future device can provide.

But it is not this day. I appreciate reading in any form, but I intend to continue my love affair with the printed page.


The Funeral Poe Never Had

Baltimore celebrated its favorite son this year on his bicentennial year by not only celebrating his life, but also giving him the sendoff from this mortal coil he did not get 160 years ago.

Only one man could write the stuff that scares the stuffing out of even the most seasoned horror writer and still spurs men to wear bright purple. Credit for that alone goes to Edgar Allen Poe, with whom a single word — Nevermore! — can create images that capture the essence of Gothic fiction, as well as inspire the name of a profitable football franchise.

The funeral event began at 11:40 a.m. Sunday, October 11, with a processional from the Poe House to Westminster Hall. The Loch Raven Pipes and Drums led a horse-drawn hearse, the curtains on the glass sides pulled up so the casket was visible. The bagpipes were haunting.

The hearse was followed by dozens of mourners in period clothing, including the speakers slated for the funeral service. My embarrassingly limited Poe knowledge prevented me from recognizing some of the bearded faces, and I was glad to see a few women in the processional. A few people were easy to detect with my untrained eye: Walt Whitman in his full gray beard, beige hat and light suit; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his garb perfect for the wild moor; and Sir Alfred Hitchcock with an unmistakable profile and very English hat. Not all in the entourage were in 19th century garb, and I was intrigued. (The Poe bicentennial Web site had warned that the list of speakers might change due to their being dead themselves, so I wasn't sure how death had affected the program.)

As the processional came to a halt in front of Westminster Hall, the crowd pushed closer, cameras clicking. (My camera, regrettably, was in my car, forgotten in the haste to see the processional and remembered blocks from where David and I parked.) I am not sure if I would have been as forward as some of the photographers; to me, it was a funeral more than a performance, and there was something macabre and disrespectful about shoving a camera in Whitman's face.

A handful of the men stepped forward to serve as pallbearers, and the casket was slid from the hearse into their waiting hands. They solemnly walked along the front of the hall, cautiously maneuvering their way past the crowd lining in the street. (They did not walk up the steep stairs in front of which the hearse stopped.)

As the hour of the first service drew near, those attending the first service filed into the hall after them.

Many of my fellow spectators/mourners were in period mourning costume, or a close approximation of such. I am not an expert, and some costumes were elaborate and interesting, like the men in full black topcoats, top hats and capes, or the women in long black crepe dresses and hats with black lace covering their faces. Some people were dressed in contemporary clothing apropos to mourning and funerals. Other spectators used this as an opportunity to air out their Halloween costumes a couple of weeks early, and many had clothing with depictions of skulls, The Nightmare Before Christmas or Poe himself. There was a fair smattering of Raven purple. (I myself was in blue jeans and a black blouse, which served me well in the quarter-mile sprint from the car to the processional).

Before the second service, people milled around Poe's grave, placing pennies and flowers on his monument. A clutch of men in the Baltimore City Men's Chorus warmed up in the narrow walkway amidst the gravestones in the yard beyond the spectators. People took photos of the grave, others took photos of their friends and family at the grave. A tall Asian man performed mournful classical music as he stood next to the monument, and the crowd clapped with appreciation. The crowed ebbed and flowed, Goth teens and 19th century mourners mixing with surprised pedestrians passing through the crowd. A long black hearse with a silver skull as its hood ornament blasted what sounded like Vincent Price giving a dramatic reading (presumably of Poe's works), though the distortion prevented me from understanding a word from where I stood. I took photos of tombstones, some of which were under the hall, behind locked gates.

Inside the hall was a replica of Poe's original tombstone, which was destroyed in a freak train derailment accident before it was even placed on his grave. The stone was surrounded by beautiful flowers (presumably from the event's official florist, who accepted phone orders with free delivery for the service). At the front of the hall were the organ's tall pipes that reached to the arched ceiling. Hundreds of chairs filled slowly as the mourners took their seats.

The speakers were unknown to me by sight, for the most part. The Reverend Rufus Griswold was soundly hissed as he took the stage. Both Poe's former fiancĂ©e Sarah Helen Whitman and his close friend George Lippard countered the reverend's previously published slights. Both were animated and engaging. In fact, Lippard was so overwrought he needed a glass of water to continue his eulogy — then, as he left the lectern, threw the rest in Griswold's face. Poe's nurse, editor, attending physician at his death all were present to pretty much set the record straight to the author's life and final days.

The second half of the service was more entertaining to the casual Poe aficionado. That was when those who were most influenced by him, authors and movie directors, illustrators and actors alike, took the stage. Whitman had little to say, but spoke with affection for the man who welcomed him to the office building in New York they both occupied. Charles Baudelaire was effusive and dignified. H.P. Lovecraft was brilliant with his nervous gestures and reading aloud what sounded like gibberish from a large book (I'm sure his fans will explain that to me). Hitchcock offered his profile and some of his familiar catchphrases.

When we came to the living, their tributes were touching and spoke deeply to my own sensibilities. Ellen Datlow, in her black dress and wild hair, was humble and appreciative. Gris Grimly was funny, self-deprecating and irreverent (and dressed in a t-shirt with a bare rib cage on the front and a dress jacket); only a geek can articulate what it's like to be a geek and have a roomful of fellow geeks get it. Mark Renfield brought Baltimore and D.C. of today into the mix with references to pop culture of the time and place. John Astin spoke briefly but with heartfelt appreciation, and Poe House curator Jeff Jerome's words spoke to this bureaucrat's heart.

In the end, the casket passed through the hall and we paid our final respects. More than 700 people attended the services, and many more stood in the cool autumn sunshine, blocking traffic and wandering about the cemetery. The event allowed all to celebrate the life and works of a man who might have been impoverished at his death but left a legacy beyond all measure. It was a great event, and I am glad David and I could be a part of it.

If a person's wealth can be measured by influence, Poe died a rich man who, I hope, will continue to be remembered and continue to influence generations of readers, writers and movie directors (and whatever media follows). May the events of 2009 in Baltimore encourage more people to read and learn more about him, his time, his work and his homes — including the Poe Museum in Richmond, another great Poe resource and enjoyable destination (and the town he felt was his true home).


Banned Books Week: Answers to the Quiz

Thank you to all who sent in your guesses for last week's quiz. It was a little tough, I have to admit.

Here are the answers to the quiz. Now, if these quotes intrigue you enough, I hope you go pick up the book. I've read all but maybe one, and to be honest I probably read that one but don't remember. And let me know what banned or challenged books you enjoyed most.

1. How could someone not fit in? The community was so meticulously ordered, the choices so carefully made. (The Giver, Lois Lowry)

2. It is like the hole in your mouth where a tooth was and you cannot keep your tongue from playing with it. (Ordinary People, Judith Guest)

3. “I believe that love is better than hate. And that there is more nobility in building a chicken coop than destroying a cathedral.” (Summer of My German Soldier, Bette Greene)

4. He was seething inside with new emotion. Nothing seemed very important except the Princess. He was single-minded about her. He was enchanted. He was possessed. He was in love. (Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett)

5. I'd soon as go to jail than take that damn relief job. (Native Son, Richard Wright)

6. Last night while I lay thinking here
Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song:
(A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein)

7. It had been all right as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies. (Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes)

8. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corn cribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

9. My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember. (Beloved, Toni Morrison)

10. "She won't be coming down here with the spray. She'll be coming down here with a shovel. It happened to my brother. Split him right down the middle. Now I have two half-brothers." (James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl)

11. We learned to whisper almost without sound. In the semidarkness we could stretch out our arms, when the Aunts weren't looking, and touch each other's hands across space. We learned to lipread, our heads flat on the beds, turned sideways, watching each other's mouths. In this way, we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June. (The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood)

12. I expected Daddy to explain everything on the way home—all that stuff Dr. Griffith had been talking about—that I didn't understand. Instead, he and Ma argued about whose fault it was that I have something wrong with my spine until we pulled into the driveway. It was almost as if they'd forgotten I was there. (Deenie, Judy Blume)

13. I was getting to where I could see the truth. Someday I'll be brave enough to speak it. (The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton)