In Orbit too Close to a Star

Our culture celebrates accomplished people, especially accomplished creative artists.  This means many celebrities have more of a “fish-bowl” kind of existence than a personal life and they often require a small army of helpers to meet all of their personal and professional obligations.  These Assistants can start out as an artist’s devoted fans or followers but their work and the trust of their employer gives them a view behind the curtain others don’t get to see: they know the artist on and off stage, see the creative person as well as his/her public persona.  Whether that is an advantage or disadvantage is explored in Lynn Cullen’s novel, Twain’s End.
The book is a fictionalization of a real drama that occurred during the last year of Samuel Clemens’s (aka Mark Twain’s) life.  Over the previous decade, the person who managed his correspondence and everyday responsibilities was a woman named Isabel Lyon.  The writer relied on his secretary so much that Clemens had given her a house close his own and a bedroom in his estate, Stormfield.  When Miss Lyon married the writer’s business manager in 1909, Mr. Clemens attended their wedding but before the newlyweds returned from their honeymoon, Clemens had fired both of them, on grounds of embezzlement.
Now, this wouldn’t have been more than a blip on the radar of Mark Twain scholars if the story had stopped there.  Instead, Clemens then effectively sued his former secretary and forced her to return the  house he had deeded to her years before.  Still not content, he wrote to all their mutual friends, calling Isabel everything except a Child of God and turned more than four hundred pages of his mammoth autobiography (released in 2010) is a vicious attack on her character.  Isabel Lyon Ashcroft denied the charges of theft but never said anything against her former employer, even after his death.  Using Mark Twain’s papers and Ms. Lyon’s diaries, Lynn Cullen constructs a compelling account of the complex relationship between this celebrity and his assistant that shows what happens when the boundaries between personal and professional relationships crumble.

What happens to celebrated personalities once declining health limits access to their adoring public?  If your guide is the biographies of Twain and Dickens, it seems that the drama and applause the performer craves must be re-created in their homes, either by their nearest and dearest (whose ties are to the real person rather than the performing alter-ego) or by assistants and hand-picked fans and unhealthy rivalries develop between the chosen.  Ms. Cullen’s novel suggests that something like this rivalry also occurred in life of Helen Keller, a Twain fan and celebrated personality herself.  Miss Keller’s teacher and constant companion, Annie Sullivan married a man who became attracted to her student and a unhealthy rivalry developed between the two woman as well as the husband and wife. In the end, Miss Sullivan’s marriage broke from the stress of the twin rivalries. 

Lynn Cullen
It is the rivalries that steer the tension in Twain’s End, and the need of isolated souls that keeps the reader coming back for more.   In the end, Miss Cullen’s novel transforms the caricatures of famous celebrities back into the people they were before public personas smothered the nuance and subtlety of their human creators.  Behind the performing mask that the public sees is a complex and often fearful human being and humanity can be very appealing.  In the end, that humanity may be what keeps some assistants in orbit around  their stars.

The novel, Twain’s End, by Lynn Cullen will be released on October 13, 2015.  I am very grateful to Net Galley for releasing a pre-publication copy to me for this review.  LLG

The Tales of Autumn

Fall is unequivocally here, on the calendar and in the air.  Daytime highs are comfortably lower, nights are longer and the primary religion here has changed to college football.  The leaves are just beginning to turn and fall but there are some early spots of color.  Everything is changing along with the books we’re choosing – there’s nothing quite like autumn reading.

Perhaps it comes from the years we all spent in school, but autumn is the season when we reach for meaningful books, for stories that bring something with them besides primary characters and plot.  History, both fictional and non-fiction, become more relevant in this season since autumn reminds us that time is passing.  A new generation is starting school, while another has reached maturity and still another is passing on.  After a summer of living in the moment, fall is a good time to reflect on life and to find your place in the scheme of things.  

That doesn’t mean autumn tales are lacking in story.  The greatest holiday for stories, Halloween, is in the middle of fall and reams of words surround it.  Everything about Halloween stirs the imagination from elaborate costumes (Come As You’re Not Parties)…


 …to the belief that a point of the earth’s orbit thins the membrane between life and death until it becomes permeable.   All kinds of things can happen in the world like that and there are stories for every possibility.  There’s a reason so many writers love Halloween.  It’s a holiday composed of memory and imagination.

More than anything, autumn is a time of gathering in, for the harvest and for the soul, a time when an evening’s chill can make a good book and a warm fire the best company in the believable world.  Fall may not contain the same verve that drove spring and summer but there’s a generosity here that favors and enriches the season.  Here is the welcome of hearth and home and loving friends, real and in fiction.  Enjoy this gold-spangled season and the tales that it offers.  They are wondrous to behold.

Subversive Lit on the Orient Express

Teachers tell us  we have to study the classics in order to understand literary forms.  For tragedy, we look at the works of Shakespeare and the Greeks; for comedy, we read Wilde and Shaw.  Fantasy readers get acquainted with Tolkein and SF fans get a background of Verne, Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke before moving on to the contemporary writers.   All of this sounds like a waste of time to the student who equates “classic” with “boring” and confuses “subversive literature” with subversive political groups.  The truth is that stories earn the “classic” distinction when they are so brilliant and memorable that they are enjoyed and understood by generations of people, and the purpose of subversive fiction is to persuade readers to rethink their assumptions.  Combine those two concepts and you’ll find Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.  No “who-dun-it” has more twists in the tale.
A bit of background for this classic “closed door” mystery, for anyone who needs it.  The brilliant Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot is traveling from Istanbul to London on the fabulous Orient Express, a luxury passenger train service.  On the morning after the train is stalled by a snow drift, the passenger berthed next door to Poirot is found stabbed to death.   Poirot is asked by the train director he’s traveling with to find the murderer before the local police arrive so the innocent passengers can complete their journey without further delay.    Poirot has to remove the few  legitimate clues from a stack of red herrings left behind to determine the improbable truth behind the murder.
Because the door of of the victim’s berth’s was locked from the inside and the berth’s window is open, it looks like the perpetrator left the train after the crime.  The undisturbed snow around the train proves the murderer is still on board.   The passengers whose berths were in the same car as the victim are from various nations and a comparison of their statements shows almost all have alibis.  These factors would have the average reader making erroneous deductions or concluding the crime is “unsolvable”. That conclusion (and every expectation) is incorrect.
When most people learn someone has been killed, they automatically sympathize with the deceased.  When they hear the victim died after enduring a dozen stab wounds, the sympathy factor increases.  Poirot subverts that assumption immediately when he identifies the murdered man as a kidnapper responsible for multiple deaths and the ruin of several lives.  The kidnapper escaped justice through legal technicalities and lived under an assumed name on money he extorted from parents.  (Much of Murder on the Orient Express was influenced by the kidnapping and death of Charles Lindbergh’s child, including the suicide of the baby’s nurse.)  
An ordinary reader would look at a train car full of suspects, from different nations and backgrounds, and see a car full of strangers, some of whom should be cleared as suspects.  Poirot upends this vision by seeing the same car full of people but never assumes this diverse group are all strangers.  Instead he asks himself the question “Where else would one find such a diverse collection of people?”  The answer to that question, and the identity of the victim drive Poirot to the solution and a decision on what to tell government authorities, as this assumption is subverted as well.
1rst UK edition
More than eighty years have passed since Poirot made his first steps onto the pages of Murder on the Orient Express.  Since then, the story’s been printed in at least seven editions and been through an untold number of printings.  (Amazon offers it in 180 separate formats!) The story’s been adapted into a radio program, a video game,  two theatrical movies, a TV film and there’s another film adaptation in the works.  It’s been parodied and referred to so often that people with no interest in mysteries or Agatha Christie recognize the title and know the story packs a wallop.  Those who have read it understand the appeal: Christie’s mystery undercuts every expectation we have and the solution makes us glad we were wrong.   It’s a classic mystery and tale of subversion.

The Structure of a Story

People who read often get overwhelmed when they start to think about writing.   A complete book is the result of such a long, massive effort that most would-be writers get discouraged and quit long before they do a lot of sustained writing.  I understand that.  I never knew how or why successful authors developed the story-telling tempo that could pull me so completely into a book until one of my English professors gave me the low-down on pitch points and pinch points.  These are the spots in the plot that pull a story along and by using these as plot structure (not unlike poles in a circus tent) a writer can drape the line of whatever narrative he or she is writing and get the story-flow right.  Let me explain what they are.
Pitch points are the points in the story where circumstances cause the main character to change his or her usual pattern of responses which alters his or her ultimate destiny.  Pitch points come (roughly) at the quarter point, half-way mark and three-quarter point of the story.  Pinch points are when the protagonist (or the audience) gets reminded about how difficult it will be for the hero to prevail.  Pinch points occur at about the 3/8 ths and 5/8ths of the story.  There’s one more point I’ll talk about in a minute but first I want to give you an image and an example of the story tent:
I’ll admit I’m no artist but you can see the idea of where the points occur. Now let’s compare this tent to the plot of a rather famous book I and one of my nephews both love, The Hobbit.  At twenty-five percent of the way into the story, Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves are about to face some nasty trolls.  Until the point, Bilbo has a passenger in his own adventure, swept along by dwarves and a wizard.  Here is the first time he acts.  Instead of crawling back to his companions with the warning “Trolls right in front of us, we should detour” the hobbit decides to live up to title of “burglar” he’s been given and tries to pick a pocket.  His idea doesn’t work out but he acts and that’s important.  At the half-way point, the dwarves are captured by giant spiders in the middle of Mirkwood Forest and Bilbo uses his courage and wits to rescue his friends.   BIG step.  Now we’re at the three-quarter point and where’s our Mr. Baggins?  Gone down a long scary tunnel, to parlay with a dragon, all by his lonesome.  In each incident, he does something he never would have dreamed of doing when the story began.  Now let’s talk pinch points, shall we?
Pinch points are when our hero is at his lowest.  The Hobbit’s first pinch point is in the beginning of Chapter Five.  Bilbo’s alone, in the dark, in a place he’s never seen before and he doesn’t know the way out.  Dwarves and wizard are all gone and there’s no one to rescue him.  Remember, this is before Bilbo had enough courage to rescue his friends.  This is the point where he must rescue himself and he has no idea on how to do that.  It’s a short little spot but it’s bad enough to pinch.
The second spot is a bit more elusive but it’s still there, with Bilbo astride a floating barrel on the river leading out of Mirkwood.  Anyone else would be thrilled to be away from the forest and free but here is where Bilbo gets his first sight of their ultimate destination, The Lonely Mountain, and it seems to be frowning at him.  All the previous adventures fall back into memory when Bilbo sees his “Big Bad” from a distance.  It’s a reminder of how far he still has to go.
You might think that’s all there is to story structure but I’ve saved a key point for last.   Take a look at the new story graph.
See that purple addition after the third pitch point?   That’s the eighty percent mark and the point of no return.  At this spot, something happens that makes the rest of the story a race to the climax.  In the final Harry Potter book, it’s when Voldemort realizes Harry’s been deliberately destroying his Horcruxes.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s when Jem and Scout walk to the Halloween pageant by themselves and in The Hobbit, it’s when Bilbo picks up the Arkenstone.  The Arkenstone is the heart of The Lonely Mountain’s treasure and it’s the only piece Thorin won’t part with.  By taking it, Bilbo sets up a conflict that will harden Thorin’s heart and help bring on the Battle of the Five Armies.  Once this happens, the rest is inevitable.
So how standardized is the formula?  It’s talked about in writing classes and it’s a good way to edit a story into shape.  I understand professional screenplays are actually calculated down to the page so pitch and pinch points can hit at the right places.  Pull out your favorite movie or book and calculate where the story is by looking at the percentages.  This story structure works.
So now you know the secret of story points: the pitch, the pinch and the one-of-no-return.  Is this cool or what?

The Education of an Educator

Summer is complete again, for all intents and purposes, and school is back in session.  People return to class schedules and assignments, semester projects and extracurricular activities and since school is such an important part of our lives, it’s not surprising that it serves as the setting for many books.  However,no story captured the American teacher’s perspective of that universe quite like Up the Down Staircase.  This “education of an educator” is more than fifty years old but in terms of what a teacher faces, it’s right on the mark.

Most employees have one impossible party to please (retail clerks must please the customers; professional people must please their clients; government pleases itself.) but first-year teacher, Sylvia Barrett, is at the mercy of everyone: there’s the MIA Principal who pontificates via memo but wields the power to end her career; the petty tyrant in administration who dispense policies by the metric ton, supplies with an eye-dropper and no mercy whatsoever; the janitor who responds to every request for maintenance with the reply “nobody’s down here” and the students, all-knowing, all needy and mostly adverse to the concept of education. Sylvia’s opportunities to teach must be sandwiched between episodes of classroom umpiring and responding to directives like this:

Polio Consent slips are due in Health Office before 3 P.M. today. – School Nurse

Ridiculous memo aside (who would consent to Polio?) the School Nurse is one of the frustrated good in this book, a health-care professional who may not render the aid the students need and she’s qualified to give  because the School Board insists “a school nurse may not touch an injured student or administer treatment in any form”.  Instead, the nurse is limited to completing health care forms and offering cups of tea to students who need so much more from her.  Her cup of tea are a ludicrous offering until you realize it’s the only help she’s allowed to give.  If this sounds too outrageous to be fiction, there’s a reason why.
The novel’s author, Bel Kaufman knew all about this impossible world.  As the immigrant daughter of Russian Jews (her grandfather was the brilliant Sholom Aleichem) she learned to speak English at twelve  when she was put into a class of American first-graders.  She crammed 16 grades of education into the next 11 years, and earned a B. A. from Hunter College and a Masters in Literature from Columbia.  Nevertheless, she wasn’t allowed to be a “real” teacher for years.  The Educational Board in New York City that awarded teaching licenses questioned her ability to interpret poetry (Ms. Kaufman won this battle when she submitted a letter from the poet, verifying her interpretation was correct) and her accent during the Oral Examination portion of the of the tests. The Board refused to issue her a teaching license, although they still hired her to teach.

Kaufman at her desk

At that time, unlicensed teachers could be used for temporary assignments  and Bel worked in the system as a “permanent substitute” meaning she did the same classroom work as a tenured instructor (and more non-teaching duties) for lower wages in “less-advantaged” public schools.  Kaufman taught at the “challenging” inner-city schools, and, once licensed, in the city schools where educators pray they’ll find work. (They say she became the model for the English Instructor in the movie “Fame”.)  The public schools with their ridiculous directives and mini-fiefdoms (imagine a librarian who denies everyone access to the books) good and bad teachers and unforgettable students became grist for her novel composed of “found” material: bureaucratic directives, trashed essay drafts and notes from a teacher’s suggestion box.  It’s a brilliant format for storytelling.
After Up The Down Staircase spent more than a year on the best-seller’s list and was adapted into a movie and a play, Bel became a “teacher of teachers” by speaking at education conferences, but she never completely left the field of education.  At the age of 100, she was still teaching, by then at her alma mater, Hunter College.
The science of education has evolved since Bel’s time but the life of a teacher has not.   Any new instructor will find inspiring colleagues and educators unworthy of the title hiding in the faculty lounge as well as underachieving, troubled students and apple-polishers in every classroom.  If the front office contains a visionary, diligent headmaster, there’s bound to be a back-biting administrative type who prefers appearances to content  and bedevils the faculty with inane announcements and insane policies.  Our new teacher will bring his or her own problems, talents and skills to the mix and the school year will roll on but, with luck, most of the students will learn.  Despite all the policies, shortages and uninspired teaching, the students will learn and grow and when they leave, others will take their place.  A few  may even decide to come back as teachers themselves. The process is heartbreaking and sweet and as inevitable as the month of September.