Book Review

The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go

A novel by Amy E. Reichert

In the mood for a summer read that will boost your faith in people, yet without being simplistic and sappy? A book that may even compel you to cry real tears—I confess I did—from sympathy and joy?

A Wisconsin woman has written such a book for you. Her name is Amy E. Reichert, and the book is called The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go.

No, it’s not one of those step-by-step self-help guides guaranteed to make you happy by teaching you to trust your Inner Self. Instead, it’s a novel, the tale of four women—three  generations of one family—who must try out new, unaccustomed paths through life as they cope with dizzymaking love, heartbreaking loss, and hard-wrought social and psychic defense mechanisms. 

The story centers on Gina, who owns and operates a one-woman food truck, serving  gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for Milwakee’s lunchtimers. Gina’s a pushover for people in real need, yet hard-nosed enough to run a thriving business. She’s also half-numb with mourning for her deceased husband and stumped by the challenge of relating to May, her equally grief-stricken daughter.

Gina, May, and Gina’s younger sister, Vicky, are showered with unwelcome parental supervision by Lorraine, Gina and Vicky’s overbearing mother. When a sudden crisis in Lorraine’s health begins to expose deeply-buried family secrets, all four need to readjust their lives to accommodate startling new realities.

I loved this book, principally because the people in it are so real. They are all people I’ve known, and I’ll wager you know them, too. The family situations they find themselves in both preposterous and absolutely credible. These are just the kinds of things that happen to people in real life.

The characters’ strengths can also be weaknesses, and their weaknesses strengths. Gina is a compulsive organizer, who can only stumble through her hectic days by making lists. Patronizing remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, it is Gina’s listmaking that gradually, persistently, begins to impose order on the chaos of her life—and even on the structure of the novel itself.

The old woman, Lorraine, is almost as irritating to the reader as she is to her daughters and granddaughter. But as her story gradually unwinds, we find ourselves admiring the very adaptations that make her so annoying. 

I would like to go on and on about the strengths of this novel, with its sure-footed narrative style. But if I write any more, you’ll begin to feel I’ve told you the whole story.

And it’s too good a story not to experience for yourself.

Ensconce yourself, at your earliest opportunity, with a copy of The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go. I’ll bet you will like it as much as I did.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Milo Bung: Fact or Fiction

There is a niche of special distinction in the Class Clowns’ Hall of Fame, and it contains a marble bust of Milo Bung, smiling beatifically and crowned with laurel. When we were in sixth grade Milo was a source of much innocent merriment.

Laurel-crowned Milo Bung. Or perhaps, Apollo? Photo © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

Where your average class clown fed on spectacles like putting a thumb tack on the teacher’s chair while she was down the hall grabbing a smoke, or stacking books on a desk corner so they would fall when somebody walked by, Milo was more subtle. 

His specialty was a unique glassy-eyed stare, which he flashed whenever the teacher called on him for an answer. I don’t know whether he was transfixed by the mystery of South America’s principal exports, or just languid by nature. 

Whatever Milo had, subtlety was of its essence.

Masking 

I bumped into him at the supermarket recently, pushing his cart the wrong way up a COVID-directed aisle. “Milo,” I said, “where’s your mask?” 

“Mask?” he wondered.

“Like the one I’m wearing. You know, for coronavirus.”

“Oh, is that why everybody’s wearing masks?”

I nodded, as emphatically as one can nod at Milo Bung. “Without a mask, you might get sick and die.”

His eyes opened wide. “Then I’d better stock up right now on Cheetos.” And off he dashed, up the down aisle.

Looting

That was my most recent encounter with Milo until now; but apparently he has not gotten sick and died yet, for I saw him tonight on the ten o’clock news. A squad car lay burning in the street. Several demonstrators, or maybe outside agitators, stepped through the smashed front window of a store that sells ladies’ foundation garments. They carried boxes and cartons of what must have been frilly unmentionables. 

Despite the burning squad car, no cops were in view; yet here came Milo, strolling down the street, right into camera range. He halted smack dab in the center of all this resistance to injustice. He swiveled his head this way and that, then stared into the camera with an expression that proclaimed, “Is anybody else seeing what I’m seeing?” He shrugged and ambled out the right side of the frame. He had something in his hands. Looked like a bag of Cheetos. 

Knowing they must have taped this earlier in the evening, I surmised that Milo Bung, if not in jail, might now be at home. So I dialed his number. Sure enough, he answered.

“I saw you on TV! In the middle of a riot!” I shouted as calmly as I could.

“A riot?” said Milo. “(Crunch, crunch.) Oh, sure, that’s what it must have been.”

“Couldn’t you tell?”

“Well, something funny was going on, that’s for sure. It’s getting so a guy can’t take an evening promenade (crunch, crunch) without running into out-of-towners.” 

“Out-of-towners!” I roared. “How do you know they were out-of-towners?”

“Well, (crunch, crunch), stands to reason. I mean, how many guys do you know from around here (crunch, crunch) that need so many boxes of lacy underwear for their sweeties?”

“Are you munching Cheetos?”

“Yeah, I got boxes and boxes of them. Come on over, I’ll give you some.”

“But weren’t you even aware what they were rioting about? It was injustice. Racial injustice. What do you think about that?”

There was a moment’s silence on the line while Milo digested my question, and his Cheetos. “One man’s injustice,” he said, “is another man’s free underwear.”

“Is that all you’ve got to say?”

“No, but if I told you, then you’d blab it to everybody else, so I’m clamming up.”

Uniformed Service

Milo was always a step or two ahead of the rest of us. He was the first boy in our class to declare what he wanted to be when he grew up: An elevator operator. “I like the look of a uniform,” he drawled. When we graduated from high school—and, lo! all elevators had been converted to self-service—Milo joined the Marines. 

Imagine my confusion when Ho Chi Minh let Milo live and returned him to our community in his original condition. He may simply have been unshootable. Wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Desiderata

“Desiderata” is Latin for “things desired.” Often in difficult times, the thing we most desire is peace.

Max Ehrmann. Fair use.

The prolific, inspirational writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) of Terre Haute, Indiana, penned a prose poem that was published as “Desiderata” in 1948. It is the only one of his works to achieve enduring fame, and that only after his death. 

For its tone and diction, and because it once appeared in a church publication with the legend, “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore AD 1692,” it is often assumed to be ancient, maybe even Scriptural in origin. “1692,” however, meant the date of the church’s founding, not of the poem’s writing.

Inspiration

“Desiderata” is neither Biblical nor liturgical nor even very old. But, like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, it stakes a claim to an authenticity of its own. It swept the nation in 1971, when a voice artist named Les Crane released it as a spoken word recording. That was at the height of our nation’s internal turmoil over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. The serene, contemplative tone of the piece may have boosted its popularity.

Today we are again in a time of stress and conflict. Perhaps Mr. Ehrmann’s poem will be of some use to you. At least, it constitutes good advice.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Love . . . is as perennial as the grass. Photo by Мария Волк on Unsplash.
Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

You are a child of the Universe. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Unsocial Media

Never thought this blog would become a soapbox, but here goes—

For decades, we have decried “loss of civility” in our public discourse. 

Confucius said we would be less confused if we called things by their right names. What we commonly call “loss of civility” we ought to call “viciousness.” 

“Confucius” by Gimli62 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Recently, as an antidote to the throbbing toothache that social media has become, I posted on Facebook the following:

ATTENTION

This brief message is my own. It is not a pre-manufactured meme that I picked up somewhere, or a quote from somebody else that I thought would be fun to appropriate for my own use. This is the actual view of Larry F. Sommers.

We are called to love one another. The most elementary way to practice this commandment is to be kind and forbearing.

What does “kind and forbearing” mean? It means we do not speak ill of others or wish ill to others, even those who are not present with us. Even if they are public figures such as politicians or movie stars whom we do not know. Even if they are unknown members of the general public whose views disagree with ours. Even if our speech is not really our own but is copied from somebody else, such as a professional manufacturer of nasty memes. Even if our speech is only on social media, and everybody else on social media is speaking the same way. Even if the targets of our invective spoke ill of us first.

Our society’s public discourse has become a cesspool of narcissistic, poisonous invective. Nobody will cure that unless we do. Let us be generous in our estimates of one another, and act and speak accordingly.

Blessings, and thank you for your attention to this matter.

I probably should have added, “Even if they are in a category of people we have decided to dislike.”

Kindness Controverted

I hardly thought this manifesto would be controversial, nor was it meant as an experiment of any kind. But it turned out to be an experiment, and an illuminating one at that. 

Many of my friends agreed in general with my remarks, but some added caveats. None spoke directly against kindness and forbearance. But they did seem to think there were larger issues at stake in our human conversations.

Their implication—or was it only my inference from their remarks?—is that sometimes, in the pursuit of justice or of holiness, we must employ vilification.

I disagree categorically. What could be a larger issue than our need of kindness and forbearance? 

The only thing I said was that people ought not to speak ill of one another or wish ill upon one another. I did not suggest revoking the First Amendment.

Justice and Injustice

Micah the prophet, Russian icon from first quarter of 18th century. Public Domain.

“. . . and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”—Micah 6:8. 

I’ve always felt the prophet’s words “do justice” referred prima facie to one’s own acts, as in “deal justly with others.” But some folks would interpret those words as mandating that we police injustices commited by other people as well. 

This interpretation proposes that when we see injustice in the doings of others, our perception is true and accurate. The absurdity of this assumption is just what Jesus was addressing when he said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” 

I will stipulate that if you can transform your neighbor’s acts through the use of sweet reason, you may be onto something. But the moment you resort to obloquy, it’s a sign your case is weak.

Horace Greeley. Matthew Brady photo. Public Domain.

Apart from the aforementioned sweet reason, we have not even the ability, much less the authority, to compel others to do right. And calling names will not help. Nor will venting our anger with such colorful expressions as “Fuck you!” or “Fuck (So-and-so)”—phrases I see often in what passes for civic discourse on the Internet.

Even milder expressions may cross over from reason to invective. Horace Greeley (1811-1872), teetotaler and Republican, is reputed to have uttered: “I never said all Democrats were saloon-keepers; what I said was all saloon-keepers are Democrats.” This nice distinction matters little. Whether you’re a Democrat or a saloon-keeper, you know that Horace Greeley has consigned you to the deepest circle of Hell.

Besides the business about a log in one’s eye, Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” No wonder the Book of Proverbs tells us to guard our mouths.

Control

God has placed us in a very large world, a large world inside an even larger universe. In that universe, and in that world, a great many things take place—almost an infinite array of different objects, patterns, and events. There are more people, more cultures, more habits, more motives than you can shake a stick at. 

You need not be a cultural relativist, or an amoralist, to see that in this vast carnival of life—in what Delmore Schwartz called “the scrimmage of appetite everywhere”—almost the only thing we may control is our own conduct. As a corollary, almost the only way to influence the conduct of others is by our own example.

Feel free also to look at this from the other end of the telescope. By absolutely relinquishing the cheap options of calumny and hostility, one is freed for the grander game: The slight chance to improve others’ ideas and attitudes through patient, persistent persuasion. (SPOILER ALERT: Such persuasion is a lifetime project and offers no guarantee of success.)

Unbridled Passions

Modern American society has canonized the practice of giving free rein to one’s passions. But I am here to suggest that not every emotional impulse need be shared with others, especially if it be shared in the manner of a bludgeon. Society will work better when more of us cultivate a studied reticence, giving only blessing and encouragement to our friends—and making everybody, as much as possible, our friends.

High principles which require ad hominem salvos for their defense may not be such high principles after all. If they cannot be advanced by calm and logical argument, perhaps they should be exchanged for others that can be. 

O Inky Wretch,” you may ask, “do you always practice what you preach?” 

Of course not; I am only human. But, with great persistence, I do try. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

John Adams, per David McCullough

One day, when I was about five, Daddy took me for my haircut. In those days, a barber shop often had a large wall calendar showing rows of small, oval-shaped portraits:  All the presidents, from George Washington right up to Harry S. Truman. 

I recognized Washington, the Father of Our Country. But I had to ask Daddy who that fat old man beside Washington was. 

“That’s John Adams. He was the next president after George Washington.”

In an instant, I pegged the unprepossessing Adams as a second-rater. 

Boy, was I wrong

That’s the message, in a nutshell, of David McCullough’s John Adams, a monumental biography I have just read, only nineteen years after its publication. 

John Adams, the Real Deal

John Adams was born in 1735 to Deacon John Adams and Susanna Boylston Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts. Adams junior inherited the deacon’s farm. He would be a farmer, on and off, all his life—persistently, passionately, and successfully.

Oh, and by the way: He attended Harvard University, was admitted to the bar and practiced law; joined the movement for American colonial rights, becoming the most forward champion of Independence in the Second Continental Congress; nominated George Washington of Virginia to command the Continental Army; went to France as a commissioner, helped  negotiate the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, and became the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James, where he exchanged decorous greetings with the spurned monarch George III; was elected vice president of the new Constitutional republic; became our second president, after Washington’s two terms; was defeated for his own second term by his old Revolutionary friend, Thomas Jefferson; retired to an active life managing his farm in Braintree; lived long enough to see his son, John Quincy Adams, inaugurated as sixth president of the United States in 1825; and died the following year on the same day as Jefferson—July 4, exactly fifty years after the two of them had, with 54 other patriots, declared the Independence of the United States.

Abigail Smith Adams. 1766 Portrait by Benjamin Blyth. Public Domain.

Throughout this remarkable journey, John Adams associated with the most remarkable people of a remarkable era—including his own wife and best ally, Abigail. To our immense good fortune, John and Abigail and their children kept journals and wrote letters, to one another and to many historic figures—thousands of letters, written over many decades. And all of them, or most of them, were preserved.

Well, Who Wants to Read a Bunch of Old Letters, Anyway?

David McCullough. Nrbelex at English Q52, licensed under CC BY-SA.

David Gaub McCullough, that’s who. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933, McCullough earned a degree in English Literature from Yale University. According to his Wikipedia biography, “He said that it was a ‘privilege’ to study English at Yale because of faculty members such as John O’Hara, John Hersey, Robert Penn Warren, and Brendan Gill. McCullough occasionally ate lunch with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. Wilder, says McCullough, taught him that a competent writer maintains ‘an air of freedom’ in the storyline, so that a reader will not anticipate the outcome, even if the book is non-fiction.”

As he weighed options for his life, McCullough gravitated towards research and writing. He served apprenticeships at Time, Life, the United States Information Agency, Sports Illustrated, and American Heritage. While working at American Heritage, McCullough found a subject that interested him deeply and spent three years writing the story of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. The Johnstown Flood, published in 1968, established him as a top-shelf historical writer. Since then, he has written nine more books. He has received two National Book Awards and two Pulitzer Prizes, the second of which was for his Adams biography. 

“History ought to be a source of pleasure,” McCullough has said. “ It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.” 

McCullough on Adams

John Adams may be the most magisterial, and perhaps in the long run will be the most influential, of McCullough’s works. Few, if any, Adams biographers have had the ambition, tenacity, and skill to produce such an illuminating book.

Like any good writer, McCullough begins his story in medias res: On a bitter January day in 1776, the 40-year-old Adams sets out on horseback, first to a meeting with General Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge, then onward to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Before long, the author doubles back to fill us in on the essentials of Adams’ early life and the arc of destiny that brought him to the brink of rebellion in 1776. He then proceeds on through the main acts of Adams’ portentous life. 

Benjamin Rush portrait by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1818. Public Domain.

What raises this book above a standard scholarly biography is the way McCullough tells the story. His deeply researched narrative unearths the humanity in the Founding Fathers. We are given Dr. Benjamin Rush’s contemporary estimate of Adams in the prime of life: He was “possessed of another species of character” than his firebrand second cousin Samuel. “He saw the whole of a subject at a glance, and . . . was equally fearless of men and of the consequences of a bold assertion of his opinion. . . . He was a stranger to dissimulation.” 

The journals, letters, and other writings of Adams, his family, and his friends are quoted so extensively, and so appositely, that the reader comes to know these people—especially John and Abigail—intimately. McCullough’s third-person narration serves merely to set a context in which this marvelous conversation—this ongoing lifetime argument about liberty, duty, morality, religion, and the deep things of life—takes place. 

Stand advised, Dear Reader: The Adamses were no ordinary letter writers. Their sentences bounce and sparkle with informed passion on everything from the mundane to the sublime. The marital love between John and Abigail, as shown in the letters, was deep and abiding. Each suffered greatly when separated from the other; yet neither would put personal happiness ahead of the stern duty that often led to long separations. Abigail, as fierce a patriot as her husband, championed his revolutionary and political role always.

“You cannot be, I know, nor do I wish to see you, an inactive spectator,” she wrote. “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.”

Their language is felicitous. When a constituent from Massachusetts wrote Adams in June 1776, wondering why the Continental Congress was dithering over Independence, Adams wrote in reassurance:

Some people must have time to look around them, before, behind, on the right hand, and on the left, and then to think, and after all this to resolve. Others see at one intuitive glance into the past and the future, and judge with precision at once. But remember you can’t make thirteen clocks strike precisely alike at the same second.

This wisdom from one well known for his own headlong impatience.

Feeling every bit the New England rube gawking at the fineries of the French royal court, Adams wrote this description of Marie Antoinette:

Marie Antoinette in Court Dress, portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1778. Public Domain

She was an object too sublime and beautiful for my dull pen to describe. . . . Her dress was everything art and wealth could make it. One of the maids of honor told me she had diamonds upon her person to the value of eighteen million livres, and I always thought her majesty much beholden to her dress. . . . She had a fine complexion indicating her perfect health, and was a handsome woman in her face and figure. . . . The Queen took a large spoonful of soup and displayed her fine person and graceful manner, in alternatively looking at the company in various parts of the hall and ordering several kinds of seasoning to be brought to her, by which she fitted her supper to her taste. When this was accomplished, her Majesty exhibited to the admiring spectators the magnificent spectacle of a great queen swallowing her royal supper in a single spoonful, all at once. This was all performed like perfect clockwork, not a feature of her face, nor a motion of any part of her person, especially her arm and her hand could be criticized as out of order.

Though obviously impressed by royalty and its trappings, Adams was no friend of monarchy—despite the scurrilous bandying of precisely this charge by Jefferson’s Republicans. Neither was he a country bumpkin. His voracious lifelong reading habit encompassed Shakespeare, Milton, the Scriptures, Virgil, Voltaire, Bolingbroke’s Letters on the Study and Use of History; Justinian, Cicero; Benjamin Franklin,Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine; Hume, Johnson, Priestley, Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch; Walter Scott, Jane Porter, James Fenimore Cooper; Rousseau, Condorcet, Turgot, Mary Wolstonecraft; Adam Smith, Bishop Joseph Butler, Pascal. His personal library numbered 3,200 volumes. 

John Quincy Adams, age 29. Portrait by John Singleton Copley. Public Domain.

History, he advised his eldest son, John Quincy, “was the true source of ‘solid instruction’. . . . He must read Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War. There was no better preparation, whatever part he was called to play on ‘the stage of life.’ It was best read in the original Greek, of course, but he could find a reliable translation among his father’s books.” 

McCullough describes the mature John Adams, at age 40, on the eve of the Revolution:

He was a man who cared deeply for his friends, who, with few exceptions, were to be his friends for life, and in some instances despite severe strains. And to no one was he more devoted than to his wife, Abigail. She was his “Dearest Friend,” as he addressed her in letters—his “best, dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in the world”—while to her he was “the tenderest of husbands,” her “good man.”

John Adams was also, as many could attest, a great-hearted, persevering man of uncommon ability and force. He had a brilliant mind. He was honest and everyone knew it. Emphatically independent by nature, hardworking, frugal—all traits in the New England tradition—he was anything but cold or laconic as supposedly New Englanders were. He could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous, self-absorbed, and fiercely stubborn; passionate, quick to anger, and all-forgiving; generous and entertaining. He was blessed with great courage and good humor, yet subject to spells of despair, and especially when separated from his family or during periods of prolonged inactivity.

Despite the aptness of McCullough’s words, you won’t really begin to understand all those things about Adams the man—let alone many other things about his place in the Revolutionary and early Republican era of our country—unless you actually read the book. So read the book.

What It Took

We owe a great debt to David McCullough. He spent six years of his life researching Adams and writing his book. He read all of John’s and Abigail’s letters, all of their diaries, many letters written to them or about them. He also read the books that John Adams read, to immerse himself in Adams’ mindset. 

He set out to write a book on Adams and Jefferson, concerned at first that Adams would fare poorly next to the charismatic Jefferson. He soon found the reverse to be true. Jefferson was a more private man, who did not share his true feelings in letters as easily as Adams did. Moreover, fewer of his papers still exist. Eventually McCullough decided to leave Jefferson alone and focus on Adams. Jefferson enters the book only in relation to his dealings with Adams, which were considerable.

At any rate, it’s a fine book and one which will give you a glimpse of one of the most remarkable couples in the history of any country.

So do give it a read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Author

 

Into the Blogosphere

DEAR READER: This is a re-post of the first entry to this blog on 12 April 2019. You can judge for yourself whether subsequent posts have fulfilled the original intention. Of course, to do that, you would have to read them all, which is definitely encouraged.

“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926

King Lear and Cordelia, by Benjamin West (1793) / Folger Shakespeare Library, Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the best way to tell you about that, as Michael Hauge would say, is to tell you how I came to write this blog.

I was a happy, successful septuagenarian. But—from the time I wrote a detective story on a pencil tablet in third grade, when I was supposed to be doing something else—I had always meant to be a writer of fiction. What with one thing and another, I just had never gotten around to it.

So I quit my day job to write fiction. I had something to say. Just didn’t know what it was. Now, if you have an itch like that, nonfiction won’t scratch it. Something about fiction gives you an opportunity to tell the truth.

My approach to writing fiction is what the psychologists call a “projective technique”—akin to journaling, role-playing, or inkblot-guessing. I just thought, “I’ll start writing, and see what comes out.” 

What could possibly go wrong?   🙂

Early Success

Within a couple of years, I was lucky enough to get a few short pieces published: a dog essay in Fetch! magazine and three “Izzy Mahler” stories, about a young boy growing up in the 1950s, published electronically by the Saturday Evening Post.

Meanwhile, I started thinking about a historical novel based on Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, my great-great-grandparents, who came from Norway to Illinois before the Civil War. 

Fast forward to Now, and I have a good first draft of that work, Freedom’s Purchase. All I need to do is make it a lot better, and then pitch it to agents and publishers.

The Writer’s Life

But—STOP THE PRESSES! It turns out that to be in the writing game in a serious way, you must become a Major Literary Figure before the ink is dry on your first paragraph. You can’t simply write something great, publish it, become rich and famous, and then go on to your next triumph. That’s not How the World Works.

You must let other talented writers see your work and critique it. This is a vitally necessary step, if you want to avoid writing unprintable dreck. But when others spend time and effort to read and critique your stuff, you must do the same for them. Reciprocity rules. That means that from the outset of your writing career, you’re sending drafts to fellow writers, receiving and responding to drafts of theirs. 

For researching subject matter and for familiarization with the literary landscape, you find yourself reading more and more books—things you would not have read otherwise. You write and submit thumbnail book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.com. You subscribe to writers’ magazines and literary market websites.

You’d better attend a writers’ conference now and then. Two great ones are hosted every year in my home town by the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They cost money and time, but it’s necessary money and time. Writing can be a lonely business, and a solid bond with your “tribe” of fellow writers will help see you through. 

And what of querying and pitching—researching agents and publishers, and learning the best ways to approach them? The material they receive is so voluminous that you need to find ways to make your submissions stand out.

“You and what army?”

And finally—or, perhaps, initially—you need an “author platform.” Platform is a code word for a large band of fanatical followers. (This could include you, Gentle Reader!)

Book publishers try not to take unnecessary risks. They do want to publish great writing. But, as between a Great Writer with an Army of Rabid Fans and a Great Writer who is just, well, a Great Writer—they’ll take the former. It all but ensures a certain number of sales. If you were a publisher, you’d feel the same way, n’est-ce pas?  

There was once a golfer with a platform that just wouldn’t quit. His name was Arnold Palmer. His fans were known as “Arnie’s Army.” I could use an army.

“What’s it All About, Alfie?”

At some point, a writer starts thinking like this: Why am I doing this? Writers don’t make fortunes, unless their name is James Patterson. Writers are lucky just to get advantageous publication. Still: If one must write, one writes. And it would be good to have lots of people read what one writes. 

So, hoping to zero in on why people might want to read what I write, I plumbed the depths of my psyche (both inches) and concluded that what I have to say to people is always rooted in a general awareness of our common past.

A noted poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

–“Little Gidding”

That sense of better-late-than-not-at-all recognition of the world is what I seek, in personal memories from my long life or in the delving into events that no one is still alive to remember.

To cultivate my author platform, therefore—so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published—I hereby launch this website, larryfsommers.com, including this blog, titled “Reflections.”

If you come back from time to time you’ll encounter various kinds of content:

  • Ruminations on “the writer’s life.”
  • Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
  • Mentions of good books recently read.
  • News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
  • Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
  • Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.
  • Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.

Be brave enough to stick around through several posts, and you’ll catch on. I’ll try to post something new every Tuesday. Hope to see you often.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

“F” Is for Franklin

His name was Franklin. Most folks around the small town of Knoxville, Illinois, called him Frankie. 

Frankie on the gridiron

He was the youngest of five children. At Knoxville High School he played football and basketball and ran track—as had his brothers Lloyd, Stanley, and Edward before him. He was a regular kid, good-looking, with a winning smile.

He graduated from high school in May 1941. Seven months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States went to war against the Axis Powers. Frankie enlisted as an Army Aviation Cadet on 3 April 1942. 

Aviation Cadet Frankie

In December, while he was in his year-long pilot’s training, his brother Stanley was killed flying a B-17 in the Southwest Pacfic. Frankie graduated from Advanced Flying School and was commissioned a second lieutenant 12 April 1943. After a week-long home furlough and a brief training assignment in Florida, he left for England. 

They sent him to RAF Chipping Ongar, near London, home of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 559th Bomber Squadron, 387th Bomber Group, Medium. On 1 August, 1943, after 68.6 hours of training flights in the squadron’s twin-engined B-26 Marauders, he flew his first actual bombing mission. Through the end of August, he flew five training missions and five more combat missions, totaling 20.5 hours. 

His seventh combat mission was on 2 September 1943. By this time he was the regular co-pilot on Aircraft 41-31629, Janet’s Dream, captained by First Lieutenant William F. Vosburgh. 

Janet’s Dream and her crew, Frankie second from left

Over Bergues, France, Janet’s Dream took flak—anti-aircraft artillery fire—in her right engine, and Frankie’s war ended. The Marauder broke up and crashed, killing Frankie, Vosburgh, and two others. Two back-end crewmen bailed out and became prisoners of war.

Hap Arnold’s letter

Frankie’s eldest brother Edward, a pilot for Pan American Airways, paid a visit to Frankie’s unit in England. He collected Frankie’s things, talked with his commander and fellow fliers. Frankie had been well-liked, a “regular guy” and was the “banker” of the outfit—always had a few bucks he could lend to a fellow aviator in need.

“Hap” Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, sent my grandparents a letter that read almost as if he knew young Franklin William Sommers personally. 

“It has come to my attention that Lieutenant Sommers, a highly regarded graduate of the Advanced Flying School at La Junta, Colorado, was a brave and conscientious officer. He attained success in his effort to perform his duties in a superior manner and his commanding officers were pleased with his accomplishment of difficult tasks which they entrusted to him. Amiable and dependable, he made friends easily, and he is keenly missed in the activities of his group.”

Though doubtless they knew it was War Deparment boilerplate, this stately prose must have given them some comfort.

Frankie was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. His remains were buried in Plot A, Row 14, Grave 32 at the Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Frankie was 20 when he died, unmarried and childless. 

I was born almost two years later, never having known my Uncle Franklin—who now lives on only in my middle name, and in a few yellowing letters and photos. 

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All of that was three-quarters of a century ago. What has it to do with today?

Through life my friends have generally known me as Larry Sommers; but when I launched my writing career at age 70, I did so as Larry F. Sommers. I thought it had implications for author branding. “Larry Sommers” was plain vanilla; but “Larry F. Sommers” was premium vanilla. 

Besides that trivial consideration, I’m starting to understand that my name is more authentic with the “F” included. Authenticity can’t be manufactured; it can’t be designed, can’t be faked. Authenticity is that ineffable quality of actually being who you really are.

Second Lieutenant Franklin W. Sommers

My middle name, Franklin, claims the patrimony of my uncle’s remembrance. It is not something to be shucked off lightly. This man I never met gave his life for me before I was even conceived. He gave his life for all of us—one of many who did so in a dark chapter of the world’s story. 

Unlike those many others, Frankie, and his older brother Stanley, were mine. I am bound to them by two bloods— the blood of kinship and the blood of sacrifice.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Our being is entangled in those we remember and perpetuate—ancestors, forerunners, pioneers of our civilization. 

Whatever authenticity we may possess is a mix of individual traits with old associations. We are the sum of our present selves, our past, our family’s past, and our people’s past. 

I never knew Uncle Stanley or Uncle Franklin. There is no need or mandate for me to carry their  baggage, the burden of young lives so casually cast on history’s ash heap. Yet, wearing their mantle on my shoulders makes me more the person I am, not less. 

You can be an atom, bouncing along in a hostile universe; or, with God’s grace and your own awareness, you can purposely pitch your tent along the route of the grand parade. You can be one with your uncles, with your aunts, with Mister Lincoln, with Frederick Douglass, with the signers of the Magna Carta, with Leif Erikson and with Homer, who sang the tales of Odysseus the adventurer. 

You can be part of all the glory of the human condition, but then you must be part of the pain also.

That, Gentle Reader, is what I mean by “seeking fresh meanings in our common past.” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Terror at 20,000 Words

OUTLINERS figure out what the story is, then write it. 

PANTSERS are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants” and get surprised by their stories. 

Which one are you? Or, which would you be, if you were a writer?

I have always been an Outliner. Now, however, I’m changing my tune, and it scares me to death.

The Haven of Preparedness

Outlining may be considered a premeditated act. An Outliner commits Fiction in the First Degree.

Dentistry in my day. Public Domain.

This approach has a lot to recommend it. Once you have the whole plot engineered in outline form, you know where you are going. All that remains is to render it in prose. 

But the way I personally think of it is: I must do the hard part first, the part I don’t like one bit, the part that intimidates me, which is making up the story

Inventing plot twists, character actions, and dramatic events is like having all my teeth drilled and filled, one by one, and then extracted, without benefit of Novocain. That’s why I prefer to take refuge in historical novels. The main events have already happened and are known. All I need to invent is a few details. Even that seemingly small effort can leave me wounded and edentulous. 

Writing prose, on the other hand—with its delicious prospect of future revision, and further revision; polishing, and then polishing the polishing—is a pleasant gambol in Elysian fields. Given any encouragement at all, I could spend the rest of my life merrily revising a single chapter.

Elysian Fields by Carlos Scwabe, 1903. Public Domain.

Fabulous

The problem is, people want a story. People consume stories wholesale. People hunger for story. And The Magic of Story is the reason I got into this game in the first place.

I was seventy years old then. In the five years since, I have learned a lot about writing. Mostly about the technique of writing. About craft. About marketing.

But the most important thing I’ve learned is that a story is more than the words by which it is told. It’s more than the plot turns along the way. A story is the verisimilitude of a live person’s meeting and overcoming—or perhaps succumbing to—challenges that are interesting and exciting. A story is the telling, or the showing, of “life as she is lived.”

To bring a story to life by draping a string of phrases over an outline is a highly artificial skill. Only a few people can do it well, like an actor bringing a character to life on stage by sheer technique. For what I’m trying to write now, that just won’t do.

I must become a method actor. 

A Pantser.

Izzy—or izzn’t he?

A few years ago, I wrote some light-hearted short stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I was thrilled when three of them were e-published by The Saturday Evening Post. (You can read them herehere, and here.)

These Izzy stories replicate my own boyhood. Every detail comes straight from personal experience, with minor re-arrangements to enhance the drama. 

Now, I am starting a book about Izzy Mahler. It’s not a collection of Izzy short stories but a full, front-to-back novel aimed at young people, starring an Izzy slightly older than the one who appears in the Saturday Evening Post stories. 

The story this novel tells will have a bit more substance. I could never write anything really dark; but growing up in the 1950s was not all Leave It to Beaver. Kids had problems to face.

I started by outlining a plot for this book. It took a great deal of mulling over, but ultimately it went well: I emerged with a real spiffy outline. Then I started to write the text, based on my outline. I got seven chapters in before noticing that, although the writing was going very well, the book was going astray. The story was going off the rails by staying true to the outline.

There was no spontaneity to it. No real voyage of discovery for Izzy Mahler. 

I had made a rookie error. I mistook my protagonist for myself. 

If Izzy is merely a smudged copy of me, his saga will be a failure. My actual boyhood served me well enough, but it was not the stuff of stories. Whatever unhappiness I owned, whatever traumas in my upbringing, they cannot be cured by rehashing old grudges or inchoate yearnings on paper. That is not fiction, it is whining.  

Protagonizing

What is needed, if the past is to have meaning for the future, is an imaginative restaging, starring a better and more interesting person than me. That would be Izzy, you see. But this improved Izzy will not take pleasing shape from an outline. Izzy needs to be a true protagonist. He must burst forth from his circumstances and shove the story rudely in its ultimate direction. 

Melancholy protagonist? Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Morris Hunt, oil on canvas, circa 1864. Public Domain.

In this account of things, Izzy is someone who flies by the seat of his pants. To capture him alive, I must follow his example.

Someone told me:

“The protagonist must protag.”

Don’t waste your time looking up “protag” in your Funk & Wagnall’s. No such word appears. It’s just a writer’s in-joke, meaning that for a book to enthrall readers, big things must happen; and the central character must be the one who makes them happen.

If I have a main fault as a writer, it’s that my characters are too much like me: Timid, passive, inert. Lord, preserve my little hero Izzy from such a fate. But Izzy will only seize his destiny if I grasp the nettle and make him strong where I am weak.

That is why Pantsers are always saying things like, “I thought it was a story about lust and betrayal, but then my hero took it in a whole different direction.” 

The plunge. . . . Photo by Clarke’s County, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

All I can do is put Izzy on paper and confront him with challenges that he must address. Just fly by the seat of my pants, and hope the story will be worth reading.

But right now, in the moment of doing, it feels like I’m riding the world’s tallest roller-coaster. My carriage, on the top level, has just tilted sharply downward and started its plunge. 

Pray for me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A Pair of Good Books

It’s a good season for robust and interesting writing. I have two book recommendations, one fiction and one nonfiction.

The Coming of Cactus Jim

Kansas sheriff James Early makes his debut in Early’s Fall, by Jerry Peterson. Known to his friends as “Cactus”—and I guess I’ll have to read another book or two to find out what that’s about—Early is a cowboy sort of guy, equally at home riding the range on horseback or in a sheriff’s department jeep. 

The book, set in the 1940s, opens with a bold-as-brass daylight bank robbery in a sleepy little town. Early and his deputy scour the countryside in a high-speed, all-terrain chase, to no avail. Before they can catch the taunting, whimsical bank robber, they get distracted by a grisly murder.

Jerry Peterson

As Early methodically investigates likely suspects in the murder, he stops a passenger train, interrogates an Israeli secret agent, and is forced to balance his professional duties with care for his pregnant wife’s mental aberrations. Everything unravels inexorably to an exciting and moving finish.

Peterson, a seasoned author with fourteen books to his credit, knows how to keep a story moving at a compelling pace. His diction is strong and his images stirring. You won’t lightly put down Early’s Fall.

Combustible Wisdom

Norwegian journalist and author Lars Mytting has three critically acclaimed novels to his credit. But the book that made him a household name in the Nordic world is the nonfiction classic Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.

Mytting’s book comes along at just the right time to make me a better-informed woodsman. Some of his practical advice—about axes, chainsaws, and such—tallies with my own observations over the year. Some, however, has given me a new understanding of the best ways to process timber for burning in my fireplace or my cozy little woodstove.

I had long assumed—I don’t know why, wishful thinking perhaps—that if logs sit in the open air for up to a year before being split, they will be better seasoned and thus will split better, or at least easier. Wrong, says Mytting. Log should be split just after the timber is felled. Not only does the wood split easiest when it is fresh; the splitting itself is essential to the proper seasoning of the wood. To dry quickly and fully, the inner wood must be exposed. A log that sits, fully wrapped in bark, for any length of time will start to decompose from the inside out. Even a little bit of this internal rot eliminates hot gases needed for efficient burning and guarantees that the log will never fully dry.

Lars Mytting

So from now on, I’ll split all my wood as soon as I get it.

For me, that was the great lesson from this informative book; for you, something else might be. Writing with fluid and engaging clarity, Mytting delves into all aspects of the Scandinavian firewood experience, as witness his chapter heads: “The Cold,” “The Forest,” “The Tools,” “The Chopping Block,” “The Woodpile,” “The Seasoning,” “The Stove,” and “The Fire.” Each subject, by turn, is thoughtfully and fully explained. The whole book is well-illustrated with photos of lovely and creative woodpiles.

If you burn any wood at home, this book is sure to tell you things you’ll wish you had known before.  

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Two books, Early’s Fall and Norwegian Wood. Great books for the he-men, and the she-women, among you. Go now and read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Making Firewood

Hardships bring us back to the essentials.

Bereft of people to see and places to be, I turn to the dwindling wood-pile in the rack along my garage wall. 

A couple of years ago our friend Kevin rebuilt our old miscellaneous junk depot, making it into a newly inviting sunroom. It’s an awkwardly long space with a lot of windows but no connection to the furnace that warms the rest of our house. So Kevin installed a cast-iron woodstove at the far end of the room.

The author at work by his woodstove. Lacey the spaniel as Sancho Panza.

That woodstove has become a great blessing to Your New Favorite Writer. It means I can write in the calm of our sunroom in warm weather, in the cooler times of spring and fall, and even in the deepest part of winter.

But the cost is: Procuring enough firewood and splitting the logs to stack for drying and burning.

Into the Trees

Old-timers say firewood warms you twice: First when you cut it, haul it, and stack it; and second when you burn it.

I like to get logs for free, rather than pay money. From time to time, someone in the neighborhood has a tree felled; usually this work is done by hired arborists. If the homeowner does not want the wood, the wood cutters must haul the logs to a dump for disposal—an added expense I can lighten for them by taking some logs off their hands. It never hurts to ask.

After hauling a few heavy, 4- to 6-foot logs home in the back of my SUV, I need to cut them to fireplace lengths. I use a small, seven-pound Stihl chainsaw with a 14-inch bar. Small beats large where chainsaws are concerned. Schlepping a 23-pound, 20-inch murder machine around a tangled logjam will knock the stuffing out of you in half an hour. Very few men or women who are not woodsmen by trade can put a large chainsaw to good use. And fatigue will make the urban lumberjack a danger to self and others.

The essential tool.

The timber is sawn, ideally, into 16-inch segments; then the real fun begins. Logs need to be split (1) so they’ll dry more efficiently, for the bark holds moisture in; (2) so they’ll fit conveniently in the stove; (3) so they’ll burn more readily as flames lap at their exposed innards; and (4) so Your New Favorite Writer may enjoy the satisfaction of cleaving a pillar of wood with the bite of a sharp axe.

Verse in the Vernal Heat

Robert Frost in 1941. Fred Palumbo photo. Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public Domain.

Robert Frost waxes lyrical over chopping in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud-time”—

Good blocks of beech it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good
That day, giving a loose to my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

Scavenging for wood seldom brings me “good blocks of beech” that fall “splinterless as a cloven rock.” Quite often I’m using, by turns, my axe, a heavy splitting maul, or even wedges and a sledgehammer to demolish a twisty, knotted specimen of brutish maple or fruitwood with desperately cross-tangled fibers. It’s frustrating to try to smash such a godforsaken glob of sylvan perversity to flinders.

Larry the logger levitates lumber. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

But, ah! when I do score a nice chunk of straight-grained hardwood—such a joy to plummet the steel down upon it and pick up the halves on either side, to set the halves again on the chopping block and knock them into clean, glistening quarters. If you have ever done this kind of elemental work, then you know the peace it bestows.

Splitting wood adds rest and harmony to the soul.

Some of my neighbors use hydraulic splitters that can shiver a timber to its component parts in seconds. I have no quarrel with this efficient practice. I just like my way better.

Pride of Axemanship

Frost mentions a pair of bystanders who watched him at his beech-splitting chore: 

Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax,
They had no way of knowing a fool.

So there’s that, too. Pride, you see, rears its ugly head. I am proud of the little wood lore I have gained over my 75 years on God’s green earth, starting as a Boy Scout and continuing to the present day. Whatever small skill of axemanship I possess has been earned through uncounted hours of practice on “the unimportant wood.”

Let us say, rather: The importance of wood may be more in its first warming than in the second.

A beautiful Danish woodpile. Photo by BKP, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Owing to my amateur status as an axeman, and also to the amateur status of some of the trees I scrounge, my woodpile is far from a thing of beauty. Unlike those geometric wonders of forest engineering you see gracing the pages of coffee table books, my woodrack has all sorts of bent and twisted knots and gnarls, wood of all descriptions protruding rudely to snag the sweater of a careless passer-by. It’s almost disgraceful.

But here’s the thing, Gentle Reader: I intend to burn up all the evidence.

The motley wood in my garage.

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The menace of this season’s global pandemic, with its mandated idleness, has simply led back to roots, and branches, that are dear to me for their own sake. 

Here’s hoping you likewise may find blessed paths to pursue as we patiently await good tidings from our common future.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer