Category Archives: Excuse me. I have a Question.

Incomplete People

My dear friend Terry, who lives in the Bay Area, was talking the other day about an assignment in her creative writing class.  She was having trouble with the project and thought I might have an idea or two.  The assignment was to write about a character in a novel that you wish had been further developed, or were left wanting to know more about.  At first thought this seemed an easy task; if nothing else, it certainly makes one review much-loved books, recently read books, books not worth the time, and books you’ll never forget.  But then, to think about the characters — the memorable ones and those that you would want to spend more time with — is an interesting proposition.

The classics certainly have a wealth of characters to choose from but after thinking about it I came to realize the authors usually developed each character thoroughly, as was the style in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Would one need to know more about Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina or Daisy Miller?  I believe these characters and the auxiliary characters in those novels were too well-drawn to leave me feeling that I needed to know more about them.  Often I would puzzle over their actions and decisions, but never did I believe that I didn’t really know them as characters.

Moving on to more modern and contemporary writers and their novels, the choices broaden and become more difficult. After much deliberation, however, I finally decided the one I would like to have seen be better developed or to have known more about is Hanna Schmitz, the inscrutable, abrupt lover of the young boy Michael in “The Reader” by Bernard Schlink.  What, besides illiteracy, shaped her life, why was she friendless, why was she so driven by the fear of her secret being revealed that she was willing to go to prison?  We see her as strong and almost confrontational with Michael, yet she marched in line with all that she was told to do as a prison guard.  The grown Michael poses many of these same questions while watching Hanna’s trial but nothing is revealed about her inner life or what motivates her.  Hanna Schmitz remains a character who is never fully revealed and we are left to decide for ourselves what we believe about her.

I have often thought it would be interesting if Bernard Schlink would write about the same events but through Hanna’s eyes —  her childhood, how she came to be illiterate, and the circumstances that created  the shame that drove her life choices, chief among them the choice to be imprisoned.

Thank you Terry, for giving me something to ponder.


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I Know Everything About You But Let’s Pretend I Don’t

[Unrelated Note: Last week’s (A)Musings are up. Go take a look and complete this week’s thought.]

Years ago, when I was living in New York City, a friend told me how celebrities, even minor ones (actors most especially,) hated to be acknowledged in public. She went on to explain that they wanted freedom to be themselves and interact with waiters, store clerks, etc., without having to smile through a fountain of gushing compliments. I understood her point of view and believed her, since she was a working actor herself.  On the other hand, putting myself in the celebrity’s place, I often wonder if maybe they do want to be told, even by a complete stranger, that they are admired, and their work appreciated. Isn’t that part of the bargain, to be acknowledged publicly for performing well for the public?

When I first moved to NYC from the south in 1969, the film Midnight Cowboy had just come out. On my way to a business meeting one day with a colleague, who was a seasoned and sophisticated New Yorker, I spotted Jon Voight in a cowboy hat and boots walking toward us, just as he had walked the streets of New York in the film. I couldn’t help myself. I loudly blurted out, “It’s the Midnight Cowboy!” He smiled and tipped his hat and kept on walking. In the meantime, my colleague had crossed the street to avoid the embarrassment of being seen with me. She said, as I rushed to catch up to her, “If you ever do that again I will have you fired!”  “What did I do wrong?” I asked not really understanding. “You made a spectacle of yourself over a movie star!” she exclaimed.  “You’re never, never supposed to act like you know who they are!”  Really? I was skeptical then and remain so now. I mean, I wouldn’t hound someone for an autograph, or try to elbow the paparazzi out of the way to get to him. Nor would I stalk or grovel or scream in ecstasy, but I would like to feel free to smile in acknowledgement, maybe tip my head in their direction, without being made to feel like a yokel by my urban friends.

I moved to Los Angeles eleven years ago and one of the things I love about this city is …well… the liveliness. The excitement that comes from never quite knowing who or what you’ll see next. It is never hum drum, always unpredictable. And for me part of the fun of the unpredictability is suddenly seeing the faces in restaurants, stores, and other public places, that you have recently watched on the big and little screens.

We get our share of celebrities here at the bookstore, as do most retail places in Los Angeles. The thing that puzzles me is how awkward it is sometimes.  Often, if they are young television actors, I don’t know who they are anyway, so no problem for me. And sometimes even if I don’t know who they are or haven’t seen their show, they somehow exude an aura of being special, as if there’s a light on somewhere inside them, beckoning the world to notice. Then it’s easy; I just treat them like the nice customers that they are.

On the other hand, we also have well-known celebrities wandering in– ones who I not only recognize but whose work I also have a genuine admiration for. Now they are standing at the counter in front of me ready to make a purchase. This is when it gets sticky. They know that I know who they are, and yes they are just folks like us, but still.  It is so tempting to mention how wonderful they were in this or that role, but I don’t want to be presumptuous or make them uncomfortable by drawing attention to their celebrity.  I wonder how they feel.  Do they want to be treated like ordinary customers?  Do they prefer not to be acknowledged?  Do I joke with them as I would anyone else? Of course I do. Do I?

What’s your experience? Thoughts? Advise?

– Donna


Filed under Excuse me. I have a Question.

The Telephone

“If anyone should think he has solved the problem of life and feel like telling himself that everything is quite easy now, he can see that he is wrong just by recalling that there was a time when this “solution” had not been discovered; but it must have been possible to live then too and the solution which has now been discovered seems fortuitous in relation to how things were then. And it is the same in the study of logic. If there were a “solution” to the problems of logic (philosophy) we should only need to caution ourselves that there was a time when they had not been solved (and even at that time people must have known how to live and think).”  

 —Ludwig Wittgenstein

One of only a handful of men whose inner and outer worlds were, as surely as anyone can be sure of anything from the past, never at odds, Wittgenstein came to me in a dream last night. He didn’t say or do anything– he was just there– perhaps a bit more confused than I about his sudden appearance. I was sorry to have to leave him behind, as it was a positively empty, happy dream. So, when I awoke I went searching for him in the next best place to my subconscious: the internet. Andrei Codrescu, as he has on a couple of occasions before, gave me just what I needed. A disjointed, totally sentimental compilation of random quotes taken from “Problems of Life,” accompanied by some exquisite photos of equally disjointed subject matters. Here, serendipitously, I found the thought at the top of this post. It’s one I’ve often borrowed when entrenched in discussions which threaten to delve a little more deeply into philosophy than I normally see it fit to tread.

Of course, what he’s talking about is much larger than the trains of thought I followed, but I couldn’t help thinking about how the psychology of mankind changed with the invention of the telephone.

  There was a time when your husband got on the horse and rode out of town, promising to return within seven days. On the sixth night you’d probably begin experiencing some anxiety? On the seventh, worry? And what about the eighth? How would you feel on the eighth night, with no neighing within earshot? Or perhaps you’d know enough to prepare yourself the first day for the possibility that he won’t return? Would hope carry you through? Or would you be desensitized by life enough to not be moved by it at all? I wonder. I wonder about the first man who called his wife’s cell phone five minutes after she left the house for work. The first one. I wonder what we gained or what we lost when we suddenly were given the tool, the gift, the opportunity to always know where our loved ones are. This must have changed us! One day you’re on your knees for a safe return and the moon and sun revolve around separations of all forms, the next, an entire piece of who you are and an aspect of what makes your life your life is plucked away– did not the collective heart of man sigh one very loud, weary sigh? And what came to take the place of this age-old weight? For, surely, something occupies it now!

It was a quiet day at the bookstore today. 




Posted by Aida


Filed under Excuse me. I have a Question., The Other Day at Portrait...

Wooing You

A few days ago I overheard a customer telling her friend that she only buys books based on the look of the cover.  She said that if the book doesn’t have a cover that’s appealing to her then it can’t be very good (as in,  to her taste). She reasoned that an author works hard on writing the book and making it great, therefore she believes the cover will be great too.  I guess she found a selection process that works for her but I can’t help but think of all the authors who don’t have a say in choosing their covers or the graphics and feel sad that she might overlook a really good book because the cover doesn’t appeal to her aesthetic values.

I realize I’m asking the age-old question, but it’s relevant now more than ever. It’s not so much about, dare I say it, “judging a book by its cover,” but about how important the look and feel of a book is to you.  How important is it and what do you base your decisions on?

While you ponder that, take a look at this site. (Thanks, Lucia.)

Posted by Donna


Filed under Excuse me. I have a Question.