Tidewater Review - November 2007

A Mixed Bag of Grins and Groaners on the Bookshelf


Anne Stinson

   I read an outstandingly good book last month; one I was so enthusiastic about that a long review nearly wrote itself. The book is Having My Say: Conversations with Chesapeake Bay Waterman Wylie “Gator” Abbott, by A. M. Foley. It’s a masterpiece by any standard. Foley didn’t miss a beat in accuracy, dialect, sense of place, and the essence of a way of life that barely lingers on the Bay.
    I finished my review and submitted it on deadline to Tidewater Times. Talk about chagrin! It turns out that my late husband, book critic John Goodspeed, had already reviewed it in this publication before his last illness and death.
    Herein, then, is a critique of the reviewer’s bumbles and fumbles in choosing books that readers might like to read, plus those to avoid like the very devil himself.
    I’ve been trying to read – shhh! Don’t tell anybody. I’m about to stop in the middle of a book. It’s nothing I’d want to review or recommend to a friend. Being a compulsive reader, I usually dash on to the final page of a clinker, no matter how lame the story, put down the book with distaste and promptly forget the title, the author’s name and all the pages from one to whatever. This time, I can’t spare the time or need the aggravation. For me, this book is a terrible waste.
    Just so you’ll think twice about buying or borrowing it, here are the caveats. First, the title: When Ghosts Speak. The author is Mary Ann Winkowski, who sees ghosts of dead people who somehow missed “passing through the Light” [sic] as their souls left their bodies. Winkowski not only sees them, she silently talks with them, finds out how come they’re still around and helps or coerces them to move on to wherever we go when we die.
    She advises the reader to put aside skepticism and listen to her experiences. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Among her claims are conversations with the ghosts of the actress Barbara Stanwyck (I gave up before I learned what her problem was) and the ghost of a detective who asked Winkowski to tell the police what happened to his missing body. She is, she says, often consulted by law enforcement officers to interview “spirits” who might be helpful in solving crimes.
    She inherited her gift from her late grandmother, an Italian immigrant who passed on the ability. The old lady regularly took the author to neighborhood funerals when the little girl was only four years old to hone the craft. One wonders what the kid’s mother was thinking to permit the jaunts. The spirits of the dead usually hang around until after the funeral so they won’t miss the show, Winkowski alleges.
    Oh yes, and the author got really good at conjuring up “the Light” for the lost souls to step into, whether it’s in a funeral home or just an ornery ghost who doesn’t want to leave a former residence, favorite furniture or a car he or she loved.
    If you’re interested in that kind of stuff, you might want to read the book. I’m not and I saw no reason to waste another minute on it.
    Call me irreverent, but the whole nonsense (in my judgment) reminded me of the old joke that goes something like this:
Three friends from the local congregation were asked, “When you’re in your casket and friends and congregation members are mourning over you, what would you like them to say?”
    Pete said, “I would like them to say, ‘He was a wonderful teacher and servant of God, who made a huge difference in people’s lives.’”
    Bill said, “He was a wonderful husband and a fine spiritual leader and a great family man.”
    Charley said, “Look! He’s moving!” (Pause for the comic’s classic punctuation, a rim shot from the drummer).
    Moving right along, here’s another entry in Stinson’s “orphan book list,” - ones that I simply gave up on for one reason or another.
    It pains me temporarily to abandon Larry Chowning’s new book, Deadrise and Cross-planked, just off the presses at Tidewater Publishers in Centreville. I’ll get back to it and I’m sure give it a favorable review – Chowning can’t write a bad sentence. I love his work, even when I don’t have more than a hazy clue about what he’s saying.
    So why the exasperation? In my view, Chowning did everything right except for one fatal omission. The book is about the development of workboat styles in the Chesapeake Bay area, a topic that fascinates many people, this reader included. It’s filled with words and terms familiar to boatbuilders and the Bay watermen who work on them. A lot of readers won’t know the difference between the chine on a boat and a China teapot.
    A glossary in the back of the book offers rudimentary help to the hopeless lubbers, but it doesn’t help a lot to find the definition of “cross-planked” in the title. The glossary says it’s “bottom planking that is laid crossways” – so far so good, but don’t get confident – “so that the outside end is fastened to the chine and the inboard end is fastened at the keel rabbit.”
    The what? Keel rabbit is not in the glossary. The reader groans.
    In fairness, Chowning has gathered close to 150 photographs of examples of the style evolutions, particularly from the last century. His captions are informative to a degree, but unless the reader speaks “boatbuilder,” it can be frustrating.
    It would have been a great help and could draw a bigger and more appreciative readership with the addition of at least a one-page diagram of a ship’s bones.
    Having said that, Chowning is a delight to read. He brings the traditional boatbuilders to life and tells where and why construction changes evolved as they did. His list of four previous books on the Chesapeake Bay, including Chesapeake Bay Buyboats and Chesapeake Legacy, are classic local maritime history.
    The book is a keeper and I’ll review it fully in the near future. It’s too wonderful to allow a few quibbles to spoil it. The people who already can tell the difference between a cunner and a tumblehome won’t have a speck of trouble with it.
    Ready for a real doozy? Try this one on for size. What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You To Know). Who could argue with a chance to get inside help on college applications, one of the most stressful times for both parent and child?
    Well, this critic could, for one. A line in author Elizabeth Wissner-Gross’s credential claims she has based the how-to-get-young-John-or-Jane into the top colleges, is “gleaned from working for over 10 years as a highly successful packager of high school students...”
    Yes, you read that right, she’s a “packager.”
    If that doesn’t make you break out in hives, read on to find the “272 little-known, unconventional, tried-and-true secrets” to get the kid into the school of his or her dreams. Actually, the secrets aren’t secrets to anybody with common sense and they range from basic to outright bizarre.
    Some parents might not embrace the “packaging” tactics, like this one that offended me. I suggest the reader try it on and if it fits, by all means suit yourself.
    Here it is: “Nominate your own kid! If you think your kid deserves an award, don’t wait for the teacher to do it.” And golly, just think how popular it will make the kid with classmates and faculty!
    A nervous parent – I prefer the term “helicopter parent” for its image of the over-protective, pushy control freak that hovers over the child – may enjoy reading this book to be sure he or she does all 272 secret guidelines.
    No secrets are revealed for survival of the uber-parent who finds that his kid is majoring in girls and keg parties.
    Then there’s When Did Jesus Become a Republican by Mark Ellingsen. I was wondering the same thing, but I’m not curious enough to wade through partisan platitudes for the umpteenth time.
    Ditto for another yawner, The Elements of Influence by Alan Kelly. I can’t get excited about a book that’s the less than gripping guide to “The New Essential System for Managing Competition, Reputation, Brand and Buzz.” I’d be comatose before I finished five pages.
    You hadda be there, Charlie. Unless you’ve been a book critic, you can’t imagine the constant stream of books from publishers, big and little outfits, that want to get news of their books in print. The trick is to separate the gold from the dross. Criticism is all subjective taste, of course, and one man’s choice is another one’s poison.
Each book is like a conversation with an author. Some are sparkling company, but alas, they’re outnumbered by the duds.