Sunday, June 28, 2015


     Courier New, anyone?  Is there something tragically wrong with Courier New that no one ever bothered me to tell me about?  I'm assuming, of course, that you're more font-forward than I am, because let's face it - who isn't?  Courier New is the default font I use at work.  To me, it's so mild-mannered and inoffensive as to be invisible.  I mean, it's not like it features little clowns acting out the letters, is what I'm saying.  It's BLAND.
      And yet, when I met with an agent for a critique at the NJSCBWI conference I attended two weeks ago, she started off the conversation by telling me, in a seriously aggrieved tone, that I had (Crime #1) sent her my submission in her least favorite font.   And if that weren't enough, when she tried to change the font to something more tolerable, everything went "all wonky" because (Crime #2) I had done such a terrible job of formatting.  I got the strong impression that, had my crime spree ended with the use of Courier New, she might have courageously gritted her teeth and sailed onward, difficult as it would have been.  But by following it up with Crime #2, I had truly drilled the last nail into my own coffin.  Oh, the agent also really did not like my manuscript, by the way, but her response to that seemed so much less visceral; she was not remotely interested in the content, but neither was she personally offended.
     It's taken me a while to figure out what was going on here, but I've got it now: I was being told that I had demonstrated an appalling lack of taste and judgment by utilizing what I should have known was a clearly inferior font in a submission to a clearly superior person.  Or - perhaps even worse - that I knew full well how nightmarish Courier New was, but I simply didn't care.  I was utterly indiscriminate (cf. "That's my last duchess painted on the wall").  In short, I was a fontslut.
     I realized only today that I had been font shamed, and I was going to post about it when it occurred to me that I might actually not be the first person to come up with that phrase.  Enter Google.  I now know that font shaming is a concept that has existed for the Internet equivalent of millennia, i.e., at least two years.  If you don't believe me, read this and this and this, and then join me in my hatred of people everywhere who will stop at nothing to let you know how much better they are than you.

                                         Look!!  It's Little Lord FONTleroy!!!  hahahahahahaha

     So.  Have YOU ever been font shamed?  Please let me know.  If there are enough of us, maybe we can form a support group!

UPDATE: Today I Googled "font snobbery," and what an education I've gotten!  Thank God I didn't send my submission in Comic Sans; if I had, my picture might be up in print shops all around the country under a "MOST WANTED" caption.  But I didn't see one mention of Courier New among the lists of Most Reviled Fonts.  And besides, the people who seem most offended by certain fonts seem to be mostly graphic designers, who I suppose have a right to care about things like that.  But the rest of us?  Please.  Get a life.

Sunday, June 21, 2015



     Very close to the end of this book, which is built on the framework of the Second World War, Atkinson gets into the numbers.  "Fifty-five thousand, five hundred and seventy-three dead from [presumably only British] Bomber Command."  By that point, having not quite emerged from the long, ordinary, astonishing fictional life of one Edward Beresford Todd, the reader understands the significance of the number.  Those were 55,573 similar stories never told, similar lives never lived.
     You don't need to have read Atkinson's TIME AFTER TIME (here's my review) to appreciate this beautiful new companion novel.  In fact, not having read it might spare you some confusion, because didn't that book end (and also begin) with Ursula Todd, Teddy's sister, killing Hitler in front of a roomful of his hangers-on just as his political star was starting to rise?  Her lifespan from that point on could only have been counted in seconds, and very few of those.  But now, in A GOD IN RUINS, don't we see Ursula surviving the War and dying in late middle age following a stroke?  And wait - if Hitler had been killed in the early 1930's, would there even have been a War? 
     But you would not have been confused for long, because you would have known before even cracking the cover of A GOD that Time, as we know it, does not bind Atkinson; it's her plaything, not her prison.  Which is not to say that Teddy, Ursula's beloved younger brother and their mother's favorite child, is not slowly and inexorably being crushed - ruined - under its weight, just as the rest of us are.  And he lacks Ursula's handy-dandy knack (see TIME AFTER TIME) of repeatedly dying and then popping back up again in what start out, at least, as the exact same circumstances as before.  But Atkinson doesn't need the flashy gimmicks to prove to us that Teddy will come back again.  All she needs is a few lowkey mentions of the Buddha, and the song of a skylark.
     The pre-War Teddy Todd is an amiable, bright-enough young man of no particular talent or ambition who seems destined to remain in a despised career in banking because he can't think of anything better to do.  When the War arrives, he hits rather haphazardly on the idea of training to be a bomber pilot.  Then he goes off to serve his country.  Years later, when his plane is shot down over Germany, he is taken prisoner.  After the War ends, he marries the literal girl next door, the one he's loved since the age of three.  Teddy stumbles into a job as a columnist ("Nature Notes") for his local newspaper, which eventually becomes the editorship, which eventually becomes his career.  He and Nancy have a daughter.  Some nine years later, Nancy develops a brain tumor, and dies not long after.  Teddy raises Viola by himself.  She grows up to be a one-woman horror show.  When she abandons her own two children, Teddy raises them by himself too.  He gardens.  He cooks.  He does not travel, or fall in love again, or develop meaningful friendships, or have epiphanies about the meaning of life.  Time passes.  Teddy retires from the newspaper; quietly grows old, then very old;  misses all those he has loved and lost; dies.  An uncomplicated story about an uncomplicated man.  Neither of which is even possible.
     Teddy's is a life lived with decency, and Atkinson shows us, step by step, how it's done.  Teddy has fulfilled his duty to Bomber Command after 30 runs, but he knows he's a good, steady pilot who inspires confidence in his crews, so he signs up again.  And then again.  By the time he's captured, he has completed 72 bombing runs. Rained death and destruction on the Germans; done much more than his part to crush the German was machine. The postwar Teddy is well aware of the cost of his bargain with the devil, although in hindsight he would have made the same choices, and  Atkinson includes those numbers too, lest we forget: 7 million German dead, including 500,000 killed by Allied bombers. 

                                            Hamburg (one of the cities Teddy's crew bombed)

Five hundred thousand, including, perhaps, a white-haired, mechanically-inclined orphan boy whose song Anthony Doerr sings to us in ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE. Who's to say that fictional people don't exist in the same dimension as each other, especially during the chaos and displacement of wartime?
     Before her mind has been ravaged by the tumor, Nancy asks Teddy to help her die when the time comes.  Although he cannot bring himself to make the promise, he does bring himself to keep it.  Of course, this act of heroism is not without consequences either: unbeknownst to Teddy, Viola is a silent witness of the scene. Could it be part of the reason she becomes such an inhuman adult?  Why she eventually becomes so relentless in her efforts to move Teddy along the old-age conveyor belt toward his demise? 
     Without drama, without expecting anything in return, Teddy saves the lives of his grandchildren, Sunny and Bertie, with his patient, quotidian love for them.  But this good deed somehow goes unpunished: unlike Viola, they love him in return, each in his or her own way.
     The lesser joys of reading a Kate Atkinson novel are too many to list.  Bertie's hilarious parenthetical commentary on her mother is the voice in our ear of the snarky best friend we wish we had. Teddy, much to his chagrin, is the involuntary subject of his flamboyant, childless Aunt Izzie's  hugely successful series of boys' books, THE ADVENTURES OF AUGUSTUS ( "What makes you you?  What do you like doing?  Who are your friends?  Do you have a thingamajig, you know -" she said, struggling for alien vocabulary, "David and Goliath - a slingshot thingy?")  And then, as if Augustus were not enough of a cross to bear, Viola becomes a novelist, specializing in thinly-veiled revisionist history, and he becomes her antihero ("He also failed (apparently) to understand that the book - young girl, brilliant and precocious, troubled relationship with her single-parent father, etcetera - was about them.  Surely he knew that?  Why didn't he say something?")  Ah.  Point well taken, Kate Atkinson.  Not all literary incarnations are rewards for a life well lived.
     "A man is a god in ruins," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in Nature.  Atkinson has the heart and wisdom  to celebrate both aspects of the dialectic.  Thanks to her, Teddy's song lives on.  Happy Father's Day, Edward Beresford Todd.