Wednesday, July 23, 2014

No accounting for taste

In literature as in love we are astonished at what is chosen by others.
Andre Maurois

That people's tastes are so different has got to be a good thing. How unfortunate it would be if all men pursued the same few women or if some nutritious foods, perhaps liver or mushrooms, went uneaten because nobody could stand to eat them.

Even so, as Andre Maurois reflects, we all find it amazing that others like what they do. Of all the men in the world, why did she marry him? How could anyone enjoy that music? Did you actually read Moby-Dick because you wanted to? We all probably think such questions, even if we don't dare ask them.

When I told some friends We were planning to go to Elkins, W.Va., this week to listen to Irish music, I sensed some wonder in their eyes. Why would anyone want to do that? We were not alone at the Augusta Heritage Center concert last night, however. The crowd, though relatively small in comparison with many rock concerts, was enthusiastic. Some of us love Irish music. Some of us don't. It makes for an interesting world.

When it comes to literature, however, I sometimes think human taste is not nearly diverse enough. Too many people seem to be reading the same books. Too many read books, or at least buy books, only because they are best-sellers, because everybody else is reading them. Meanwhile so many terrific books, some much better than most of the books on best-seller lists, go virtually unread.

At a used book sale last weekend I overheard one woman tell another she was interested in finding books by only a few select authors. When she found an author she liked, she read everything she could find by that author, then just had to wait for a new book to be written. I admire devotion to particular authors, but her attitude seemed extreme to me. Diversity in taste is a virtue not just from one person to another but also within each individual. One should be able to enjoy books both by David Baldacci and Thomas Hardy, as I do, and Irish music as well as classical or rock music.

Monday, July 21, 2014

An incompetent hero

I do hope Puppet on a Chain is not Alistair MacLean's best book. I opened it a few days ago with great expectations, having heard some glowing comments about MacLean's novels, never having read any of them before. Those expectations remained high for a few chapters.

About the time MacLean's hero, Interpol agent Paul Sherman, gets beaten up within an inch of his life for about the third time in three days, I began to have doubts. How can anyone take such punishment repeatedly, yet keep going as if nothing has happened? What's more, how can anyone deliberately keep getting himself into such situations? Even Sherman himself doubts his own competence, as when he hides a second gun on his person because he expects, correctly, his primary gun will be taken from him. Then he hides the key to his handcuffs because he expects them to end up on his own wrists.

Sherman is in Amsterdam trying to track down the head of an international drug-smuggling ring. He operates alone, except for two young and beautiful female assistants whose main function seems to be to give him someone to protect and/or rescue periodically. He goes into highly dangerous situations, expecting the worst, not just without backup but without even telling anyone else where he is going. Nor does he think to share his suspicions in case he doesn't make it back alive.

Published in 1969, Puppet on a Chain appears under the influence of the James Bond movies of that period. MacLean's villains, like those in the movies, choose not to simply put a bullet into their adversary's head. Rather they concoct elaborate means of slow execution that allow the hero an opportunity for escape, usually more because of amazing good luck than anything else.

Maxwell Smart, who was anything but smart, always got his man. Paul Sherman gets his, too, but this wasn't supposed to be a comedy.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Frost

I heard Robert Frost recite some of his poems in the park last night. Or so it seemed anyway. In truth, I heard Dr. John Anderson, associate professor of communication studies at Emerson College, impersonate the poet at the 15th annual Ashland Chautauqua in Ashland, Ohio. The theme this year is poetry and prose. Previous appearances this week were by Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Miep Gies, the woman who sheltered the Frank family in Amsterdam during World War II and who preserved Anne's diary after the family was captured and taken to prison camps. Still to come are Edith Wharton and C.S. Lewis.

Through Anderson, Frost recited several of his most familiar poems, A Road Not Taken, Mowing, Mending Wall, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Birches and Fire and Ice among them. He also spoke about what he seeks to accomplish in his poetry, how he likes his poems to begin in delight and end in wisdom, or "in clarification of life" and "a momentary stay of confusion." He spoke of poetry as performance and as "a sound of sense."

He spoke, too, about the conflict in his poems, the opposing views expressed in the same works, the stress of order against wildness. An example is Mending Wall in which the phrases "something there is that doesn't love a wall" and "good fences makes good neighbors" each appear twice.

Frost appreciated the "beauty of the spoken language," one reason for the popularity of his poems even today. He didn't care for poetry that seemed too poetic or too literary. He favored lines that rhymed, unlike most poets of his generation, and poems that could be read and appreciated by ordinary readers, not just literary critics. Thus he could make a living by writing poetry and by giving public readings, much as he did last night, with a little help from John Dennis Anderson.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A better class of vocabulary

You're never going to make as much as a tooth-puller as you will by being an orthodontist.
Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Just as the human population tends to divide itself into social classes, so do the words in the English lexicon. As Henry Hitchings suggests, some words just make a better impression than others.

Anglo-Saxon words do the heavy lifting in our language. They represent the working class. Most of the words we use are among the oldest words in the language. These include words like go, come, know, good and work. They tend to be short and simple, but they don't impress anybody. When we want words with clout, we usually turn to those borrowed from other languages.

When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they brought the French language with them. Most of the English people went right on using the same words they had always used, but French became the language of royalty, the law, politics and economics. Some English kings didn't even speak English. To this day, nearly a thousand years later, we still us words like attorney, jury, evidence, prison, govern, peace and treaty with French origins. It is because of the Norman influence that we say we had pork or beef for dinner, not pig or cow. Doesn't that sound a lot better?

Another level of elitist words comes from Latin. These words stem not so much from the early Roman period in England as from the Renaissance period when Latin was considered the language of learning, as well as of the church. From Latin we got words like scientific, encyclopedia, literary, adjective. facsimile, minus and extraterrestrial.

To really make a good impression, especially if you have an advanced degree, you want to use words borrowed from Greek. That's where orthodontist comes from. So do such words as psychiatrist, pediatrician, paralysis, migraine, symmetry and almost every word that ends with -graphy or -ology (such as geography and geology).

English words from Latin and Greek have been called "SAT words" because they are more likely to show up in college-entrance exams. We may not know why, but most of us think we sound smarter when we use words other than those good old Anglo-Saxon originals.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Still MAD

It says something when the funniest item in MAD magazine consistently is one called The MAD Vault, an excerpt from a past issue. Maybe it says something about me. Maybe it says something about the magazine.

I picked up my first issue of MAD, the March 1958 issue, as a 13-year-old. I have been reading it ever since, with just a few misses along the way. The price has risen from "25 cents Cheap" to "$5.99 Cheap!" but I still find it worth buying, even though I skim some articles and ignore others altogether. I just don't enjoy it as much as I once did. It's often too coarse for my taste. The March 1958 issue (No. 38) had mentions of vodka, mobsters, peeping toms and Jayne Mansfield, topics probably considered a little racy for the time. The recent June issue (No. 527) mentions illegal narcotics, butt selfies, STDs and a teacher sexually obsessed with a student. Times have changed, I guess.

Here's what I think of today's MAD, specifically that June issue:

The cover I still miss those classic cover drawings by artists like Kelly Freas and Norman Mingo, but I must admit Mark Fredrickson does a very good job.

The Alfred E. Neuman quote A quote from Alfred E. Neuman has been a mainstay on the table of contents page at least since 1958, and I always read it. And where else but in MAD magazine will you find the table of contents listed in the table of contents?

The Fundalini Pages These quick hitters don't all work, but enough of them do to make these pages near the front of the magazine among the best each issue.

The parody Prominent in each issue of MAD is a parody of a recent movie or popular TV show. These are always more fun if you are familiar with the subject of the parody, which I rarely seem to be anymore. I have read The Hobbit, however, so I read and enjoyed reading The Slobbit.

The Darker Side of the Lighter Side of ... For many years Dave Berg did a regular feature for the magazine in which he picked a topic, then drew comic strips about it. In recent years MAD has been recycling some of Berg's gags but with new, edgier punchlines. I was never a big Dave Berg fan, but I still like his versions better.

Planet Tad I never miss this. It consists of excerpts from the imagined blog of a 14-year-old boy and is consistently one of the funniest things in the magazine.

Spy vs. Spy I stopped reading this years ago. It seems to be the same gag over and over again.

The ads I hated it when MAD started accepting advertising several years ago, but now I don't mind them at all. So many of the real ads are difficult to distinguish from the ad parodies that it can be fun trying to figure out which is which.

The Strip Club These comic strips near the end of each issue just aren't that amusing, and they are usually a bit gross besides. One gag in the recent issue is about a student who thinks mercury tastes good and then falls over dead.

The Best of The Idiotical Like the Fundalini Pages, this feature is comprised of short gags. These come from the magazine's web site, and most of them are clever.

The MAD Fold-In The June issue marks the 50th anniversary of the Fold-In. I still think of it as a new feature that will never catch on. Actually I think it's a clever idea, but I have never wanted to ruin a magazine, which I consider a collectible, by folding in the back cover

Friday, July 11, 2014

The meaning of Manhattan

Manhattan may be one of the best known and most populous islands in the world, but what its name actually means remains something of a mystery. A Wikipedia article on Manhattan states the name, originally written as Manna-hata, means "island of many hills" in the Lenape language, the Lenape being one of several Indian tribes that once lived on or visited the island. Douglas Hunter, author of the 2009 book Half Moon about Henry Hudson's New World exploration, which included a voyage up what is now known as the Hudson River, suggests other possibilities.

Hudson actually was commissioned in 1609 by the Dutch East India Company to find a northeast route to China, that is to sail through the Arctic waters north of Europe. He soon changed directions, deciding he would have better luck finding a northwest passage instead. Apparently even in the 17th century it was easier to get forgiveness than permission. Hudson thought the river might provide the answer. It didn't, but on his way he found what is now Manhattan Island. One of his officers, a man named Robert Juet, recorded the word Manna-hata in the Half Moon's logbook. Juet neglected to say where the name came from or what it meant, however.

Some authorities, Hunter writes, thought the name meant "people of the island" in an Algonquian dialect. Another theory says it meant "the island where we all became intoxicated." Someone else argued that none of the native languages would have had a word for intoxicated and that the name may have referred simply to foolishness.

What's true of the name Manhattan is true of most names eventually. They come to mean what or who they represent and their original meanings become obscure or lost altogether. Fortunately the Hudson River is not one of those names. We know where that name came from.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Choosing the right word

All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another.
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

Writing begins with an idea. "Ideas are to literature what light is to painting," the French writer Paul Bourger once said. Such things as grammar, punctuation, spelling and style also play a part. Still, as Francine Prose puts, it finally comes down to choosing one word instead of another.The best writers find the best words.

In her book, Prose illustrates her point, as she says she does in the college classes she teaches, by going through the opening paragraph of Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" practically word by word. Why did O'Connor choose the words she did, and why does it make a difference? By the time you read Prose's next couple of pages you realize O'Connor's choices made all the difference in the world.

We can play the same game with one of the most familiar opening lines in literature, found in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Austen's punctuation may be suspect, but it's hard to argue with her word choices.

I am reminded of those who say, as I have said myself, there is no such thing as a synonym. Words may mean similar things, but rarely do they mean exactly the same thing or carry the same weight. They don't sound the same, and even in the written word, how words sound makes a difference. Imagine if Austen, instead of writing "universally acknowledged," had tried "widely accepted" or "recognized around the world." How much different that opening line would have been. Instead of "a single man in possession of a good fortune," she could have written "a wealthy bachelor." Instead of "must be in want of a wife" she might have said "must be looking for a spouse" or "needs a good woman."

Would Jane Austen's opening line have been as memorable had she opted for other words to say what she had to say? I doubt it.