Monday, May 21, 2018

Knowing about people

There are three ways in which a writer knows about people: by remembering, by noticing, and by imagining.
A.A. Milne, quoted in Goodbye Christopher Robin by Ann Thwaite

A.A. Milne
The three ways A.A, Milne observes that writers know about people -- remembering, noticing and imagining -- are the same ways any of us knows about people, although for non-writers, what is only imagined about people can lead to trouble, as when one imagines reasons for a slight that may not be true at all.

When Milne wrote those words he was referring to his own poetry, specifically to those poems that comprise his first book of poetry intended for children, When We Were Very Young (1924).

The word we in the title indicates memory is at work in these poems, both for the author and his readers. His first-person poems, such as "The Island," clearly suggest Milne is relying on memories of his own childhood. The closing lines read:

And I'd say to myself as I looked so lazily down at the sea:
"There's nobody else in the world, and the world was made for me."

No man is an island? But Milne could remember, as any of us might, being young enough to imagine himself the center of the world.

These poems were written before the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. His son, Christopher Robin (whom he called Billy) was quite young at the time and and his observance of his little boy clearly inspired several of Milne's poems, such as one called "Hoppity." It begins:

Christopher Robin goes
Hoppity, hoppity,
Hoppity, hoppity, hop,
Whenever I tell him
Politely to stop it, he
Says he can't possibly stop.

The poem "Jonathan Jo" may have been based on a real person, but even so the young poet probably relied mostly on his imagination to pen lines like these:

Jonathan Jo
Has a mouth like an "O"
And a wheelbarrow full of surprises;
If you ask for a bat,
Or something like that,
He has got it, whatever the size is.

Most of the poems must have required all three, some remembrance, some observance and some imagination. Take, for example, the poem "Rice Pudding," which begins:

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She's crying with all her might and main,
And she won't eat her dinner -- rice pudding again --
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

Milne didn't have a daughter, so he had to imagine a little girl, but are little girls who are tired of rice pudding any different than little boys who are tired of rice pudding? And Milne probably remembered being forced to eat too much rice pudding, or something similar, in his own childhood.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Fanciful fun

For a long time I thought Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time was going to be a time-travel novel without any actual time travel. The 600-plus-page novel has three connected stories, each involving British author H.G. Wells, whose novel The Time Machine has just been published.

First a young man plans suicide after the woman he loves is killed by Jack the Ripper. His brother enlists the writer's help to fool him into thinking he has traveled back in time and killed Jack before he can kill the woman.

Then a conman inspired by the Wells novel develops an elaborate ruse to fool wealthy patrons into believing they have traveled to the year 2000 to watch the climactic battle that saves humanity from being destroyed by automatons. A young woman on one of those excursions to the future falls in love with the hero of that battle, and things get complicated when she meets the same man on the streets of London in 1896. Tom, the actor hired to play that hero, gets Wells to help him maintain the charade.

Finally, in part three, time travel becomes real, sort of, when a man from the future plans to kill Wells, Henry James and Bram Stoker and steal the only copies of the books each of them has just finished. Wells, aided by a letter from his future self, seeks a way out.

The stories weave in and out of each other, and Palma gives us plenty about alternate universes as well as time travel. As confusing as it may sound, he manages to make everything clear, or at least clear enough. The Map Of Time is fanciful fun.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mystery on the high seas

Let me say upfront that this review of Steve Goble's first novel, The Bloody Black Flag, is biased. I have known him and his wife, Gere, for many years, worked with both of them and been a guest in their home. I am delighted he finally finished his book and found a publisher, and I wanted very much to like it when I started page one.

But just because you are biased does not necessarily mean your opinion is either dishonest or wrong. I genuinely enjoyed the novel, and I'm convinced other readers, at least those open to murder mysteries involving bloodthirsty pirates, will as well.

I can recall Goble speaking in glowing terms some years ago about Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood, etc.). That influence shows in this wild tale, the first in a projected series, about a reluctant pirate named Spider John Rush whose talents include carpentry, fighting with a knife and, as it turns out, solving mysteries.

To elude British authorities in the fall of 1722, Spider John and his much larger friend, Ezra, join the crew of the pirate ship Plymouth Dream. One night Ezra is found dead, and the assumption is that he got drunk, fell and hit his head on the way down. Spider does buy it, not the least because Ezra was not a heavy drinker. He vows to find Ezra's killer and avenge his death.

Soon other mysteries complicate matters. A British frigate keeps pursuing them but, despite superior speed, never manages to catch them. Then a crew member steals a mysterious brass gadget from the ship's captain, who threatens to kill off his crew one by one until he finds it.

As a lifelong newspaperman, Goble knows a thing or two about deadlines. His hero (everything is relative on a pirate ship) faces a deadline of his own: Can he find and kill the murderer before he himself faces the gallows?

The Bloody Black Flag offers plenty of adventure and violence, especially when Plymouth Dream encounters another pirate ship whose crew is no less bloodthirsty than its own.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Before Moby-Dick

Without the Essex, there would have been no Pequod. Without Captain Pollard (or perhaps it was First Mate Chase), there would have been no Captain Ahab. Without the great whale that smashed the Essex, there would have been no Moby-Dick.

Nathaniel Philbrick tells the thrilling story of the tragedy of the whaleship Essex in 1819 and its connection to Herman Melville's great novel (1851) in his book In the Heart of the Sea (2000). Along the way he tells his readers much about the whaling industry at that point in history and about the town of Nantucket, then one of the most prosperous communities in North America. It was from Nantucket that the Essex and most other whaling vessels sailed, usually for years at a time.

The story of the Essex, although all but forgotten before Philbrick resurrected it, was well known in the middle of the 19th century. Melville couldn't have helped hearing about it. Yet there was one place, the author says, where the story was rarely told, and that was Nantucket. Residents there were not embarrassed by the loss of the ship (that happened frequently), or the fact that so few survivors made it back alive or even that those survivors survived only by eating their less fortunate shipmates (that wasn't all that rare either). Rather, to their credit, the people of Nantucket were ashamed of the fact that the first men to be eaten were black.

The black whalers were not singled out for consumption before they died, but they did die before their white shipmates, whether because of a poorer diet aboard the ship (the best food was reserved for officers and the men from Nantucket) or less fat content in their bodies. Nantucket had always prided itself on its opposition to slavery and its treatment of black people. There were several black men aboard the Essex, as on most whaling ships. So eating blacks first did not send the message the people of that town wanted to hear.

George Pollard, the captain of the Essex, was in command of his first ship. Unfortunately, he was never truly in command, usually yielding to the wishes of his other officers when they had a different opinion. This trait proved deadly after the whale deliberately crashed into the ship. Pollard wanted the three boats carrying survivors to head west, with the wind behind them, to Tahiti, which was relatively close. His officers, ironically as it turned out, feared being eaten by cannibals and favored sailing east toward South America. Pollard agreed, and the resulting journey took three months and cost most of them their lives.

Melville used the story of the Essex but, to his credit, reinvented it. Moby-Dick is a fictional masterpiece. The Essex story as told by Philbrick proves a masterpiece of the nonfiction variety.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Down-and-dirty at Merriam-Webster

Ever wonder where dictionaries come from? Probably not. Dictionaries are just something we ignore until we need to know how a word is spelled or exactly what it means. And for most people, that isn't often.

It turns out that making a dictionary is a long, intense, complicated process that few people can do. Those who can think it's the best job in the world, however poor the pay and long the hours. So writes Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper in her marvelous book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Stamper calls her book "a nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty, worm's eye's-eve-view of lexicography," and that seems fitting. In her relatively short book, she covers in sparkling prose how they define words, how they decide on pronunciation, how they find examples of usage, how they date words, how they handle offensive and non-standard words and even how they respond to those who question their decisions.

Readers will find many surprises along the way. Here are some things that I found interesting:

* Merriam-Webster makes it a point to respond to every letter or email about its dictionaries.

* The hardest dictionary entries are those hardly anyone ever looks up in a dictionary. These are simple words like a, an, and and the. Stamper says she devoted a month to the word take, while a colleague spent nine months on run.

* Average production is one word per day per staff member, or about 250 words a year. That's why it takes years to produce a new dictionary.

* They never start a new dictionary at the letter A. One reason is that those who review dictionaries, and I have reviewed two or three in my career, usually start at the beginning and rarely read the whole thing. Since lexicographers, like everybody else, get better with practice, they save A for later.

* The lexicographers at Merriam-Webster rarely speak to each other during working hours. They communicate in writing. This informal code of silence helps with concentration. Most of them may be introverts anyway, so it's usually not a problem. One exception is the man responsible for determining how words are pronounced. He may go around the building asking staffers to say certain words.

* Stamper seems partial to words of the four-letter variety. With thousands of words at her command, one might expect more refined choices.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Synonyms not quite synonymous

"That's a good idea."
Most synonyms are not quite synonymous. That is, they are words that mean almost the same thing.

William Safire explores this thought in On Language in an essay about the word notion. At the time (1980), this word was in vogue as a synonym for the word idea. Safire’s point is that the two words are hardly synonyms at all. Notion, he said, is "a sneer word, meant to be applied to the quirky noodling that goes on in unthinking minds.”

I think Safire is a bit harsh in his treatment of the word, although I agree it suggests something much less substantial than an idea. A notion suggests to me an impulse, like a sudden notion to eat some popcorn or to take a walk. It can also suggest something less substantial than an idea, something that could be toppled by the first gust of reason. But I'll bet even Einstein had notions. And as Laurel and Hardy frequently illustrated, anyone can have an idea.

Safire also reflects on other possible synonyms for idea: He describes a thought as “a brief idea” (or perhaps he should have said "a sudden idea," because some thoughts, when put into words, can last for ages) and a concept as “an idea with big ideas.” The latter word sounds pretentious, something said by architects, film producers or dress designers. A thought may be a notion with more intellectual content.

If you enjoy words, you can play this game with almost any set of synonyms, reflecting upon how certain choices work best for certain situations. Take the words big, large, huge and enormous as examples. They mean the same thing, yet not quite. Large is like big, but with a little more class. Huge and enormous suggest something really, really big, but likewise enormous has a bit more class.

I recall the song Olive Oyl sings in the movie Popeye when she is trying to convince her friends, but mostly herself, that Bluto is a good choice for a husband. Searching for positives, all she can come up with is that he is large. Imagine that song with the words big, huge or enormous, and it just wouldn't be as funny. Not just any synonym will do.

Monday, May 7, 2018

No harm, no foul

It was a week that saw a white girl wearing an Asian-style dress to a high school prom and being accused of the sin of “cultural appropriation” and Sweden confessing that Swedish meatballs actually had their origin in Turkey.

In the first instance, the only real sin was the cyber bullying on the part of the girl’s accuser, although perhaps he did her a favor. She now has the most famous prom dress in America.

The second news item seems slightly more serious, although thankfully not even the Turks are taking it seriously. They enjoy the Swedish meatballs served at Turkish Ikea stores just as they enjoy the meatballs served in their own homes and restaurants. Turkey likes the attention being given to its meatballs, as China likes the attention being given its traditional style of clothing. As they say in sports: No harm, no foul.

Apparently a Swedish king back in the 18th century visited Turkey, loved their meatballs and brought the recipe home with him, where the meatballs became a Swedish favorite and then an international favorite. The Turkish connection unfortunately got lost along the way.

Rightly or wrongly, the names of places have often become attached to certain foods. We have, for example, French fries, French bread, French dressing, Belgian waffles, German potato salad, Irish stew, Italian dressing, Italian bread, Danish pastry, Spanish rice, Cuban sandwiches and so on. The other day I noticed Panamanian ceviche on a restaurant menu. Put pineapple in anything and you seem to be able to add the word Hawaiian to its name. Even when the food tastes less than authentic to those familiar with the food actually served in those places, the names seem more a compliment than an insult.

When my wife and I toured France 15 years ago, we stopped one day at a small restaurant across the street from a castle and ordered sandwiches. Then Linda asked the counter man for some French fries. He didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak French, so what she got was a cup of ice cubes. Because soft drinks in Europe are served at room temperature, I was glad to have them.

What Americans call French fries, the French call pommes frites, or just frites. Supposedly Thomas Jefferson had a French chef in the White House who served potatoes fried in this style. They were a hit with Jefferson’s guests, and they soon became known as “French fries” in the United States. According to a Wikipedia article, however, this manner of preparing potatoes may have actually had its origin in Belgium or Spain.

People are free to disagree, of course, but let's hope they also continue to enjoy the freedom to call their food dishes whatever they choose and, whatever their cultural origin, to wear the clothing they choose, whatever its cultural origin.