Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A literary thriller

What if Charles Dickens actually did write the ending of his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood? And what if that piece of fiction was based on fact and somebody didn't want that truth revealed? Matthew Pearl takes these "what ifs" and a few others and creates his own exciting blend of truth and imagination in his 2009 novel The Last Dickens.

When Charles Dickens dies in 1870, he leaves his last novel only half-finished. Because the first six monthly installments have already been printed, his readers are eager to learn how the story ends. James Osgood, his American publisher, sets off to England to find, if not an actual manuscript, then at least clues to what Dickens intended. It soon becomes apparent that somebody much more ruthless is trying to beat him to it.

Dickens himself appears in an extended flashback about his 1867 visit to America. We are given a glimpse at the kind of superstar Dickens was in his day. This American tour, which some people believe may have exhausted the author to the point that it contributed to his early death, turns out to play a key role in the resolution of Pearl's plot.

Many of Pearl's characters, including Osgood himself, were real people, and many of the events described really happened. All this helps give Pearl's inventions the ring of truth.

For those of us who enjoy mysteries and thrillers in the literary world (such as The Book of Air and Shadows and The Bookman's Wake),  The Last Dickens is among the best.

Monday, October 29, 2012

East-west speech

In newspaper stories, one finds the phrases "he said" and "she said" in almost every paragraph. That's because objective journalism requires that virtually everything be attributed to someone. Putting a "he said" or "she said" in so many sentences can be difficult for beginning reporters, not because they have a problem with attribution but because they have a problem with using the same words all the time. They want to write "he replied" or "she explained."

The word said is favored in journalism because it is simple, short and objective. Other than that, reporters are encouraged to find different words that mean the same thing. If a building is called an auditorium in one sentence, it will be called a facility in the next. I don't know if it is a human trait, a cultural trait or just the fact that in English we have so many synonyms and so many slang expressions, but most of us don't like to repeat ourselves. We seem to enjoy finding new ways to say the same thing.

While watching televised football games recently, I have heard announcers use the following words and phrases:

down field




between the tackles

strait line

inside the numbers

In each case, they meant virtually the same thing: running straight ahead toward the goal line. Yet you rarely hear an announcer actually say "straight ahead."

In football, running the ball north-south is considered a good thing, but in our speech and writing we tend to favor going east-west, avoiding straight-ahead words like "he said" and "she said."

Friday, October 26, 2012

In a pig's eye

In the room where I write this there is a pig-shaped hat with wings that flap when one pulls on the chin strap, a pig that plays music when one bumps its nose, a flute in the shape of a pig and various other pig images. I acquired none of these for myself. They are all the result, over a period of years, of a foolish comment made to my wife that I rather like pigs.

In fact, I do rather like pigs. Growing up in a rural environment, pigs were my favorites among the farm animals. They were amusing to watch and always seemed a bit more intelligent than the other animals. Also, as a long-time diabetic, I survived for many years thanks to insulin derived from pigs. Pigs, you might say, saved my life, so I am not going to ban them, or at least their images, from my den.

From common words and phrases involving pigs, it is apparent that not everyone through history has shared my attitude toward pigs. Pearls before swine. You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Piggishness. Hogwash. Hog-wild. A pig in a poke. Pigheaded. Sweat like a pig. High on the hog. Pig out. Pig Latin. Pig pen (when used to refer to a messy room, such as my den). None of these is at all flattering to our pig friends. Many people, obviously don't like pigs for anything other than pork chops and bacon, and people of some religious faiths don't even like them for that.

Pigs are responsible for some more flattering English words, even if their connection to the words is not so obvious. as Katherine Barber explains in her book Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs. The six words are these:

porcelain - Derived from an Italian word for a female pig.

screw - From a Latin word for a female pig.

soil - Perhaps not so flattering to pigs, after all. The word refers to the mud in which little pigs like to play.

porpoise - Pig fish.

root - Digging around, as pigs are known to do.

swain - This word started out as swineherd and now refers to a male lover.

Pigs, it seems, have given us much more than pork chops and bacon - and insulin. They have bestowed on us a richer language.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A thirst for books

A week ago in Columbus, I arrived early enough for the talk by author Susan Orlean that I had time to read several pages of her new book about Rin Tin Tin and to converse with a young Chinese woman who sat next to me. This being a literary occasion, our conversation naturally turned to books.

Leanne mentioned, as a way of explaining her intense interest in books, that for most of her years of education in China, her schools had no libraries. Children, in fact, were not encouraged to read anything but their textbooks, which they were required to memorize. I asked her if she could still recite her textbooks, and she said she could.

She had textbooks for geography, politics and history, among other subjects. Instruction in politics began in the first grade and continued throughout her years of schooling in China, she said.

Now she seemed to be trying to make up for lost time. She showed me a long list of books on her cell phone that she wants to read. Among them I recall seeing Moby-Dick. She said she had read most of Susan Orlean's books, and she carried a copy of The Orchid Thief she intended to ask Orlean to sign.

Depriving children of books does not seem like a good way to encourage them to read, but it seemed to work that way with Leanne.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A question of integrity

A few years ago, while shopping for books in Canada, I found a Susan Howatch paperback called A Question of Integrity. I own a number of Howatch novels but had never heard of this one, so I grabbed it up. I wondered at the time and I have wondered many times since why this particular novel isn't available in the United States when her other novels are. The book I bought was a British imprint, but I have never gotten around to reading it.

Recently I discovered I had owned an American edition of the novel all this time, also unread. The American edition is titled The Wonder Worker. So I spent about $14 dollars for a paperback I already owned because the American edition had a different title than the original British edition.

Giving books different titles when they are published in different countries is a long-established practice in the publishing industry. Sometimes this makes sense, as when different languages are involved or when titles mean something very different in one country than they do in another. The English spoken in the U.S. isn't really that different from the English spoken in Great Britain, however. I'm not sure why the American publisher (Knopf) thought The Wonder Worker was a better title than A Question of Integrity (Warner Books). One title seems as good as the other.

Several Agatha Christie mysteries got new titles when they were reprinted in the United States. Hickory, Dickory, Dock became Hickory Dickory Death. The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side became The Mirror Crack'd. Murder Is Easy became Easy to Kill. Murder on the Orient Express became Murder in the Calais Coach. They Do It with Mirrors became Murder with Mirrors. Sparkling Cyanide became Remembered Death. Destination Unknown became So Many Steps to Death. 4:50 from Paddington became What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw.

Some of these changes may have been improvements, such as Hickory Dickory Death. Some were disasters, such as Murder in the Calais Coach. Most of them were just unnecessarily different, but still confusing to Agatha Christie fans.

I'm sure titles are changed in hope of selling more books, not to mislead readers into buying books they already own. Even so, unnecessary title changes seem unfair, not just to readers, but also to authors and to the books themselves. A book should have one title, not many titles. It's a question of integrity.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Rin Tin Tin story

Were you a Rin Tin Tin kid or a Lassie kid? Writer Susan Orlean, whom I met in Columbus Wednesday night, says that if you grew up during the 1950s you were probably either one or the other. Both dogs had popular television series running during that decade. Viewers, whether young or old, tended to favor one dog or the other. I, like Orlean, was a Rin Tin Tin kid. My wife, who just loves dogs, liked them both, although she admits she watched Lassie more often.

Orlean, in Columbus on a book tour to promote Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, says the same kids who took positions on Rin Tin Tin vs. Lassie were later divided on the Beatles or Rolling Stones question. Today we're divided on which Medicare supplement is best.

The essential difference between the two dogs, she said in her Thurber House speech at the Columbus Museum of Art, is that Rin Tin Tin was a real dog who became a movie star and then, decades later, a TV star, while Lassie was a fictional dog who was played on screen by various actor dogs. Her book tells the story of Rin Tin Tin and his descendants who took his name after his death in 1932. It is also the story of Lee Duncan, who found a litter of German shepherd puppies on a battlefield in France in 1918 and took the one he named Rin Tin Tin to Hollywood. The dog made 28 silent movies for Warner Brothers until at the end of the silent era his movie contract was canceled because "dogs can't talk." The later television series proved Rin Tin Tin could be a star even with sound.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Worth underlining

I would no sooner underline a passage in a book I am reading than I would dog-ear a page to mark my place. At least that's how I am now, a stickler for keeping books in pristine condition. Leafing through some books I read back in the 1970s and '80s recently, I was surprised to find that I underlined quite a bit back in those days.

All this underscoring makes these books less valuable for resale than they might otherwise have been, but it certainly does make it easier to find the good parts in these old books, or at least the parts I thought were good when I read them. Here are some passages I underlined, all of them having something to do with children:

"(P)arenthood requires that Daddy and Mama have the ability to place the child's well-being ahead of their own. And this is less feasible within the presently fashionable context of meaningful relationships and self-indulgence." - Daddy's Girl, Mama's Boy by Dr. James J. Rue and Louise Shanahan (1978)

"Must a divorce always be traumatic for children? The answer is probably yes." - Children Without Childhood by Marie Winn (1983)

"Nature programs the child to do two things from ages one to seven: structure a knowledge of the world exactly as it is, on the one hand, and play with that world in ways that it is not, on the other." - Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce (1977)

"A school is not a home. A school teacher is not a parent. Parents have six years to prepare and motivate a child. If parents fail, the child usually does, and so does the school." - Teaching as a Conserving Activity by Neil Postman (1979)

"So some element of stress may be, on balance, useful to a child. It may help him prepare for environments more challenging than the family." - Optimism: The Biology of Hope by Lionel Tiger (1979)

"It's easy for parents to be seduced by the apparently well-intentioned surrogate on the screen and the quiet, smiling child in front of it, but every moment a little child spends alone in front of a television set robs him of an opportunity to play." - In Defense of the Family by Rita Kramer (1983)

"The key point you should impress upon your child is that a normal person has weaknesses and faults but that these do not have to affect his overall happiness or competence as a human being." - Father Power by Henry Biller and Dennis Meredith (1974)

My son was born in 1972, so I'm sure I read these books and underlined these passages with him in mind. I certainly don't need these books any longer and I was tempted to get rid of at least some of them, but those underscored lines make the books harder to part with. And with all that underlining, who would want to buy them?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Good, clean fun

In The Inklings, a fascinating 1978 book about C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and some of their friends, Humphrey Carpenter quotes Lewis describing his frequent evenings spent with Tolkien: "Sometimes we talk English School politics; sometimes we criticize one another's poems; other days we drift into theology or 'the state of the nation'; rarely we fly no higher than bawdy or puns."

Two things interest me about Lewis's use of the word bawdy.
First, he used it as a noun, not an adjective. I checked The Oxford English Dictionary, which includes an obscure usage of the word as a verb, meaning to make dirty or filthy or to defile. There is no mention of the word as a noun.

Second, the word alone, whether adjective or noun, to describe the activities of Lewis and Tolkien is somewhat surprising. Bawdy conversation - The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as meaning lewd, obscene or unchaste - is not how most people would picture an evening involving these two scholarly and deeply religious men.

Yet according to Carpenter, the word bawdy did not mean to Lewis what it means to us today - or to The Oxford English Dictionary. Carpenter says Lewis "meant not obscene stories but rather old-fashioned barrack-room jokes and songs and puns." Lewis himself wrote that bawdy "must have nothing cruel about it. It must not approach anything near the pornographic. Within these limits I think it is a good and wholesome genre."

Lewis's use of the word may actually be closer to its original meaning. It comes from the Old French word baud, meaning merry. There is an English word, baude, now obscure, which means bold, lively or gay.

To Lewis and Tolkien, bawdy apparently just meant good, clean fun.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Valuable assets

Assets is the plural of asset, right? Well, yes, but that was not always the case.

Assets us one of the many English words that came from the French language after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The French word was asez or asetz, meaning "enough." It was a legal term that meant, in effect, that a deceased person left behind enough property to bother dispersing to survivors according to the terms of a will, if any. The modern French word is assez, which like the earlier words is singular.

The English spelled it assets, which was also considered singular. In English, it looked plural, however, so naturally people began thinking of it as plural, using it with plural verbs. And then somebody created a new singular word - asset. Thus, a wooden chair left behind by a dead man was an asset, while his bed and chair were assets.

Today we speak also about the assets of living people - their intelligence, sense of humor, sweet smile, etc. - but the word continues to be used in estate law as it has for hundreds of years.

And that's about enough. One of the assets of this blog is brevity.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Eateries, diners and buffets

Debra Ginsberg's Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress  (2000) is an amusing and, for those of us often found sitting at a table waiting for our meals, informative book. The title alone makes us conscious of the different meanings of the word waiting.

I was particularly interested in Ginsberg's discussion of another word: eatery. She writes, "Any restaurant that feels the need to instruct patrons that they are actually supposed to eat there is a little frightening. Eatery also implies that the restaurant has absolutely no idea what category their menu falls into. (Come and eat here - we don't know what we're doing, but we know you're supposed to put it in you face. Hey, it's an eatery, right?)"

Her comments seem a bit extreme to me. I associate the term with restaurants that have a full menu and offer good food and lots of it. And why do menus have to fall into categories anyway? I've seen Chinese restaurants that serve Italian pasta and hot dogs. I don't see the problem, but Ginsberg does remind me that what restaurants choose to call themselves can create certain associations, both positive and negative, in the minds of potential patrons. For example:

bistro - To me, this word suggests a small, out-of-the way place that serves Yuppie Chow and not much else. I usually avoid bistros, even though I know my bias is often, if not usually, wrong.

cafe - I think of a small restaurant that specializes in coffee and tea, but serves donuts and small sandwiches in addition to those beverages. Again, I am probably wrong as often as I am right.

diner - A dictionary defines a diner as "an inexpensive restaurant with a long counter and booths, shaped like or built from a railroad car." If you want a quick, cheap, basic meal, a diner is the place to go.

grill - The word suggests steaks, eggs and other kinds of foods prepared on a grill. We most often see the word in the phrase "bar and grill," which would seem to indicate where their priorities lie. I am more likely to stop at a place that calls itself a "grill and bar."

bar, tavern - We usually associate these words with drinking establishments, although many of them serve excellent meals. In fact, one of the best restaurants in my area is a tavern. My wife and I go there on special occasions. Most of the time, however, we don't even think about bars and taverns when we are looking for a place to eat.

pub - When I toured Great Britain and Ireland in 2005, I noticed there were Chinese restaurants, Italian restaurants, Thai restaurants, etc., but no Irish, Scottish, Welsh or English restaurants. If you wanted local cooking, you went to a pub. There seem to be more pubs in the U.S. than there used to be, and the food in these places is usually pretty good.

deli - This word says sandwiches to me.

buffet - Some people associate the word with obese people and anyone who can't get enough to eat at restaurants where they have to order off a menu. Yet buffet restaurants and cafeterias are also popular with senior citizens, for whatever reason. Many people, I'm convinced, prefer Chinese buffets because they like Chinese food but don't know how to order what they want off a menu. I believe that's why there are relatively few sit-down Asian restaurants. I like buffets because, as a diabetic, I can design my plate to fit my diet, taking less meat and potatoes and more fruits and vegetables than one can get at most restaurants. The challenge is to stop eating when I know I've had enough.

If I were starting my own restaurant, I think I would just call it a restaurant to avoid the negative associations so many people have with eateries, diners, buffets, etc.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Language or literature?

J.R.R. Tolkien, remembered today mainly for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was for many years a professor of English language and literature at Oxford. As such, according to Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings, he was an active participant in the debate over whether the department's emphasis should be placed on language or literature.

Tolkien came down on the language side of the argument, but he wasn't talking about teaching modern grammar usage. Rather, he wanted to teach ancient and medieval English, early Anglo-Saxon, so students could read the only kinds of literature he thought an English department should teach, those books and stories from the distant past that he loved so well.

C.S. Lewis, also a member of the Oxford faculty at the time, took another side in the quarrel. He loved modern English literature, by which he meant literature written after the time of Chaucer. "For him (Lewis) the great works of post-Chaucerian literature had, after all, been a source of joy since boyhood," Carpenter writes. "Spenser was a particular favorite with him. He knew comparatively little Anglo-Saxon literature ... So the notion that the earliest part of the course was of special importance - or, as Tolkien put it, that 'the language is the real thing' - seemed an exaggeration."

In time, Tolkien and Lewis compromised and became close friends. Lewis, in fact, later credited Tolkien with being one of the influences that led to his conversion to Christianity.

No doubt their debate over what exactly should be taught in English classes has been repeated in English departments everywhere. Even in high school, as I recall from way back in the early '60s, there seemed to be some tension between teaching good writing and reading good books. Which benefited students most? How much time should be spent on each? Term papers and book reviews were a good way to compromise the two objectives.

By the time I was in college, most of us were assumed to have learned basic spelling and grammar, and the focus was placed on literature. But which literature? I took a class on contemporary fiction, which, thinking back, could have been controversial with some faculty members in the English department. Why, someone may have asked, should we teach them Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when these are novels students are likely to read on their own? Would it not be better to teach literature they would be less likely to read voluntarily.

If some professors did make that argument, they may have been right. I had, in fact, already read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by the time I took the course, and I probably would have read Catch-22 on my own eventually. Meanwhile, I have not dipped into Beowulf since we touched on it in high school.

Yet teaching more contemporary literature serves the purpose of making students aware that great books are still being written today and that English, as a scholarly subject, is not something that ended a century or more ago. The body of work worth study is ever growing.

With each passing year, I would think English departments would have more to argue about.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Enough Outlander for now

I enjoyed Outlander enough that I was eager to read the second book in Diana Gabaldon's time-travel romantic adventure series, Dragonfly in Amber. Now I'm not so sure I want to go on to tackle Voyager, the next novel in this popular series.

Not that Dragonfly is a bad book. It is quite engrossing in spots, and the ending is particularly interesting, but there are also long dead spots where Gabaldon seems to be more interested in writing a long book (947 pages in paperback) than a good one.

For those unfamiliar with the series, it is about Claire Randall, a 20th century English woman who gets transported back to 18th century Scotland, where she meets and marries a warrior named Jamie Fraser and has many exciting adventures. In Dragonfly, she is compelled to return to her 20th century husband, whom she loves, just not as much as she loves Jamie. Now, 20 years later, she tries to tell her daughter, Brianna, about her real father.

Gabaldon is an imaginative and skilled writer, but there is a sentence near the end of Dragonfly in Amber that I reread several times and still couldn't figure out. It reads: "The air reeked of stale cigarettes and insufficiently taken-out garbage." It's the "insufficiently taken-out garbage" that confuses me. Does the author mean there is a faint smell of garbage because most, but not all, of it was taken out? Then why the word reeked? Does she mean someone failed to take out the garbage at all? Then why the word insufficiently? Does she mean just that the garbage hasn't been taken out lately? Then why not say so?

I know it's stupid to get hung up on one small sentence in a 947-page novel, but I see it as garbage that was insufficiently taken out.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Promised Land

Nearly 40 years after reading Jesse Stuart's 1973 novel The Land Beyond the River the first time, I read it again recently. The story tells of a very large and very poor Kentucky family that views Ohio as the Promised Land and crosses the Ohio River to find prosperity. The Perkins family does find a better life in Ohio. Poppie finds work on a farm. Mommie keeps having babies until she's had 15, 14 of them living. The youngsters, including Pedike, our narrator, are polite and hard-working. Most of them are unusually good students.
Adversity comes in the form of a snake bite that puts Poppie out of work and forces him to accept welfare. With his large family, he is eligible for a lot of food stamps. The Perkins soon have so much food they have to purchase several hound dogs to help them eat it all. They discover that government support offers a better life than hard work, and although Poppie is eager to get back to work, he must do it secretly and get paid in cash so the authorities won't find out.

Dependency on the government may seem to put the family on Easy Street, but it also leads to negative consequences. Family members quarrel among themselves and with other relatives. They stop attending church services. The once proud family begins to feel shame.

"Free money which we couldn't spend, free food, all of which we couldn't eat but had to feed to our hounds, was making our family soft," Pedike writes. "We were falling apart as Poppie thought we would do."

The novel, Stuart's last, feels dated in some ways, yet it also reads like a commentary on the 2012 presidential campaign. At what point does government helping people become government hurting people? That was a good question back in 1973, and it's still a good question.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Some words don't show their age

I was surprised to learn, while leafing through a book called English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh, that the word mom dates back only to about 1895. I would have guessed the word would have originated earlier than that. Not much older are the words momma (1885) and mommy (1890). The word mum was in use by 1825. Mother goes back to 1670.

Here are some other surprises I found in this interesting reference book that was published in 1998:

- The word bisexual, which seems so modern, goes back at least as far as 1825.

- The word mechanic was in use prior to the 18th century.

- The practice of calling female workers girls, now almost but not quite eliminated, dates to 1670.

- Men and boys carried pocketknives as early as 1730.

- The term cover girl dates to 1915, about the same time that short ribs, nutmeat, crossword puzzle and white sale came into the language.

- The word grandfather (1425), granddaddy (1760), grandpappa (1770) and granddad (1785) are all much older than the word grandpa (1890).

- The word helicopter was in use before 1890.

- Refrigerator goes back to at least 1805.

- The sciences of zoology, ornithology, cosmology and mineralogy all go back to the 17th century.

- The phrases table talk, blind alley, gentler sex, king's ransom, stumbling block, wild-goose chase, subject matter, high-water mark and laughing matter all date from the 16th century.