Friday, November 30, 2012

Worthy of Graham Greene

I must be a sucker for novels with the names of other authors in their titles. Just this week I bought a copy of Cleaning Nabokov's House by Leslie Daniels. A few weeks ago I finished The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl. Also on my shelves I have The Poe Shadow by the same author and, among other books, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte. Now I have read Gloria Emerson's 2000 novel Loving Graham Greene.

Emerson, a New York Times war correspondent, wrote just the one novel before her death in 2004, but it is a small gem. The story tells of Molly Benson, an idealistic American woman with more money than sense. Novelist Graham Greene has recently died as the story opens, and Molly is still in mourning. She loves his books and once met the great writer. She imagines he was a close friend, although she is beginning to realize his letters to her were merely polite responses to her letters to him, nothing more. In any event, she wants to make some grand gesture in Greene's memory, and she decides to use her money to try to free imprisoned writers in Algeria.

Algeria is a dangerous place at this time, especially to foreigners, but Molly decides she must go there herself, as she imagines Graham Greene would have done. With her are her friend Bertie, another middle-aged woman, and Toby, an overweight younger man, who is invited along only because Molly's husband, busy making a film in Japan, thinks two women shouldn't travel alone to a Muslim country.

There is a scene where the group visits an Algerian hospital and Molly learns about their desperate shortage of supplies because of lack of funds. Yet she doesn't even consider donating any of her money to this cause. She prefers schemes more grand and symbolic, however impractical they may be. She believes her plan, which involves carrying a lot of American money in her shoes and handing it out to anyone who might conceivably be of help, is more worthy of Graham Greene.

Emerson's novel is alternately funny and sad. Just about every sentence is a masterpiece. The novel, at any rate, is worthy of Graham Greene.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Titles worth the price of the books

Such books as Scouts in Bondage and Bizarre Books celebrate the outrageous titles and unintentionally hilarious titles given to books over the years, titles like Book of Blank Maps with Instructions and Draw In Your Stool.

Leafing through the latest catalog from Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller I find that plenty of books with odd titles are still being published. Here are some of the gems I discovered:

The Wisdom of Psychopaths

How Long Can a Fly Fly?

The Little Black Book of Mafia Wisdom

The Trouble With Being Born

Will You Be My Valenswine?

Absinthe & Flamethrowers

Detectives Don't Wear Seatbelts

How to Poo at Work

How to Sharpen Pencils

Slow Death by Rubber Duck

Some of the books might be worth owning just for the pleasure of seeing your guests' faces when they spot these titles on your coffee table.

Monday, November 26, 2012

I choose clerihews

A clerihew is a light four-line verse with an AABB rhyme pattern that is usually about someone named in the poem. It is named for the man who created and popularized the verse form, British novelist E.C. Bentley, author of Trent's Last Case, among other books. Bentley's full name was Eric Clerihew Bentley. Bentley wrote at least one clerihew about himself:

Edmund Clerihew Bentley
Worked swiftly if not gently,
Tracking murderers down by a hidden clew
In whodunit and clerihew.

Among his most famous verses is this one:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, "I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul's."

Jim Bernhard offers a number of his own clerihews in his book Words Gone Wild. Here are two I particularly enjoy:

A crotchety satirist was Evelyn Waugh
And a dauntless a man as you ever saw.
It's surprising that his best work all
Came after his Decline and Fall.

Bing Crosby
Said, "No matter what his flaws be,
For me it's no prob
To do another picture with Bob."

While reading Humphrey Carpenter's book The Inklings, about the friendship of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and others, I learned that Tolkien also enjoyed tinkering with clerihews, often with other members of the group as his targets. Here is one of Tolkien's contributions:

The sales of Charles Williams
Leapt up by millions,
When a reviewer surmised
He was only Lewis disguised.

In the mid-1990s, The Atlantic ran a contest to see who could write the best clerihews about people in the news. Among them is the shortest clerihew I have come across:

(To compare)
Makes more money
Than Sonny.

Another winner was this:

Mia and Woody
Debated not would he
Make love to the kiddie
But did he.

Do a search for clerihews to find a lot more on The Atlantic web site.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The king's heart of darkness

Transporting Africans to work as slaves in the American South and elsewhere was bad enough, but turning them into slaves in their own native land may have been even worse. Slave owners in Georgia or Mississippi at least had an incentive to keep their slaves alive and healthy because it cost money to replace them. When colonialists in Africa needed more workers, however, they just went out and captured them - or captured women and children to force men to work until they dropped from exhaustion.

Adam Hochschild's 1998 book King Leopold's Ghost tells how this worked in the Congo, although other colonies had similar atrocities. When Leopold became king of Belgium in 1865, he envied those other European countries that had colonies. Belgium didn't have one, and he was determined to get one.

Through trickery and the expenditure of relatively little money, Leopold soon claimed ownership of the vast Congo. It wasn't actually Belgium's colony. It was his own, and all revenue from the colony went into his own pocket, even though he used the Belgian army to enforce his will there. He never visited the Congo himself.

First the colony produced large quantities of ivory, but the real wealth came from rubber. Rubber plants grew wild in the Congo. It just required someone to find those plants and harvest them. That arduous task was given to African workers, who were each given large quotas to fill if they valued their lives. Thousands upon thousands died, either from overwork or from murder.

For most of his life, ironically, King Leopold enjoyed a reputation for fighting against slavery. What he actually opposed was Arab slavery. He certainly had no objection to enslaving Africans himself, and he continued this brutal policy for decades. Mostly this was done in secret, although gradually over the years the secret began to leak out. Joseph Conrad wrote about it in his novel Heart of Darkness, missionaries told gruesome stories and a few journalists and crusaders worked hard to tell the truth to the world.

Yet even today, especially in Belgium, little is known about this sorry episode in history, although Hochschild's book has done much since 1998 to get the word out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

How towns are named

It is apparently an old English custom, when naming a new town, to make it very clear to everyone that it is, in fact, a town. Thus, many town names were given a suffix to announce that the new town was a town.

There was an Old English word burh, which meant "place." This became a popular suffix found today in a variety of forms: Edinburgh, Gainsborough, Middlesbrough and Canterbury.

This custom carried over to the New World. Within a short drive of where I live in Ohio, one can find Olivesburg, Rowsburg, New Pittsburg and Centerburg, among other burgs.

An even more popular suffix, at least in the United States, is ville. Near my home there is a Bellville, Pulaskiville, Chesterville, Jeromesville, Perrysville, Celeryville, Leesville, Lakeville, Hayesville, Widowville, Mohicanville, Nashville and Loudonville.

Other communities have a town or ton suffix. Of these I find Fredericktown, Ankenytown, Pagetown, Honeytown, Lexington and Ridgeton.

Other towns like to call themselves a city, whether or not they actually are one. But then, a lot of the villes are not large to be even called villages either. Settlements are named when they have but a handful of people, and their chosen names may reflect wishful thinking, as much as anything.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Organization man

Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) is so identified with his famous thesaurus, still in print more than 150 years after his death, that it would not be surprising if one found his name as a synonym for thesaurus in a thesaurus. "Roget has become a generic term for any book that supplies synonyms and antonyms," one editor has said.

One thesaurus in my possession, the 1975 edition of the Reader's Digest Family Word Finder, does, in fact, include Roget's name in its entry for the word thesaurus. It incorrectly gives Roget credit for the "basic concept" of the thesaurus. In fact, Roget's thesaurus was not the first. At least one book of synonyms goes back to the early 18th century, or about 150 years before Roget published his own.

In The Man Who Made Lists, his 2008 biography of Roget, Joshua Kendall tells that Roget, a physician and scientist, had one of these earlier books with him when, as a young man, he was giving a lecture on anatomy. "But scholars currently face a major difficulty," he started to say before adding, "No, that's not quite it." Then he consulted his synonym book and found "obstacle, embarrassment, rub, restraint, emergency, exigency, pinch, quandary and lurch." He decided that obstacle was the word he wanted, and he then restated his sentence.

Roget began work on his own thesaurus early in his life but didn't finish it until he was retired and looking for something else to do. His main interest was not words so much as order and organization. He had a compulsion to organize things, whether it was plant life, diseases or books. Kendall tells that Roget once hired a governess for his children primarily on the basis of her classification skills. She was a budding botanist, and Roget liked the way she thought, never mind her ability with children.

What was unique about Roget's thesaurus was not that it was a book of synonyms but that it was organized in an original way. He came up with nearly 1,000 concepts into which all the words in the English language could be divided. To find the right word, one first needed to determine the right concept. This proved a bit cumbersome for most people, so later editions retained the concepts - there are now 990 of them - but placed words in alphabetical order so synonyms would be easier to find.

One wonders if Roget would approve of the modern Roget's Thesaurus if he could inspect a copy. Would it satisfy or offend his own sense of order?

Friday, November 16, 2012

More underlinings

Unless we are or will one day be famous, which isn't very likely, our books are devalued when we mark in them, either by underlining passages or writing notes. The used-book trade prefers that books be kept in pristine condition. Yet those marks we make in our own books may actually increase their value to us. They can remind us, years later, what we once found important in those books. They are reminders of who we were and what we were thinking at that earlier time. We can even recall the gist of a book simply by rereading what we underlined or what we wrote in the margins.

Lately I have been doing a lot of this. Several days ago I posted some passages about children and parenting that I underlined in books read back in the 1970s and 1980s. Here are a few more underlinings from books about economics, religion, literature and other topics read during the same period:

"If we are, as I would want to reason, obliged in conscience sometimes to tell white lies, as we often call them, then in conscience we might be obliged sometimes to engage in white thefts and white fornications and white killings and white breaking of promises and the like." - Joseph Fletcher in Situation Ethics (1972)

"When I read a book that is intended (presumably) for the general public and find that I can make neither head nor tail out of it, it never occurs to me that this is because I am lacking in intelligence. Rather, I reach the calmly assured opinion that the author is either a poor writer, a confused writer, or, more likely, both." - Isaac Asimov in The Left Hand of the Electron (1972)

"Someday there will be learned theses on The Use of the Ashtray in J.D. Salinger's Stories; no other writer has made so much of Americans lighting up, reaching for the ashtray, setting up the ashtray with one hand while with the other they reach for a ringing telephone." - Alfred Kazin in Salinger (1962)

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal." - C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory (1949)

"A faith that can find no significant meaning in art and laughter, in the tragic as well as in the hilariously comic, is a faith that will find no joy in life itself." - Robert L. Short in The Gospel According to Peanuts (1965)

"The strength of a man's virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life." - Pascal's Pensees (17th century)

"Propaganda thus serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others; and the more reason we have to feel guilty, the more fervent our propaganda." - Eric Hoffer in The True Believer (1951)

"Most social revolutions promise a reign of the saints. Most promise a new type of moral man. And most intend to produce this higher type of morality through the coercive power of the state. This is precisely the impulse in the human heart which democratic capitalism finds to be the most productive of evil." - Michael Novak in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982)

"The fact that the greatest advance made in woman's progress toward political equality came hard on the heels of a devastating World War was not accidental. ... Western women, in that sense, were the real winners of the century's great world wars." - Amaury deRiencourt in Sex and Power in History (1974)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When rhymes don't rhyme

Words are easy like the wind;
Faithful friends are hard to find.

That couplet from one of William Shakespeare's sonnets jars me a little bit because it doesn't quite rhyme. Many poets employ what I consider to be weak rhymes -- words like wind and find -- that are close, but not quite direct hits. Such near misses are considered quite acceptable in poetry, especially now in an age when most poetry has no rhymes at all.

I shouldn't complain. I once rhymed affliction with affection, but that was in light verse. I hold Ogden Nash to a different standard than William Shakespeare.

Perhaps I and others judge earlier poets too harshly, however. Bill Bryson writes in his book Mother Tongue that the way we pronounce many words has changed considerably over the centuries. "We know from Shakespeare's rhymes that knees, grease, grass, and grace all rhymed (at least more or less) and that clean rhymed with lane," he writes. At one time, he says, serve rhymed with carve and convert rhymed with depart.

"As late as the fourth decade of the eighteenth century," he writes, "Alexander Pope was rhyming obey with tea, ear with repair, give with believe, join with devine (cq), and many others that jar modern ears. William Cowper, who died in 1800, was still able to rhyme way with sea. July was widely pronounced 'Julie' until about the same time."

Some pronunciations have changed more in the United States than in England. In the U.S., for example, clerk rhymes with work. In England it rhymes with lark. Thus, rhymes by British poets may not sound as satisfying to American ears as do rhymes by American poets, and vice versa in Great Britain.

So those of us who expect rhymes to actually rhyme perhaps need to give poets, especially long-dead poets, a little break.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Begining at the end

The most notable thing about The Night Watch, a 2006 novel by Sarah Waters, is the way the plot moves back in time, starting in 1947 postwar London, then moving back to 1944 and finally to 1941. This device wouldn't work in most novels, which we want to start at the beginning of the story and work toward the end, but it works here, where the most dramatic events have already happened when the story opens.

The plot follows the stories of several intersecting characters whose lives are relatively settled in 1947, but there are suggestions of past trauma. Rather than using flashbacks, as most novelists would do, Waters just moves the story backward until we learn the answers to the key questions. How did Vivian get entangled in a deadend romance with Reggie, a married man? Why did her brother Duncan, a seemingly harmless young man, serve a prison sentence? How did Kay, Helen and Julia get involved in a lesbian love triangle?

There are some novels that you finish, then want to start reading again at the beginning to see what you missed. The Night Watch is one of them.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Language and lingo in the Burmese war

George MacDonald Fraser, author of Quartered Safe Out Here (see my Nov. 5 post), writes beautiful English, which is why his books have been so popular for so many years. Even as a very young soldier in Burma near the end of World War II, his mastery of the language probably had a lot to do with his battlefield promotion over older, more experienced men. So for the most part, Fraser's book makes easy and entertaining reading. Yet there are still three language-related problems for readers.

1. Military lingo. Most groups of people have their own lingo that, to some extent, separates them from outsiders, and the British soldiers fighting in Burma were no exception. Fraser introduces us to a number of terms used by those soldiers. A mucker, for example, was what a man called his immediate comrade. To stand stag meant to have guard duty.

2. Hindustani words. More problematic are the many native words that the soldiers adopted during their time in Burma. Porridge became burgoo. Tea was chah. An embankment was called a bund. Fraser has a footnote whenever these words are introduced, and a glossary at the end helps if you forget one or can't tell what it means from the context.

3. Scottish dialect. Most difficult of all is understanding what these soldiers, most of them from the Cumberland region, are saying to one another. Fraser may have trouble, after more than half a century, remembering all the details of what he did in Burma, but he somehow remembers entire conversations that go on like this:

"Awreet - Ah'll oondoo it for thee meself'. Then we'll baith git a drink - oot o' thy bottle!"

"Ye miserable sod, w' at difference does it mek w'ee's bottle we soop frae?"

"That's w'at Ah'm saying'! W'at fer should we use my bottle 'stead o'thine? Y'are always on the scroonge, you! Guzzlin' big-bellied git!"

In small doses, especially if read aloud, these conversations can be understandable and amusing, but Fraser continues them sometimes for a page or more at a time, and it is tempting to skip over them entirely.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The sound of clocks

Our movie discussion group met in a lovely home last month to watch Shadowlands, the 1994 film that stars Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy Davidman Gresham. There were a couple of charming old clocks in the room, and periodically during the movie these clocks would let loose with a series of cuckoos, bells and chimes. We all had to strain to hear what Jack (Lewis) and Joy were saying.

Why do old clocks make so much noise? In fact, it was their noise that was their reason for existing in the first place.

Early clocks were not very accurate, not nearly as reliable as a sundial, at least on a sunny day. But sundials could not tell monks when it was time to get up to pray or workers when it was time to go home. Mechanical clocks, with their cuckoos, bells and chimes, could. The earliest clocks didn't even have dials. You couldn't tell by just looking at them what time it was. You had to wait for them to sound.

In several languages, clocks got their names from the bells they rang. In Dutch, the word for bell is klok, in Danish it is klokke, in Swedish klocka and Norwegian klokka. The English borrowed this idea and came up with clock, even though English speakers call a bell something different.

Today we may not enjoy the sound of clocks while we're watching movies or trying to sleep, but a few centuries ago that noise had the ring of modern technology and was welcomed.

Monday, November 5, 2012

An old man remembers the war

I don't know why George MacDonald Fraser waited until 2007 to publish his memoir of his experiences as a young British soldier in Burma toward the end of World War II, Quartered Safe Out Here. He was probably much too busy writing his Flashman novels and other books. But if the passage of more than half a century made his memory a bit foggy about some of the details, it did give him the advantage of perspective, and many of the best passages in the book were made possible by the perspective of an old man in the 21st century looking back at what it was like being a soldier in the 1940s.

There is, for example, his commentary on what British soldiers were fighting for and what they weren't fighting for: "They did not fight for a Britain that would be dishonestly railroaded into Europe against the people's will; they did not fight for a Britain where successive governments, by their weakness and folly, would encourage crime and violence on an unprecedented scale ...

"No, that is not what they fought for - but being realists they accept what they cannot alter, and reserve their protests for the noise pollution of modern music in their pubs."

Later he writes about the morality of dropping A-bombs on two Japanese cities to end the war, a question, he says, that never occurred to soldiers in the field. He considers the possibility that he could have been one of the many Allied soldiers who would certainly have been killed if those bombs hadn't been dropped and the fact that, in that case, his children and grandchildren would never have been born. "And that," he writes, "I'm afraid, is where all discussion of pros and cons evaporates and becomes meaningless, because for those nine lives I would pull the plug on the whole Japanese nation and never even blink. And so, I dare suggest, would you. And if you wouldn't you may be nearer to the divine than I am but you sure as hell aren't fit to be parents or grandparents."

In truth, Fraser really didn't see that much action in the war. The major battles happened elsewhere. Yet his memoir, due to his writing skill and a lifetime of thinking about those events, make it excellent reading.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Names for newspapers

I can think of just a handful of newspapers that have started during my lifetime - USA Today being the most prominent among them. But there have been many newspapers that have ceased publication during that time and others that have merged. At one time, of course, even relatively small towns had two or more newspapers, and the competition was fierce.

For the most part, the names of these many newspapers did not show much originality. Most of them were called either the Times, the Journal, the Gazette, the Press, the Tribune, the Chronicle, the Bulletin, the Herald, the Sun, the Gazette, the News, the Courier or the Star. After mergers, the names were usually combined. The surviving newspaper in the town where I live is the Times-Gazette. The newspaper I worked on for more than 40 years is the News Journal, one of numerous News Journals across the United States.

Yet a few early publishers managed to come up with unique names for their publications. Here are a few of them:

The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
The Free Press (Detroit)
The Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.)
The Truth (Elkhart, Ind.)
The Repository (Canton, Ohio)
The Blade (Toledo)
The Vindicator (Youngstown)
The Town Talk (Alexandria, La.)
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

Ohio seems to have more than its share of newspapers with original names. Some of the names - notably the Plain Dealer, Free Press, Vindicator and Truth - suggest a philosophy behind the mere publication of the daily news.

Long may these and other newspapers prosper.