Friday, November 29, 2013

Cities of light

The latest issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine makes two references to the City of Light, but the references are to two different cities: Paris, the city most often called the City of Light, and Taxco, Mexico.

I recall that Lauren Belfer's terrific 1999 novel called City of Light was set in Buffalo, N.Y., around the turn of the 20th century. Thanks to the power generated by Niagara Falls, Buffalo was among the first cities to light up at night with electric lights.  It seemed to me that other cities have also used the phrase "City of Light," so I did some checking.

According to a Wikipedia article, no less than 25 cities other than Paris have claimed the title. They include Alicante, Spain; Anchorage, Alaska; Aurora, Ill.; Baltimore, Md.; Be'er Sheva, Israel; Birmingham, Ala.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Eindhoven, Netherlands; Gwangju, South Korea; Johannesburg, South Africa; Karachi, Pakistan; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Lyon, France; Manresa, Spain; Medina; Miami; Mitford, Pa.; New Bedford, Mass.; Perth; Tehran; Quanzhou, China; Varanasi, India; Venice and Wolverhamptom, England.

Almost any city looks better at night. Even Detroit is beautiful after the sun goes down. At night one can't see all the signs of decay and misery. From a distance, you just see the lights. Enter Pittsburgh at night from the west through the tunnel and the sight can take your breath away. Toronto is another city that is gorgeous at night. Any nighttime skyline filled with the lights from tall buildings, bridges and other structures can be lovely.

The Eiffel Tower at night may be the main reason Paris is most widely known as the City of Light. Having it in the background can improve any nighttime photograph, although the Moulin Rouge is also striking. I was atop the Eiffel Tower at night and was a bit disappointed with the view. Not only was everything too far away to appreciate, the tower being so tall, but you can't see the city's most striking nighttime feature, namely the tower itself. I much preferred the nighttime view atop the Arc de Triomphe, which is an ideal height to appreciate the lights of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower and the dozen streets that meet there, like the spokes in a giant wheel.

We are entering that season of the year where, throughout the Christian world, almost any municipality, whatever its size, can justifiably lay claim to the title of the City of Light. Even December, an otherwise miserable month in the Northern Hemisphere, can be beautiful when the Christmas lights go on.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving words

Cranberries, long a Thanksgiving dinner staple, were originally called crane berries. That was because the stalks of the plant, weighted with blossoms or berries, were thought to resemble the necks of cranes.

On Thanksgiving in America, people will eat turkey who never eat it any other day of the year. The wild turkey is one of those American species, like the buffalo and the robin, that were so named because European settlers got them confused with other animals. The original turkey was the African guinea fowl, which at one time was thought to have originated in Turkey.

We were told by by my sister-in-law, who is hosting Thanksgiving this year, that dinner could be served at either 1 or 4 p.m., depending upon when everybody could get there. She ultimately settled on 1. When I was growing up, Mom always served dinner at noon. Today we normally eat dinner at around 6. When I was in Paris, I noticed that the sidewalk cafes really didn't get busy until around 10 p.m.  I was interested to learn that the word dinner comes from the Old French desjeuner, meaning "to break fast." In other words, you can eat a meal at any time of day and call it dinner.

After dinner there may be pie. The word comes from magpie, a bird known to collect just about anything to build its nests. In the same way, pies can contain just about anything, including pumpkin.

The word stuff first referred to the material used for making clothes. Rag dolls were probably stuffed before turkeys were. After dinner we may all feel stuffed, although the more polite term is sated. Oddly enough, both sated and satisfied come from the same Old English word, sadian, from which we also get sad, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories.

After dinner (or before or during) many of us will watch football played on what is sometimes called a gridiron. We get this word, of course, from the grill commonly used for cooking, especially on outdoor barbecues. From this, we also got griddle and gridlock.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Odd, but interesting

A few modern novels set in the Victorian Age read like they might have actually been written during that period. D.J. Taylor's Kept (2007) is one of them. Taylor, better known as the biographer of George Orwell and William Thackeray than as a novelist, shows a gift for writing in a Victorian voice.

Of course, this Victorian voice does make his book a bit of a challenge for modern readers. Two oddities about the novel add to the difficulties.

1. The story has no protagonist. The title refers to an attractive widow who is being held against her will in a spooky country home belonging to to man whose main interests are collecting bird eggs and raising vicious dogs. This man, James Dixey, eventually falls in love with his prisoner, Isabel Ireland. Yet neither of these characters, nor anyone other character in the novel, can really be called the main character. There is no main character. The plot shifts from scene to scene, from character to character, making it difficult for readers to find a high point from which to view the whole story.

2. Most fiction is told either from an omniscient, third-person point of view or from a limited first-person point of view. In other words, the narrator either knows everything or only what one particular character in the story happens to know. In Kept, Taylor strangely employs both points of view at the same time. Phrases like "it seems to me" and "I think" abound throughout the novel, suggesting that the story is being told by some close observer of events. Yet a few sentences later this narrator is revealing characters' thought and private actions, things only an omniscient narrator could know. It's a bit bothersome not knowing who this first-person narrator is or how he happens to know so much about a story that involves so many different locales and so many different characters.

Despite these difficulties and these oddities, I found Kept to be enjoyable reading

Friday, November 22, 2013

Truth by metaphor

When C.S. Lewis died 50 years ago today, hardly anyone noticed. Another death that same day, in Dallas, claimed most of the headlines for days afterward, and it was some time before even the British writer's most ardent admirers heard the news.

In a cover story in this month's issue, Christianity Today remembers Lewis's life and legacy. The article hit home with me even before I had begun to read it. A Lewis quotation in large type is spread across two pages: "All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor."

Lewis himself was a master of metaphor. His books remain popular, and understandable, today in large measure because of the strength of his metaphors. He put this one in one of his letters: "The pleasure of pride is like the pleasure of scratching. If there is an itch one does want to scratch; but is is much nicer to have neither the itch nor the scratch." That is typical Lewis.

Just as he used metaphors to express complex ideas in understandable ways, so people in all walks of life use them to make things simpler. Preachers put stories in their sermons. Scientists talk about the Milky Way, the Big Bang, black holes, string theory and wormholes. In the world of history and politics, we have such metaphors as the Dark Ages, the Iron Curtain, New Deal and New Frontier. In economics there is talk about price bubbles, hiring freezes, fiscal cliffs, skyrocketing stocks, mountains of debt and overheated economies. Most truth, it seems, really is won by metaphor.

I happened to be in the midst of a book called I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like by Mardy Grothe when I was asked to speak at a graveside memorial service for my father-in-law last month. Bob had made it clear he did not want a funeral or any formal marking of his passing. So instead of a minister, I was asked to speak. What would I say that would be meaningful to those who knew him? I finally decided to just say it with metaphors. I read a metaphors from Grothe's book that seemed to apply to Bob, then add my own comments and invite comments from those gathered at the northwestern Ohio cemetery. Somehow it worked.

One of the metaphors I read was from actor Danny Kaye: "Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can." Bob Savage certainly threw a lot of paint on his canvas, as did C.S. Lewis.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Black umbrellas and red wine

Among the secondary pleasures to be found in reading a Charles Lenox mystery, authored by Charles Finch, is the somewhat obscure information that Finch tosses in as he tells his story. Most of this stuff, usually about the English language or about life in Victorian England, may be trivial, at least as far as the story is concerned, but it is interesting trivia. Here are a few examples from A Death in the Small Hours, the book I reviewed here on Monday.

John Wayne in London
Why are umbrellas black? Even today men carry mostly black umbrellas, although women's umbrellas have become more colorful. But how did black become the norm? Finch explains that it had to do with the coal smoke so common in London at one time. "Even every Englishman's favorite accessory, the tightly furled black umbrella, had become that color largely to guard against the discoloration of the polluted air that a white umbrella in London invariably suffered," Finch writes.

Why are some red wines called port? At one time, Finch explains at one point in the story, England made a trade agreement with Portugal stipulating that England buy only Portuguese wine if Portugal bought only English cloth. Portuguese wine, shortened to port, was for many years all that could be found in England. In the United States today, I learned elsewhere, all port wines do not necessarily come from Portugal.

What is corn? Finch writes, "The word corn, here in Somerset, referred to any kind of grain -- oats, barley, wheat." Corn, at least at one time, was the dominant crop in a particular region. If farmers, as around Somerset, grew oats, barley and wheat, then that was called corn. In the New World, maize proved to be the dominant crop, so American farmers called it corn. Today that's what most people think of when they hear the word. In Word Nerd by Barbara Ann Kipfer, we read that the word corn derives from a Latin word meaning "grain." "To American colonists," she writes, "corn meant any common grain."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Over too quickly

When a fictional detective announces he has solved the case barely halfway into the book, you know there must be a few surprises still to come. The problem with A Death in the Small Hours (Minotaur), the new Charles Finch paperback, is that there aren't nearly enough surprises. The second half of the novel, filled with details about a speech in Parliament, wedding plans and various domestic affairs, isn't nearly as interesting as the first half. What we have, essentially, is a 100-page denouement.

Ah, but that first half makes fine reading. Charles Lenox, Finch's Victorian gentleman hero, finds himself so busy after becoming a member of Parliament that he no longer has time for his first love, solving difficult criminal cases. He has a major speech to prepare for, so he flees London with his wife, Jane, and baby daughter, Sophia, to his uncle's country estate, where he thinks he can find enough isolation to finish writing the speech.

But the village of Plumbley has been plagued with a series of unusual cases of vandalism, and Charles is asked to look into the matter. When a young police officer is murdered, Charles really gets interested. He thinks the murder and vandalism are related.

Charles sorts things out with surprising quickness, wrapping up several crimes all at once. Yet he hasn't quite solved the entire mystery, and this loose end leads to yet another murder.

Charles Lenox fans will want to catch this installment in the series. Other mystery readers might want to give it a pass.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Writing lessons

In her charming little book Survival Lessons, reviewed here on Wednesday, Alice Hoffman has almost as much to say about writers as she does about cancer survivors. Today I want to give a few quotes on writing from her book, then add my own comments.

"It's possible that I became a writer because of my mother's fear of being alone after her divorce. A novelist, after all, is never alone."

Oddly enough, this is true, although it certainly doesn't seem true. Writing seems like the loneliest of professions because it is best done in isolation with the door closed and the radio off. Hoffman speaks about the novelist's many characters, which become real and constantly present during, and perhaps before and after, the creation of a book. Then there are the writer's eventual readers. This blog has very few readers, and I have no idea who they might be, yet they are always on my mind as I write.

"If I could, I would invite the Brontes and Edgar Allan Poe. They would be my first choice for dinner guests. I would want to know about their minds and his life. I would also want to invite Emily Dickinson ..."

I, too, if I could invite anyone from history into my home, would have writers high on my guest list. Wouldn't it be fun sitting at a table listening to the conversation between Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis? Add Hoffman's dinner guests, and Hoffman herself, and you would have a perfect dinner party. I guess we would need one more man to balance things up. How about Ernest Hemingway, to add a little zest to dinner?

"In my family, a book was a life raft."

She is speaking here again about loneliness. Reading, like writing, can be a cure, though it is something that also is best done alone.

"All writers should be made to knit a hat before they start writing a novel. It would help with understanding the importance of revisions, and that the process is what can bring you the most joy."

Knitters knit because they enjoy the knitting, not just because they like the hats, sweaters or whatever their final product might be. The same goes for writing, although I think most writers already know that. Still, if knitting a hat were a prerequisite for writing a novel, there would be a lot fewer novels to choose from.

"When I couldn't write about characters that didn't have cancer and worried I might never get past that single experience, my oncologist told me that cancer didn't have to be my entire novel. It was just a chapter."

"Write what you know," novice fiction writers are told, as if they need to be told. To a great extent, they have no choice but to reproduce their own life experiences and the people they have known into their stories. And when one particular experience, such as a battle with cancer, is so overwhelming, it may be difficult for writers to write about anything else. Perhaps this explains why some war veterans who have written great war novels, say Joseph Heller or James Jones, were unable to write anything else as powerful. The advice from Alice Hoffman's oncologist seems wise to me.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A survival guide

Who better to write a survival guide for persons with life-threatening illnesses than a survivor? And if that survivor can write as beautifully as Alice Hoffman, all the better.

Many of the novelist's fans, myself included, were unaware that Hoffman battled breast cancer in the late 1990s. A naturally shy woman, she hasn't had much to say about her ordeal. Her website bio barely mentions it. She did, however, use her advance from Local Girls to start the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., and her advance from her first work of non-fiction, Survival Lessons (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), will support the same cause.

She writes in Survival Lessons that during her treatment she longed for some kind of guide for those in her situation. "I needed to know how people survived trauma," she says. Like novelist Ann Patchett, who has said she writes the books she wants to read, Hoffman decided to write her own survival guide.

In one sense, there isn't much here. The new book is just 83 pages long, many of those pages filled with photographs (taken by the author herself), poetry, a brownie recipe and even four and a half pages on how to knit a beehive hat. Yet Hoffman actually says a lot in her skimpy book, and for her target audience, it is probably just the right size.

Those facing the very real possibility of premature death may think they have about run out of choices. Hoffman, having had a few years to think it over, begs to differ. Her book offers a series of choices those struggling with serious illness can and should make. These include: Choose your heroes, choose to enjoy yourself (this where the brownie recipe comes in), choose your friends, choose how to spend your time, choose to accept sorrow, choose to make things beautiful and many others.

Survival Lessons may not add even one minute to anyone's life. That's what we're trusting doctors and hospitals to do. It will, however, add value to whatever years or days one has left, whether one faces serious illness or not.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Jose can you see

The mistakes we make with language often have particular names for them, especially when those mistakes amuse others. A malapropism occurs when we unintentionally use the wrong word or phrase. If the wrong word sounds like the correct word, like "duck tape," it is called an eggcorn. If we persist in using the wrong word even after being corrected, that's termed a mumpsimus. When words, usually in a song, produce unintended meanings when translated into another language, that's called a soramimi. When we simply say the wrong word or name because our minds are focused elsewhere, it's usually just called a Freudian slip.

Then there is the mondegreen, which is like an eggcorn but is more specifically what happens when we mishear the words to a song, a poem or something like the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord's Prayer. Children have a unique gift for coming up with amusing mondegreens, a staple of the Family Circus comic for decades, but adults often make the same kinds of errors, often when listening to popular songs where the lyrics are not clearly enunciated.

The word mondegreen was coined in the 1950s by Sylvia Wright in Harper's magazine. She recalled that as a little girl she misheard a line from the 17th century ballad The Bonnie Earl of Murray. She thought she heard, and thus repeated:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o' Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

The last line of the stanza actually reads "And laid him on the green."

Jim Bernhard, in his book Words Gone Wild, tells of a minister who found his five-year-old son burying a dead robin. Before placing the bird in the hole he had dug in the ground, the boy prayed, "Glory be unto the Father, and unto the Son, and into the hole he goes."

Gavin Edwards remembers that as a boy he thought the line "life is but a dream" in the song Row, Row Your Boat" was "life's a butter dream."

Some mondegreens have become almost legendary:

"Double, double, toilet trouble," from Macbeth.

"Scuse me while I kiss this guy," from Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze. (Actual words: "kiss the sky.")

"Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life," from the 23rd Psalm.

"Round John Virgin," from Silent Night.

"Glory, glory, Honolulu," from the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

"Bringing in the sheep" or "bringing in the cheese," from Bringing in the Sheaves.

Sometimes a mondegreen can actually replace the original line. This happened with The Twelve Days of Christmas, long a popular holiday song. The line "four colly birds" (meaning black birds) was sung so persistently as "four calling birds" that eventually publishers of the song just gave up and printed "four calling birds." It is said that both Jimi Hendrix and John Fogerty (whose line "There's a bad moon on the rise" from Bad Moon Rising was often heard as "There's a bathroom on the right") actually sang the misheard lyrics in later concerts.

The title of one of the most read novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye, stems from a mondegreen. The poet Robert Burns wrote "Gin a body meet a body/coming' through the rye," but it is commonly heard as "Gin a body catch a body/comin' through the rye."

Friday, November 8, 2013

The right track

If you prefer mysteries to be more fun than frightening, you'll be on the right track if you read Steve Hockensmith's On the Wrong Track (2007). The second book in his Holmes on the Range series makes amusing reading, while at the same time presenting a compelling, fast-moving murder mystery.

Old Red and Big Red, actually Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer, are a couple of aspiring detectives in the Old West. More accurately, Old Red (so-called simply because he is the eldest of the red-headed brothers, while Big Red is the tallest) is the aspiring detective, a devotee of Sherlock Holmes. Big Red plays his Watson, the guy who goes along, provides some muscle and then writes about the adventures afterward.

This time the brothers get jobs on the Pacific Express, a train heading West. The Southern Pacific Railroad has been plagued by a gang of outlaws known as the Give-'em Hell Boys, and the railroad wants extra protection. Of course, the gang shows up, but there appears to be a conspirator and, indeed, a murderer aboard the train. Old Red, who happens to get motion sickness on trains, is determined to solve the case anyway. As for Big Red, he seems more interested in protecting a certain young woman, who may not be quite whom she pretends to be.

Hockensmith writes some amusing lines and throws in some slapstick situations, but there's plenty of suspense, too.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

It's English to us

You may speak no language other than English, but even so you are probably more multilingual than you think. That thought came to me as I read A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi" by Chloe Rhodes. The 175-page book contains scores of words and phrases from other languages that English speakers know and, in many cases, use on a regular basis.

We probably know such Latin phrases as bona fide, ex libris, et cetera, carpe diem, ad hoc, ipso facto, in loco parentis, in camera, habeas corpus, modus operandi, quid pro quo, status quo and vice versa.

If you ever say a la carte, deja vu, esprit de corps, en masse, faux pas, fait accompli, femme fatale, menage a trois, tour de force, savoir faire, nom de plume or haute cuisine, then you speak at least a smattering of French.

You probably also know a little Greek (ho polloi), Mandarin (feng shui and gung ho), Yiddish (klutz and kosher), German (wanderlust and wunderkind), Hawaiian (kahuna) and several other languages. Of course, most of these words and phrases have been used by English speakers for so long that they not only seem English but, in fact, are English. The English language regularly swallows up useful vocabulary from other languages and makes it its own.

One must be careful when trying to use these foreign words and phrases in foreign countries, however. As Rhodes explains, many of them are pronounced quite differently in the original languages, and many of them mean something quite different from what they have come to mean in English. In the United States a la mode (or more commonly alamode) means "with ice cream." In France it means "fashionable." The phrase c'est la vie (that's life) is now considered old-fashioned in France, so it's probably best to avoid it. If you say coup de grace the way most Americans say it, by leaving out the final "s" sound, it means "neck of fat" in France. The phrase double entendre, so popular in the United States, is considered obsolete in France, where they prefer double sens or double entente to mean the same thing.

One of the oddest things in the book has to do with the phrase art nouveau, a popular term in the U.S. to refer to new art. In France, however, Rhodes says they use an English phrase "modern style" to mean the same thing.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The puzzling Miss Julia

Ann B. Ross writes her Miss Julia novels, I would imagine, primarily for female readers, especially women who live in the southeastern United States and who can fully appreciate the characters and humor found in her books. I am a man who lives in the north, at least most of the year, yet I have read most of these novels with great pleasure. I recently read, or rather reread, Miss Julia Throws a Wedding (2002), which is not among the best novels in the series but worth a second read just the same.

Julia Springer, a conservative Southern matron, was married for more than 40 years to Wesley Lloyd Springer, a very successful businessman. When he dies suddenly, in the first book in the series (Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind), she is left with more wealth than she ever imagined, but no children and no idea of what to do with the rest of her life. Then an attractive young woman named Hazel Marie, with a little boy in tow, knocks on her door and explains that she was Wesley Lloyd's mistress and the boy, called Little Lloyd, is his son. They were left with nothing when the man died. Instead of slamming the door on Hazel Marie, Miss Julia's first impulse, she invites her and the boy inside, and that act provides the springboard for the other Miss Julia novels. Suddenly she has something to live for, something to do with all her money and, for the first time in her life, a child to care for.

Miss Julia makes a wonderful character, opinionated, set in her ways, yet impulsive and ready to take on anybody when she thinks something needs to be done or some wrong needs to be righted. Yet in every book, two things about Miss Julia bother me.

1. How is it possible that her personality changed so dramatically after Wesley Lloyd's death? By her own admission, she was a passive, stay-at-home wife. She entertained and she volunteered for church committees, but not much else. Yet suddenly, with her husband's death and a knock on her door, she becomes a whirlwind, forceful to the point of being obnoxious. Personalities do change, I suppose, but so dramatically, like the flip of a switch?

2. Why does everybody like Miss Julia so? I love her as a character, but I don't think I would want to be around her much. I certainly wouldn't want to pursue her romantically, as retired attorney Sam Murdock does in Miss Julia Throws a Wedding. (He marries her in a subsequent novel.) Virtually every character in the novels is devoted to her and willingly cooperates with her in her schemes, some of which seem like they could have been thought up by Lucy Ricardo. Even nice people don't attract that much devotion. She is rich, but Ross offers no suggestion that that is the reason she has so many friends. People just like her. I don't know why.

Friday, November 1, 2013

With wild hogs, rules do not apply

An article called A Plague of Pigs by John Morthland in the January 2011 issue of Smithsonian magazine caught my attention. Who knew there are as many as six million wild hogs in the United States and Canada, mostly in Texas? I was especially intrigued by these lines early in the story:

"Few purebred Eurasian wild boars are left today, but they hybridized with feral domestic hogs and continue to spread. All are interchangeably called wild or feral hogs, pigs or boars; in this context 'boar' can refer to a male or female. (Technically, 'feral' refers to animals that can be traced back to escaped domestic pigs, while the more all-encompassing 'wild' refers to any non-domestic animals.)"

Morthland, you'll notice throws in a lot of terms -- purebred, hybridized, feral and wild, for example -- and then says they all mean pretty much the same thing when you're talking about wild hogs. Even the word boar applies equally to both male and female wild hogs.

A Wikipedia article on the subject goes further: "The term 'boar' is used to denote an adult male of certain species, including domestic pigs. However, for wild boar, it applies to the whole species, including, for example, 'wild boar sow' or 'wild boar piglet.'"

I find it interesting that the author of the Wikipedia article refers to wild boar as a separate species, even though most of them, as Morthland writes, are either runaway domestic hogs or hybridized with the few purebred boars.

Even the words pig and hog seem to mean something different when talking about wild boar. In domestic agriculture, a pig becomes a hog when it reaches 120 pounds. Also in domestic agriculture, a boar is an uncastrated male. Among wild boar, however, all are boars, all are both pigs and hogs, all are both wild and feral and all, at least according to Wikipedia, belong to there own distinct species.

Wild hogs are apparently so wild that the usual definitions just don't apply.