Monday, May 30, 2016

The origins of English names

Edward Rutherfurd
Edward Rutherfurd's novel London not only serves up a history of the city in story form, as I wrote about last Friday, it also provides something of a history of the English language. Take for example the name of the city itself. At one time, more than 2,000 years ago, it was called Londinos. When the Romans came, they called it Londinium. Still later, according to Rutherfurd's narrative, it was Lundenwic, Lunden and finally London.

On page 88, he gives a primer on English place names. What was once Chalk Island become known as Chelsea because in Anglo-Saxon "island" was pronounced "eye." Similarly, Badric's Island became known as Battersea. The suffixes -ham, -ton and -hythe meant hamlet, farm and harbor, respectively. Thus we now have place names such as Fullham and Kensington.

To us today, the phrase "the clink" is slang for jail or prison. Yet in London at one time there was actually a small prison named the Clink.

We all know that many English surnames reflect back on the work once done by members of that family, but Rutherfurd gives us a few we may not have known: "Glovers making gloves. Saddlers making saddles. Lorimers making bridles. Coopers making barrels. Turners making wooden cups. Bowyers making bows. Fletchers making arrows. Skinners dealing in furs. Tanners curing leathers ..."

Those who bought large, or gross, quantities of goods for resale were known as "grossers," which later became "grocers."

The English word impeachment dates back to Norman times, Rutherfurd tells us. It comes from the French word ampeschement, meaning embarrassment.

If the English place name Piccadilly sounds amusing to us, that is how it was originally meant to sound. Writes Rutherfurd, "The name, originally, had been a joke, because the merchant who had bought up the land had made his fortune supplying 'picadils' -- ruff collars -- to the Elizabethan and Stuart court."

And so it goes. Rutherfurd tells us all this and more about English words without ever seeming to interrupt his story.

Friday, May 27, 2016

History as a story

There are historical novels and then there is history told in the form of novels. One kind uses history to tell stories. The other uses stories to tell history. Edward Rutherfurd's London (1997) is a good example of the latter type. He attempts to cover the entire history of the city, from before the Romans arrived to the present day, through the lives of a few families. These families may be fictional, but they brush shoulders with historical figures such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare and they become involved in such major events in English history as the Norman conquest, the Black Death, the Great Fire, the building of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Crystal Palace and the Blitz. The author places momentous events and important personages in the context of ordinary people whose lives they impacted.

Because the novel covers more than 2,000 years, it necessarily becomes a series of related short stories, some better than others but all worth reading as much for the history they relate as for the stories themselves. Some characters hang around for two or three chapters, but eventually they are replaced, as in real life, by children and grandchildren who pick up the story. Rutherfurd's characters cover London society from the titled class to the servant class, sometimes within the same family. Family trees at the beginning of the book help the reader keep straight who is related to whom.

Both the novel's first and last chapters have the same title, "The River." The Thames is London's one constant, the only thing that has been there since the beginning and will continue long after the final page.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dry gleaning

The Indian film The Lunchbox has a recurring scene in which a young housewife takes clothing from a hamper prior to doing the laundry, smelling each item as she does so. It is when she detects another woman's perfume on her husband's clothing that she realizes he is having an affair.

That scene generated some unexpected comment in the movie discussion group I sometimes lead. Some women wondered why she would smell the clothing before washing it. Such behavior seemed less odd to me, for I have been known to give my own clothing a sniff before deciding whether it was time for it to be laundered.

This came to mind as I was reading in Barbara Wallraff's book Word Fugitives about the need for a word for the practice of "going through the dirty-clothes hamper to find something clean enough to wear." College students and tourists probably are not the only ones who do this. But what should it be called?

The suggestions offered by Wallraff's readers are interesting. These include skivvy-dipping, snifferentiating, laundry composting, snifting  (I like this one), windventory, desperspirationalizing (much too long) and dry gleaning (perhaps the best of all).

I wonder if there is a word for this in India.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Reading challenges

Since retirement I have tried to read at least 100 books a year, reaching that goal for the first time in 2015, with 105 books read. With 39 books read so far this year, I am behind last year's pace but still on course, or nearly so. That is my idea of a good reading challenge, something practical and not overly restrictive.

Yet if you read many book blogs or sites like Goodreads or LibraryThing, you will find mention of all kinds of reading challenges, some of which get a little wild. For Popsugar's 2016 Ultimate Reading Challenge, one must attempt to read, among many others, a book based on a fairy tale, a romance set in the future, a book written by a comedian, a book recommended by someone you just met, the first book you see in a bookstore, a book with a blue cover and a book with a protagonist who has your occupation. One might read books in some of these categories as a matter of course, books with blue covers, for example. In recent years I have read books by Billy Crystal, Bob Newhart, Tim Conway and Carol Burnett, and this year I've read one by Monty Python-alumnus Terry Gilliam, so I guess I'm covered when it comes to comedians. But some categories, such as the first book one sees in a bookstore, could obligate you to read something you simply have no desire to read. What's the fun in that? And that book you don't really want to read could cost you $30 besides.

In One for the Books, a book conveniently with a blue cover, Joe Queenan tells of attempting several self-imposed reading challenges over the years. Among those he has attempted are:

- reading all the books on loan from close friends.

- reading books "I picked off library shelves with my eyes closed."

- reading books "I had always suspected I would hate."

- reading all the coffee-table books in his collection.

- finishing all the books he had previously abandoned.

- reading a book a day for an entire year.

He didn't get very far with most of these, and one can see why. A person can read only a limited number of books in a lifetime, so why waste time with books with little or no appeal? If you are somebody who can't decide what to read next or who can knock off a book a day, then maybe a challenge like one of these could be fun. But if, like me, you already have a backlog of books you want to read and you feel like you are running out of time to read them, most of these challenges seem more like a burden than an enjoyable game.

I do have other ways of adding a bit of play to my reading choices. I will pick a random number, say 12, then select the 12th unread book on each shelf. Then from those books I will choose which one to read next. This simply makes choosing a book easier, while at the same time adding a little mystery to the process.

When I go to Florida in the fall, I fill a small box of books with unread novels by authors whose last names begin with a certain letter of the alphabet. Last winter I read novels by Donna Leon, Lisa Lutz, Laura Lippman, Joe R. Lansdale and so forth. Next winter I may tackle books by Charles McCarry, Helen MacInnes, Larry McMurtry, Grace McClean and Nancy Mauro, among others. I have a lot of M books, so the final selection will not be easy. But it will be fun.

These aren't really reading challenges, but they may provide me with a pleasure similar to what reading challenges provide others.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Jefferson's explorers

Every expedition with which Jefferson was associated threw sacrifice far, far down the route in the interest of introducing two parts of a country to each other. The men who made it through answered the question of how much the new lands were worth. Americans had no better way to tell the people of the West that they agreed than to raise Jefferson's explorers to the level of heroes.
Julie M. Fenster, Jefferson's America

Thomas Jefferson took an interest in the vast territory beyond the Mississippi River when he was secretary of state under President George Washington. The secretary of state deals with foreign affairs, and at that time the American West belonged to foreign powers, mostly Spain, but France and England both had interests there, too. Jefferson sought to expand American interests in the West without getting involved in a war.

As president a few years later, he saw exploration as a way of expanding influence into the West, The European countries were simply too far away and too preoccupied with their struggles against each other to take much interest in what was actually in the West. So Jefferson decided to explore the West even before the Louisiana Purchase gave the United States so much of it. These explorations are the topic of Julie M. Fenster's fine new book Jefferson's America: The President, the Purchase, and the Explorers Who Transformed a Nation.

Today we remember Lewis and Clark, but they were not the only explorers dispatched by Jefferson. While Meriwether Lewis and William Clark followed the Missouri River to the northwest and then ultimately went over the mountains to the Pacific Ocean, Zebulon Pike looked for the source of the Mississippi, William Dunbar and George Hunter explored the Ouachita River, and Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis followed the Red River for as far as they could before being stopped by Spanish soldiers ordered to keep the Americans out of Texas.

If Lewis and Clark get most of the attention today, early in the 19th century the Red River expedition was considered the most important by far, Fenster writes. It was the one most likely to start a war, as well as the one furthest south, and it was the south, near the vital port of New Orleans, that was at the time most crucial to America's survival.

Pike's adventures make the most interesting reading in Fenster's book, for he had far more nerve than sense and constantly put his own life and the lives of his men in jeopardy. He, for example, kept looking for the source of the Mississippi in midwinter when more rational explorers would have huddled up somewhere warm and waited for spring.

The Jefferson strategy, using exploration as a weapon of war, as Fenster puts it, worked. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, neither buyer nor seller knew what it entailed, neither the actual borders nor what the territory contained. The expeditions went far in answering those questions. They gave Americans greater interest in this vast territory, leading to settlements, which did more than anything to establish American claims even on territory that was not part of the purchase.

Rival politicians criticized the purchase at the time, but history soon proved Jefferson to be a visionary who made all the right moves.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Please reply ... immediately

The problem with e-mail is that it's just too quick. Back in the day when we wrote letters, it took some time to write a letter and more time to look for an envelope and a stamp. And then we had to put it into a mailbox. All this gave us a chance to think over what we wrote and reconsider whether it was really a good idea. It might take two or more days for this letter to be delivered, and even a prompt reply could take a week from the time we wrote the initial letter.

With e-mail and other forms of electronic communication, we can send messages in an instant and get replies almost as quickly. That's good, but it's also bad. It's too easy to send messages we will later regret, whether because they were sent in anger or with mistakes we didn't take the time to catch or even because we inadvertently sent them to the wrong person. And then we expect a reply immediately. Otherwise we begin to wonder: Did my message get through? Are they ignoring it? Has something happened to them? Don't they like me? We might have gotten the same kind of doubts with letters, but at least they took longer to develop. Delays were easier to understand.

Some people will send an e-mail and then, if they don't get a response within a few hours, send another asking the other party if the first e-mail was received. Of course, if the first e-mail didn't get through, why would the second? And if the person does reply, how will he or she know that e-mail has been received unless there is a prompt response to that one?

Barbara Wallraff addresses this problem in Word Fugitives, a book dedicated to finding "wanted words," or words that don't exist in any dictionary but could be useful in today's world. Among the words she sought in her Atlantic Monthly column is one for those people who write followup e-mails when they fail to get rapid responses to their initial e-mails.

Her readers suggested such possibilities as re-mailers, cybores, memorons, e-diots and NetWits. The best choices, I thought, were confirmaniacs and redundunces, yet all of these, with the possible exception of re-mailers, seem a bit harsh, especially since most of us who use e-mail desire quick responses ourselves. Only an annoying few let their doubts rule them and send those "Did you get my e-mail?" messages, but they are really not that different from the rest of us.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Something to offend everyone

Like beauty, political correctness is in the eye of the beholder. What one group or individual finds offensive, another will accept without complaint. A couple of years ago I commented about passing a Navajo high school in Arizona with the big sign out front proclaiming "Home of the Redskins." Meanwhile  the Redskins in Washington take heat for their use of the same nickname.

In The Book of General Ignorance, John Lloyd and John Mitchinson write that the term Eskimo is considered offensive in Canada. The politically correct word is Inuit. But across the border into Alaska, the native people prefer to be called Eskimos. The Intuit people live in Canada and parts of Greenland, not in Alaska, so the term Inuit can offend Alaskans. Even in Canada and Greenland, Inuit can be offensive because some people are more properly Kalaallit (in Greenland) or Inuvialuit (in Canada). Calling all these people Inuit, say Lloyd and Muthinson, is "like calling all black people 'Nigerians,' or all white people "German.'"

Of course, the terms black and white can also offend because people, like moral questions, are not all black or white. Many prefer the term African-American, except that many "African-Americans" are not American at all.

To get back to the Inuits, the word itself means "the people" in the Inuit language. In fact, names of many native tribes mean something similar. Yupik means "real person." Hach Winik means "true people." Kiowa means "principal people." Lenni Lenape means "genuine men." Taino means "the good people." Tonkawa means "the most human of people." And so it goes. In other words, our tribe is better than your tribe.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that idea offensive.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Lansdale at his best

The versatile and prolific East Texas author Joe R. Lansdale is at his best in his adolescents-in-peril thrillers, such as The Bottoms, A Fine Dark Line and The Thicket.  Add Edge of Dark Water (2012) to that list.

May Lynn, a Texas beauty, dreams of Hollywood stardom. When her body turns up in the Sabine River, a Singer sewing machine tied to her leg, three of her young friends, each with his or own reasons for fleeing their impoverished rural community, decide to take her ashes to Hollywood. When they find some money stolen by May Lynn's brother, their journey becomes feasible. It also becomes dangerous because others want that money. One of these is a sadistic killer called Skunk, thought to be just a local legend until he turns out to be frighteningly real.

The three friends -- Sue Ellen, our narrator, who has an abusive father; Jinx, a black girl with a sharp tongue, and a homosexual boy named Terry -- are joined by Sue Ellen's mother, also eager to escape her abusive husband. On their way downriver they encounter a minister burdened with guilt and an evil old woman who redeems herself by saving Terry's life.

The novel makes a thrilling ride, yet it is also something of a literary feast. Lansdale's fine prose often calls for rereading and then rereading again.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What we remember

I have a book scout's visual memory of almost every book I've seen.
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Yesterday I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant I had not visited since last year. Usually a waitress serves me, but this time the manager came over. She not only addressed me by name but said, "You like chicken chop suey and tea, right?" She was right.

I am continually impressed when servers do this. During the winter I have breakfast twice a month with a group of guys, and the same woman serves us each time. One man had been missing for a couple of years taking care of his wife, who had dementia and eventually no memory at all. On his first morning back, the waitress said to him, "The usual?"

Former athletes, when they later become color commentators on television broadcasts, seem to remember details of games played years before. They recall who was pitching and what the count was when someone hit a particular home run or what the score was and what defense was being played when a quarterback threw a touchdown pass. I'm lucky if I can remember the score of a game I watched yesterday.

And then we have Larry McMurtry's claim that he remembers not just every book he has ever read but virtually every book he has ever seen. Besides being a writer, McMurtry buys and sells book, so like the waitress and the athlete he remembers what serves him well in his job. Similarly barbers may remember how each customer likes his hair cut and singers may recall the lyrics of hundreds of songs. I guess we can remember, some of us better than others, what we need to remember or what we want to remember. I don't know what it says about me that I remember so much trivia but forget the names of people I meet almost as soon as I hear them.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Dreams in ruins

This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought: you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life.
Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

Jess Walter says Beautiful Ruins, his break-through novel, was nearly finished before he knew what to call it, or perhaps even what it was all about. Then he came across a magazine article in which actor Richard Burton, then 54, was described as "already a beautiful ruin." And so, after 15 years of struggle, he had his novel, a gem that deserves all the attention it has received since its publication in 2012.

Burton was already a minor, yet important, character in the story. He is the reason Dee Moray, a beautiful young American actress with a small part in Cleopatra, shows up in a tiny Italian coastal village in 1962. She thinks she is dying of cancer. In truth she is pregnant with Burton's baby. Sent by a studio doctor to Switzerland for treatment, actually an abortion, she instead goes to Porto Vergogna. There Pasquale Tursi strives to turn his small hotel into a resort, complete with a cliff-side tennis court, that will appeal to American tourists. When this lovely actress shows up, he is smitten.

The novel spans decades, and Walter goes back and forth in time, constantly tossing in seemingly unrelated narratives like a chapter of another novel and a pitch for a screenplay about the Donner party. Somehow it all works, and a reader's patience will be rewarded.

Burton is not the novel's only "beautiful ruin." Most of the characters, Dee and Pasquale among them, live lives that fail to equal their dreams. When in the final chapters an aging Pasquale comes to America in search of an aging Dee Moray, by now truly dying of cancer, the ruins of their dreams become quite beautiful.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Celebrating the moment

Photographs represent attempts to stop time, which is why we get out our cameras on Christmas morning, at birthday parties, at family reunions and when children and pets do cute things more than we do at funeral homes and in hospital rooms. Some moments we want to stop more than others.

Anne Tyler seems to have this thought in mind when she uses photography as a metaphor in one of her earliest novels, The Tin Can Tree (1965). James, the designated photographer, twice takes photos at gatherings of friends and family. One is soon after the shocking death of little Janie Rose, when smiles prove hard to find. Later he tries again, more successfully, after Simon, Janie Rose's runaway brother, is found and returns home.

Simon feels ignored and unloved after his sister's death. His mother, who hardly even gets out of her bed, ignores him, leaving him in the care of Joan, a young adult relative with a crush on James. Meanwhile Joan herself feels unloved and unappreciated, as James devotes himself to Ansel, his hypochondriac brother. So she runs away, too, later returning with hardly anyone even noticing she had left, finding the party for Simon, the young prodigal, already in progress.

Other times, both past and future, and other places, where the grass appears more green, have their appeal. Yet Tyler's familiar but timeless message seems to be that what we have in this moment's photograph, the place where we are and the people we still have with us, can be worth celebrating.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Adding to the conversation

Two books I've read over the past several months made references to book discussion groups, one positive and one negative. These might be worth a few comments.

The more positive remarks can be found in David Denby's Lit Up. He writes, "They enjoyed not just the books but the act of reading together. You couldn't have asked more of any book club." A few pages later he adds, "The English Department at Mamaroneck wanted to achieve in ninth- and tenth-grade students something like the morale of a good book club -- what Miss Clain called 'a social culture of reading.'"

Now Denby's is writing primarily about high school English classes, not book clubs, but the comparison he makes is to book clubs, where people attend because they want to attend, read the books because they want to read and discuss those books because they want to discuss them. Those are the criteria for an ideal book club, but they are also the criteria for an ideal English class.

Now here's what Joe Queenan says about book clubs in One for the Books:

"I would rather have my eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club. Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. What might that be? A book is a series of arguments between the author and the reader, none of which the reader can possibly win."

And later, "Book discussion clubs have almost nothing to do with books. This may be why they do rarely choose good books."

And still later, "The people I know who attend book clubs are generally intelligent, but they are rarely what I would call interesting."

So Queenan attacks book clubs, the members of these clubs and the books they read. The books selected by most book groups are probably not among literature's finest. But so what? These people are reading, enjoying what they're reading and enjoying talking about it, just like those high school students Denby's writes about. This may not be Queenan's cup of tea, just as it is not mine as I wrote yesterday, but that doesn't mean it can't be of value to someone else.

The most disturbing comment Queenan makes concerns "the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. This seems like an odd thing for a sometime book reviewer to write, for what does a book reviewer do but add to the conversation? What is the author saying and how well does he say it? These are questions any book critic and, indeed, any reader is free to address. When you read a book you are free to talk about it and interpret it as you will.

Last night I watched the movie Broken Flowers and later a short film about the movie on the DVD. Here director Jim Jarmusch says, speaking of his films, "It's not my job to even know what they mean." What they mean, he suggested, is up to each person who watches them. "Their interpretation of them is way more valuable than my own." What's true for movies must be true for books, as well. Each reader adds to the conversation, and book clubs may not be such a bad way to do it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Let's start a club

"Well, instead of discussing the book we could discuss why none of us had time to read it."
The New Yorker cartoon caption

I have never belonged to a book club, not counting those where they send you a book every month unless you remember to let them know you don't want it. I've belonged to two or three of those over the years. No, I'm speaking of those where everybody reads the same book, then meets to talk about it.

In theory this sounds like something I should love to do. Maybe I would, but only if the following criteria were met:

1. I get to choose the book. Of course, every member of a book club should have an equal opportunity to choose which book the group will read next, but rarely am I interested in reading books chosen or recommended by someone else. I did enough assigned reading in high school and college to last a lifetime. I own hundreds of unread books, as well as hundreds of other books I'd love to read again. So why would I want to read books selected by someone else?

2. The group actually discusses the book, not everything else. I love the New Yorker cartoon cited above, which I have had posted on my bulletin board for years. Discussions that stray off topic are a pet peeve of mine. I like meetings that have agendas and discussion groups that stay on the subject. That's my biggest problem with the movie discussion group I sometimes lead (when I get to choose the film). When I pose a question, there is always somebody who wants to talk about something else. I have to keep reminding myself that the whole point of the evening, other than watching the film itself, is a good discussion. Whether or not my particular questions are ever addressed is irrelevant, at least to everybody but me.

I expect to have more to say about book discussion groups next time.