I wanted to like this book much more than I actually did. Grant Barrett is a highly-respected lexicographer who maintains the excellent website, the dI wanted to like this book much more than I actually did. Grant Barrett is a highly-respected lexicographer who maintains the excellent website, the double-tongued dictionary. From his bio on that site:
"Grant Barrett, creator and editor of the Double-Tongued Dictionary, is an American lexicographer and editor of The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English (May 2006, McGraw-Hill). He is also co-host of the language-related public radio show A Way With Words, broadcast nationwide via radio, streaming, and podcast. He also serves as vice president for communications and technology for the American Dialect Society, an academic organization that has been devoted to the study of English in North America since 1889. He currently does freelance lexicography for Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and for the Collins-brand dictionaries published by Cengage, formerly Thomson Heinle. In the past, he served as project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and edited the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (2004). On occasion, he contributes to the journal American Speech and writes for newspapers such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Malaysian Star. He also has a personal weblog called The Lexicographer's Rules."
Content in "The Official Dictionary ..." has been culled from the double-tongued dictionary website, whose focus Barrett describes as follows:
"The Double-Tongued Dictionary records undocumented or under-documented words from the fringes of English, with a focus on slang, jargon, and new words. This site strives to record terms and expressions that are absent from, or are poorly covered in, mainstream dictionaries."
Here are my ratings:
Coverage: 2 Usability: 4 Scholarship: 4 Charm: 2 Total: 12/20, for an overall 3-star rating. BUT SEE BELOW.
Comments: My relatively low scores for coverage and charm need some explication. Paradoxically, the low score for "coverage" is actually a reflection, in this case, of the enormously broad scope of the dictionary. Candidate entries for the website, and for this book, were obtained by automated google-searching across the internet; the subsequent editing and filtering to decide what should be included in the dictionary presumably reflect Mr Barrett's judgement and personal preferences. I can hardly fault him for exercising editorial judgement, except that the result is, somehow, frustratingly unsatisfying. The net he casts is so wide, and the resulting selection so idiosyncratic, that the final result conveys a certain eccentricity, but not that much charm (despite Barrett's obvious enthusiasm and scholarship). I was left befuddled as to what the particular selection of entries in this dictionary is supposed to represent. Are they words that Barrett believes *are not yet in standard dictionaries, but ought to be? *are not yet in standard dictionaries, but are likely to be in future? *deserve broader attention (if so, why)? *merit inclusion, just because he found them neat?
It's just not clear. Many of the entries don't strike me as meeting the first two criteria at all, and a word's 'charm' is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But consider these entries;
"marbit", a marshmallow bit found in processed breakfast cereal; "godunk", a person who solicits free airplane trips (the only two citations date from 1939 and 1946); "gap out", a variant of "space out"; "FLOHPA", an acronym used to denote the swing states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania during the 2004 election (all five citations date from 2004); "dub-dub", a restaurant server (possibly specific to the TGI Friday's restaurant chain) "ding-ding", Hong Kong term for a streetcar "Califunny", a jocular or derisive name for California "land of fruit and nuts", jocular or derogatory name for California "lolicom", a Lolita complex, the attraction of older men to young girls "rinse", new Zealand prison slang for GHB "Rummy's dummies", derisive term for the U.S. military, "unass", to dismount or disembark "wet", prison slang for a recreational drug made from marijuana, PCP, and formaldehyde "in the weeds", restaurant slang for the condition of a waiter who is completely swamped "yumptious", delicious - a portmanteau of 'yummy' and 'scrumptious' "vuzvuz", derogatory term applied by Sephardic jews to Ashkenazic jews.
Do I need to explain why I find none of them even remotely interesting or clever? How about:
weirdly uninteresting specificity, only of interest to a subset of waiters and felons; built-in obsolescence, sell-by date already in the past (FLOHPA, Rummy's dummies); terminal stupidity (Califunnia? CALIFUNNIA?); needed to be executed at birth (yumptious, unass); any combination of the above reasons.
I hate to say it, but there is no obvious reason for this particular book to exist. I am forced to override my own brilliantly evenhanded scoring system and downgrade my rating to two stars. And that's being generous.
OK. It's official. Michael Dirda is awesome. He's smart, witty (but not obnoxiously so), extravagantly well-read, and writes lucidly and entertainingOK. It's official. Michael Dirda is awesome. He's smart, witty (but not obnoxiously so), extravagantly well-read, and writes lucidly and entertainingly, without condescension. Simply put, he's charming. You couldn't ask for a better Virgil to help you navigate the classics.
The list of classics discussed in this book is not your parent's list. More specifically, it is not Clifton Fadiman's list. In his introduction, Dirda pays homage to Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan", which he stumbled on as a teenager, and which guided his own reading path. He goes on to explain that Classics for Pleasure deliberately ignores most of the authors discussed by Fadiman; as these are likely to be familiar to most readers already, "it seemed more useful - and fun - to point readers to new authors and less obvious classics".
In approximately 90 essays, Dirda covers a considerable amount of ground. He groups his authors into eleven categories:
Playful Imaginations Heroes Love's Mysteries Words from the Wise Everyday Magic Lives of Consequence The Dark Side Traveler's Tales The Way We Live Now Realms of Adventure Encyclopedic Visions
Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Goethe, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Mann, and Joyce are all missing from this book. This allows Dirda to cast a broader net, including such authors as Diderot, Jaroslav Hasek, Zola, Ernst Junger, Cavafy, Spinoza, E. Nesbit, Cardano, Frederick Douglass, Sheridan LeFanu, H.P. Lovecraft, J.K. Huysmans, Elizabeth Gaskell, Zora Neale Hurston, H. Rider Haggard, G.K. Chesterton, Frazer, Malraux, Ovid, Petronius, and Philip K. Dick.
The complete list may be found in the Table of Contents, at this link:
I can't really do justice to the legerdemain that Dirda exhibits in almost every essay in the book - the way he gives you just enough background information to pique your interest, picks out just the right detail from a book, or the author's life, to get you hooked, gets in a few key insights, then exits elegantly stage right, with just the parting remark that seals the deal. Even if you had no interest at all in an author's work before reading what Dirda has to say, by the time he's done, you are likely at least to want to give it a try.
The man is a silver-tongued charmer, I tell you. And I mean that in the best possible way. ...more
What did I learn from this book? That even Nick Hornby, an author I generally quite like, is capable of PHONING IT IN, in truly shameless fashion.
If,What did I learn from this book? That even Nick Hornby, an author I generally quite like, is capable of PHONING IT IN, in truly shameless fashion.
If, like me, you chose this book because you really enjoyed its predecessor, "The Polysyllabic Spree", prepare to be disappointed. If I didn't like Hornby so much, this would be a candidate for the "intellectual con artist at work" shelf. Though the real culprits might be the McSweeneys/Believer posse. Who apparently see no problem in subtitling this volume "two years of reading begat by more reading, presented in easily digestible, utterly hysterical monthly installments". Naively, one might expect somewhere around two dozen such installments. What they fail to mention is that there are actually only 15, two of which have nothing to do with books. It appears that Hornby's relationship with his employers at "The Believer" was in more or less consistent decline over the period in question, so much so that he was suspended on several occasions, resulting in one 5-month hiatus, and several briefer one-month suspensions (these resulted in combined March/April type installments, the standard 7 pages long).
The material that is included is interesting enough, though there is a much higher proportion of general 'the dog ate my homework' kind of waffling, with correspondingly less space devoted to Hornby's thoughts and insights about books he actually read. Personally, I didn't find the seven-page justification of why he read no books at all during the month of the World Cup particularly interesting; just as his views on The Simpsons Movie left me cold. It would have been interesting to hear the gory details of his rift with "The Believer", but these are not forthcoming, though he does mutter obliquely about ongoing censorship and repeated exhortations to be nicer about the books he discusses. There are occasional titillating references to the byzantine hierarchy of relationships within the McSweeneys fortress, and of being forbidden to write about certain books based on who was currently boffing whom, but the juicy details are disappointingly absent.
The time gaps and his obviously waning interest in the project take their toll. There is very little continuity, and most of the books featured in the "books bought" columns are never discussed at all.
With fewer than 100 pages of material actually devoted to books, the $14 price tag and misleading representation of the book's content seem like an impudence on McSweeneys' part. Hornby surely deserves some of the blame as well.
Physicists may have been the scientific superstars of the 20th century, but it's the biologists that dominate as we enter the new millennium. AdvancesPhysicists may have been the scientific superstars of the 20th century, but it's the biologists that dominate as we enter the new millennium. Advances in molecular biology and genetics, including the sequencing of the human genome, allow scientists to understand human disease and aging at a level of detail that would have been unimaginable just a generation ago. This has led to significant medical breakthroughs, but has also raised a variety of questions to be grappled with, both at the individual and societal level.
A short list might include: *genetic testing for diseases for which no effective therapy may exist *embryonic selection based on genetic profiling *confidentiality of patient records and insurability issues *individualization of therapy according to a patient's genetic profile *ethical issues arising from advances in infertility and embryonic stem cell research *the potential to prolong human life beyond 'natural' limits *greater ability to perform successful organ transplantation *genetic engineering and the creation of hybrid species, up to and including the possibility of human cloning.
“Masterminds” is journalist David Ewing Duncan’s flawed effort to illuminate the frontiers of modern biology – specifically, current efforts in genetics, molecular biology, and the latest advances in biomedical research which result. He does this by profiling seven of the most prominent scientists in the field: James Watson, Craig Venter, Francis Collins, Sydney Brenner, Cynthia Kenyon, Douglas Melton, and Paul Berg. Given that Duncan appears to have had unlimited access to, and full cooperation from, his subjects, this approach is not without promise.
The extent to which that promise is fulfilled depends, of course, on how well Duncan used the opportunity that his access to these brilliant scientists afforded him. Sadly, the answer appears to be – not particularly well. He does have a reporter’s natural curiosity and a decent ability to explain relevant scientific concepts in layman’s terms, traits which serve him well in his efforts. He does not, however, have a particularly subtle mind, which prevents him from following through beyond the initial, fairly obvious questions, and reaching a more nuanced characterization of the limits of current understanding and of future challenges. Nor does he do a particularly good job of navigating his interviews with the strong, often outsized, personalities profiled in the book. Ultimately, most of these profiles are an unilluminating rehash of the media cliches through which scientists like Watson, Venter, Collins, and Brenner are usually portrayed.
This failure is directly attributable to a disastrous choice that Duncan makes at the outset. Unwilling to let his subjects speak for themselves, he insists on superimposing a stale, reductive gimmick – that of assigning to each scientist the persona of a mythological or literary archetype. Thus, the following correspondences are forced on his unfortunate subjects:
James Watson is Zeus Cynthia Kenyon is Eve Craig Venter is Faust Sydney Brenner is Puck Douglas Melton is Prometheus Francis Collins is Saint Paul Paul Berg is Moses
This works about as well as you might imagine. It is lazy, reductive, and virtually guarantees that nothing that any of his subjects might say is allowed to interfere with the box into which Duncan, a modern Procrustes, has forced each of them.
One can understand the reporter being seduced by his own gimmick. But what was his editor thinking?
An anthology where writers inspect their navels and brood about how hard it is to be a writer in these "unreaderly times".
Hmmm. What's the appropriatAn anthology where writers inspect their navels and brood about how hard it is to be a writer in these "unreaderly times".
Hmmm. What's the appropriate response to such an enormous bolus of self-absorbed whining? How about "Cry me a f**ing river!".
Oh, not all of the pieces are dreadful. Sure, there is the expected dreck from the inexcusable, untalented pond scum that is Neal Pollock. Vacuous inanities from people I had never heard of before reading this book, but now know to avoid: Glen David Gold, Benjamin Nugent, Tom Bissell, Robert Lanham, Dan Kennedy. But partial redemption is offered by Paul Collins, Nell Freudenberger, Vivien Mejia, Meghan Daum, and K.M. Sohnlein. In general, the women contributors to this collection are considerably less obviously self-absorbed and way less obnoxious than the men.
On balance, it's hard to find a reason to give this book anything other than the most lukewarm of recommendations....more
This is a perfectly respectable collection of quotations. Anyone expecting it to live up to the sheer brilliance of the Q.I. television show will be dThis is a perfectly respectable collection of quotations. Anyone expecting it to live up to the sheer brilliance of the Q.I. television show will be disappointed, however. Their sales pitch is that it is a cut above all other such collections (they don't explicitly say "because we're smarter", but that's obviously what they mean).
It's not. There are some gems, some duds among the quotations. But here is an example of where they follow the Q.I. pattern (which is to avoid the standard, expected answer, in favor of something more esoteric and interesting). Under the index heading "daffodils" there are five quotations. But - because they're all sophisticated-like, and smarter than your average bear - Wordsworth is never mentioned.
Why do I feel the entire "daffodils" section was constructed and inserted to make exactly that point. Why does any book of quotations need five entries for "daffodil"?
It's not a bad book, but it's not a particularly good one either. But you should still seek out the Q.I. shows on YouTube. Most are awesome....more
Pretty much mirrors my experience with George Saunders's other books - when he is good, he is very very good indeed. But there are some duds to balancPretty much mirrors my experience with George Saunders's other books - when he is good, he is very very good indeed. But there are some duds to balance out the good stuff....more
There are exactly two faintly positive things I can say about this book, so let's get them out of the way.
i. It was mercifully short. ii. It wasn't quiThere are exactly two faintly positive things I can say about this book, so let's get them out of the way.
i. It was mercifully short. ii. It wasn't quite dreadful enough to go on the 'utter dreck' shelf, though its brevity may have been a key mitigating factor.
Although it didn't quite make the 'utter dreck' cut, it was an overhyped, forgettable waste of time. One of those books where, when I read the glowing reviews it has garnered from others, I feel that maybe I live in a parallel universe. I mean, look at everything that the book has going against it:
* it's a first person monolog by Bennie, a writer and translator * Bennie takes a look back at the mess he's made of his life * he's a failed poet * a failed alcoholic poet * who suffers from terminal omphaloskepsis (OK, no more airport jokes, I promise!) and logorrhea, a combination that bodes ill for the reader * Bennie has poor impulse control, which unfortunately leads to * way too many barroom brawl scenes, which are nowhere near as fascinating as the author appears to think; * introducing New Orleans as a backdrop to spice things up might have worked for John Kennedy Toole; here it smacks of sweaty desperation * Bennie done his woman wrong; calling her Stella and giving him a locked-outside-the-house-drunk-in-the-alley-scene goes well beyond sweaty desperation and crosses right over into bankrupt imagination territory * Bennie done wrong by his daughter too. And by his second wife. But I think we could have guessed that * padding out Bennie's tale of woe by including big chunks of the book he is translating (from Polish), giving a second narrative that unfolds in parallel, sounds like a real neat idea in theory * but all it did was muddle a story that already had way too many flashbacks even more
The "trapped in O' Hare" aspect of the book is appropriate, however. Because the sensation I had the entire time reading it was the overwhelmingly claustrophobic feeling of being trapped next to a drunken, boorish loudmouth, intent on boring me with every last insignificant detail of everything that had ever happened to him in his insanely uninteresting, fucked-up cliche of a life.
There must be something wrong with me that I actually finished it.
(Bold type indicates a word, phrase, or cliche I've always wanted to use in a review)...more
I may revisit the 5-star rating in a week or two, but after reading this book through all last night in a single sitting,Initial review: 12/11/2008 -
I may revisit the 5-star rating in a week or two, but after reading this book through all last night in a single sitting, it seems ungenerous to give it anything less.
Muriel Barbery walks the high-wire throughout - there were any number of places where things could have degenerated into mere sentimentality. Not to mention the assorted philosophical digressions. But the alternating narrators - Renee the dumpy concierge and Paloma the precocious 12-year old - are so charming that I just went with the flow. I granted Mme Barbery my willing suspension of disbelief, trusting that I was in good hands.
And Muriel, God bless her, delivered the goods. An enormously satisfying ending to a highly unusual book.
Now that the book has been translated into English, it seems highly likely that Oprah will pick it. It would be a shame to hold that against it.
Well, the five stars didn't even last 24 hours. Although I was swept up enough by the book to read it in one sitting - which should be acknowledged as a major point in the book's favor, by the way - some of its weaknesses become evident upon reflection. Unlike some of the other reviewers, the fairly hefty dollop of implausibility attached to the two protagonists didn't bother me all that much - the author is constructing a kind of fable, after all. But it has to be said that the way Barbery plonks in whole pages of ponderous ruminations on art, philosophy, Japan-worship, just like that is (a) a completely intrusive artifice and (b) a huge structural weakness. Aren't authors suppose to show and not tell?
Then, too, my inner cynic has to cavil just a little bit at the unlikely perfection of the emotional harmonic convergence towards the book's ending. Mr Ozu seems more than a little too good to be true. And, for that matter, once you get away from the hypnotically, charmingly persuasive voices of the two narrators, the thought might cross your mind that maybe the other residents of the building aren't quite the shallow monsters they are made out to be throughout the book. Maybe the much maligned older sister, Colombe, deserves a break as well.
The moral of this story is that I should impose a 24-hour waiting period before assigning ratings. I still give "hedgehog" a strong recommendation, though....more
Hmmm. I'm not sure why this seemed interesting to me as I was prowling the back alleys of Amazon late one night. There was certainly adequate warningHmmm. I'm not sure why this seemed interesting to me as I was prowling the back alleys of Amazon late one night. There was certainly adequate warning that it was basically a repackaging of someone's doctoral dissertation.
Maybe it was because I loved "The Citadel" at whatever impressionable age I read it.
It wasn't screamingly dreadful. At least Phillip A. Scott had the common decency to avoid any kind of hideous postmodern jargon, writing for the most part in simple declarative sentences. Unfortunately, if one were in search of epiphanies about the medical research novel (in English or German), it might be more fruitful just to read Sinclair Lewis's "Arrowsmith", or a couple of A.J. Cronin books and figure it out for oneself. Piercing insights are kind of thin on the ground in Phillip A. Scott's analysis.
But he was quite coherent, and managed to write for over 100 pages without saying anything truly offensive or obnoxious, which earns him two stars. Sadly, what he had to say wasn't really sufficiently interesting to merit a third.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the highly entertaining, albeit decidedly weird, cover that Bowling Green State University Press (or somebody) have chosen to adorn Scott's nugget of erudition. A slightly deranged older physician, a dead ringer for Brahms, stands over a patient 'etherized upon a table'. Her pre-Raphaelite tresses hang down to the side - we cannot tell if she lives or dies. But what is that in the doc's left hand? Why, yes - it's a human heart!! See for yourself:
You have to feel a little bit sorry for Ed Park, that his book came out roughly a year after Joshua Ferris's infinitely superior "Then We Came to theYou have to feel a little bit sorry for Ed Park, that his book came out roughly a year after Joshua Ferris's infinitely superior "Then We Came to the End". The similarities are staggering - the milieu and plot of both books are virtually identical -- a Chicago/Manhattan advertising/graphic design office, staffed by assorted twenty- and thirty-something professionals, dealing with successive rounds of layoffs and the resulting paranoia. Not only that, use of a 3rd person plural narrative voice and deadpan gossipy tone throughout much of Park's book make parts of it almost indistinguishable from Ferris's.
The differences, unfortunately, almost all work in Ferris's favor. Park's book suffers from a glaring lack of character development - none of the characters who make up the collective narrative voice are developed to a sufficient degree of individuality to allow the reader to distinguish among them, let alone care about their fate. Ferris managed to rise above this trap and ultimately wrote a book that packed a surprising emotional wallop. It's impossible to feel much for Park's thinly limned characters - and the final stream-of-consciousness soliloquy by Jonah, trapped in the belly of the elevator, addressed as an apology to Prue, just left this reader wondering: "which one was Prue again?".
Park does have a keen ear for the linguistic atrocities of the workplace, and the book has its share of hilariously on-target skewering of management guru platitudes. But ultimately, it all adds up to nothing of interest, since the author fails to provide characters with genuine emotional depth.
The failure of this book makes one realize once again the impressive nature of Joshua Ferris's accomplishment.
This book is a perfect illustration of the hazards of visiting the second-hand bookstore. I mean, here I am, with around 170 books on my "owned but noThis book is a perfect illustration of the hazards of visiting the second-hand bookstore. I mean, here I am, with around 170 books on my "owned but not yet read" shelf, almost any of which deserves a higher priority than this. A collection of pieces by Gore Vidal published in 1968, for chrissakes. How is that gonna help my glittering, Christmas party book chit-chat cred? Meanwhile, those Savage Detectives have slid back down to the middle of the pile, joined by the mind-improving history of the Spanish civil war, a certain man of La Mancha and sundry residents of the village of Combray. Not to mention those apparently infinite jests, Infinite Jest and The Recognitions.
But Vidal is irresistible. It’s refreshing to read material by someone with a subtle mind and an extensive vocabulary, who deploys both without apology or condescension. His style is engaging – he has an ability to make his point clearly, without beating the reader over the head. You may not agree with what he has to say, but you won’t have any difficulty figuring out what he means.
This collection contains reviews of works by Susan Sontag, John O’ Hara, John Hersey, J.K. Galbraith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edith Nesbit, and Henry Miller. In addition, there are roughly half a dozen general essays discussing such topics as the state of the novel, censorship laws, pornography, public television, the Kennedys, and the 1968 Republican convention. Vidal doesn’t pull punches in these reviews, but they seem remarkably even-handed to me. Although his criticism can be blunt, it never comes across as personal, and he seems to go out of his way to point out each author’s strengths, as far as possible. In the preface, Vidal acknowledges that his reviews are reputed to be “harsh”, but counters that he is “blunt about issues, not people”. He admits to having been “too unkind” in the piece on John Hersey, (who had apparently wanted to sue him) – I thought the review was actually right on the mark.
“To give Mr Hersey his due .... he is good-hearted, right-minded, and ... tireless. Unfortunately, he is almost always dull, and this dullness is not easily accounted for, since he deals with interesting subjects.
The Hersey technique is, simply, to collect an immense amount of data, then use most of it. ...To what end does Mr Hersey in his level, fact-choked style insist that we attend these various disasters human and natural? Admittedly the simple declarative sentences are excellent at conveying action, ... but they are hopeless at expressing a moral point of view, even by indirection. ... he does little but feed us facts in the worst tradition of those often useful but invariably overwritten profiles of the obscure with which the New Yorker has for years burdened our era’s social archives ...”
Vidal is absolutely right. Hersey’s writing is overladen with irrelevant detail, and disappointingly boring, given the potential for his subject matter to be riveting. Vidal writes with equal perspicacity about the other authors reviewed in this collection. His iconoclastic remarks about the Kennedy dynasty may not have earned him much gratitude in 1968, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.
What Gore Vidal had to say forty years ago about Susan Sontag, John Hersey, E. Nesbit, J.K. Galbraith, and Henry Miller is probably not of interest to very many readers in 2008, but a reasonable case could be made that it should be. Good writing never goes out of fashion. ...more
I was referred to M.J. Hyland, an author I hadn't previously heard of, by the algorithm at gnooks.com. I found this boo Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland.
I was referred to M.J. Hyland, an author I hadn't previously heard of, by the algorithm at gnooks.com. I found this book quite disturbing when I read it, so much so that I felt I needed some distance before I could articulate my thoughts about it in a review.
A couple of months later, I think I have a better understanding of why I found the book so disturbing. Some basic information about the book: it's a first-person account, in the voice of 12-year old John Egan, a precocious only child, of a difficult year in the life of his family. Without giving away too much of the plot, his unemployed father alienates John’s (maternal) grandmother, in whose County Wexford house the family is living, they are forced to move to Dublin, where they spend some time staying with John’s aunt and uncle, before being placed in welfare housing in Ballymun, a notorious high-rise slum on the outskirts of Dublin. Building tensions within the family reach a disturbing climax, which causes John’s grandmother to re-evaluate and rescind the family’s initial banishment. The story ends with the family’s return to the Wexford house; whether this represents a lasting resolution of their problems is anything but clear.
All these experiences are filtered through the perspective of John’s 12-year old’s take on events. By choosing to tell the story in the voice of this consummate unreliable narrator, Hyland sets herself a challenge that ultimately becomes a trap from which she doesn’t really manage to escape. Some quirks of John’s character are believable (his conviction that he has ‘superhuman’ lie-detecting abilities, and his obsession with having these documented in the Guinness Book of Records), but his Asperger-like tics and increasingly obvious inability to read the limited information available to him correctly make it increasingly difficult for the reader to figure out exactly what is happening. Hyland’s way of getting around this trap of her own devising is –- it took me a while to realise this, and I suspect she may not have realised it –- to have the various adults in the story interact with John in a way that is actually completely implausible for a child of his age. There are scenes between John and each of his parents which leave you shaking your head in disbelief. This further undermines the credibility of the story. Another major problem is that Hyland’s depiction of attitudes and behavior in Irish society at the time (the 1970s) seems off by at least 20 years; that is, she imputes behavior of her own generation to that of her parents.
All of this makes the climactic events in the book just not credible. The violent eruption in Ballymun is overwrought, and the resolution too pat. So that this ambitious, deeply flawed, novel fails to rise above the level of ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.
Reading various newspaper reviews of “Carry Me Down” suggests that mine is a minority view. So, as always, your mileage may vary. ...more
I was so impressed by the collection of Orwell's essays I read a few months ago, and by "Homage to Catalonia", that when I came across the 4-volume coI was so impressed by the collection of Orwell's essays I read a few months ago, and by "Homage to Catalonia", that when I came across the 4-volume collection of his non-fiction remaindered in the bookstore, it was a no-brainer to buy the whole set. A preliminary glance at the material in this book supports the notion that it is in his short non-fiction pieces that Orwell truly excels, rather than in the two novels for which he is most famous.
"Limits of Language" arrived today from Amazon. I've never smoked crack, but reading this book approximates what I imagine it would feel like -- an in"Limits of Language" arrived today from Amazon. I've never smoked crack, but reading this book approximates what I imagine it would feel like -- an initial rush of pure pleasure, followed by the irresistible craving for just one more bump, yielding to that craving over and over until - six hours later - you find yourself surrounded by cats not fed, laundry not done, unwashed dishes, unpaid bills, and yet you still can't stop yourself. You want more. You want it to last forever. Damn you, Mikael Parkvall! How could you write a book that caters so brilliantly to my utter fascination with words and all things language-related? And be so smart and funny too?
I just tore myself away to feed the cats and pass this message along to goodreads members. There are still three shopping weeks until Christmas. Nobody else appears to be listing this book. So - if you know anyone with an interest in words or language - buy them a copy. Their puppy-like gratitude will last all year. Heck, now that it's out in paperback, you can get your own copy for less than twenty bucks.
A pdf preview of the detailed table of contents and the first 19 pages is here:
The table of contents at the link above is very detailed, but fails to capture the author's wit, and the sheer geekish zaniness of some of the topics. Some highlights -
A 30-page "linguist's calendar", marking the anniversary of various linguistic milestones (e.g. 'birth of Kanzi, the most talking ape there is';'the Dalmatian language becomes extinct, when the last surviving speaker accidentally steps on a landmine') giving linguists an excuse to celebrate throughout the year.
Habla Usted Phrase-Bookish? A side-splitting selection of useless phrases culled from phrasebooks around the world. For instance - "At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?" "I have my own syringe". "The beast had a human body, the feet of a buck, and a horn on its head". "I don't play the violin, but I love cheese".
Untranslatable Words: e.g. the Kuot word aFone "to drink from a bottle in such a fashion that drool trickles from the mouth back into the bottle", the Czech umudrovat se "to philosophize oneself into the madhouse", or the Ciluba word ilunga "a person who is willing to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time".
Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to reading about the word's most dadaistic verb morphology*.
I don't play the violin, but I LOVE this book!
* Oh, OK. Here is the paragraph in question:
Linguists are supposed to take languages seriously. We are not supposed to laugh at them. So, apologies to all Kobon speakers out there, but I just can't help it. The prize for the language with the verb morphology most looking like it had been thought up by Tristan Tzara must go to Kobon. If there are any sceptics among the readers, here follows the suffixal paradigm for the counterfactual mood in Kobon: 1sg -- bnep 1du -- blop 1pl -- bnop 2sg -- bnap 2du -- blep 2pl -- bep 3sg -- böp 3du -- blep 3pl -- blap
This collection delivers everything that was missing from the 2008 essay anthology edited by Adam Gopnik. The writing is crisp and engaging throughoutThis collection delivers everything that was missing from the 2008 essay anthology edited by Adam Gopnik. The writing is crisp and engaging throughout, with very few exceptions. What really sets it apart though are the topics discussed. The best pieces in the book -- Jane Meyer's "The Black Sites" (on CIA interrogations post 9/11); Joshua Kors on the denial of medical and disability benefits to Iraq veterans; George Packer's scathing account of the shameful betrayal by the U.S. government of the Iraqi interpreters who had provided invaluable help at great personal risk; Steve Oney's profile of one young marine who served and died in Iraq -- derive their power from the writers' outrage at the events being described. There is none of the "look at me, what a terrible life I've had" solipsism that contaminated so many of the essays in Gopnik's collection. Instead, the reader is led to understand, through detailed consideration of some very specific cases, just how devastating the consequences can be when a government and its military pursue an ill-considered strategic objective, with little or no attention to practical issues of implementation, and scant regard for the welfare of the very people trying to execute it.
The four pieces dealing with Iraq alone would make the book worthwhile. But they are joined by five equally fine pieces:
# Mike Kessler on the failure of the federal government to honor its promise to compensate cancer-stricken workers who assembled nuclear bombs at the Rocky Flats plant near Denver. # Jeanne Marie Laskas writing about the lives of coalminers in south-eastern Ohio. # Paige Williams's account of a teenage refugee from Burundi who has to rebuild her life from nothing in Atlanta. # Peter Hessler writing about China's economic transformation ("China's Instant Cities"). # William Langewiesche reporting on how a gang of criminals reduced Sao Paolo to a state of chaos for a 7-day period in May 2006, in a coordinated attack so fierce it took the police a week to mount a credible response.
All nine of these pieces benefit not only from excellent writing; it is obvious that each was based on exhaustive, on-the-ground, research and reporting. The book has more to offer: interspersed with the longer pieces of "serious" reporting there are some very funny essays:
"I am Joe's Prostate" (Thomas E. Kennedy) "The Autumn of the Multitaskers" (Walter Kirn) "So Many Men's Rooms, So Little Time" (Christopher Hitchens)
as well as short pieces on the Obama and Clinton presidential campaigns, the financial meltdown, and Ken Burn's WWII documentary, by Matt Taibbi, Hendrik Hertzberg, Kurt Andersen and Tom Carson, respectively.
There were only three of the twenty pieces in the collection that I found weak -- Vanessa Grigoriadis on the media-gossip blog Gawker.com, Caitlin Flanagan's somewhat aimless remarks about the risk posed by online predators, and Matthew Scully's risible mudslinging at his former speechwriting colleague in the Bush White House about who deserved credit for exactly which piece of turgid, forgettable pablum inflicted on the nation by President Bush over the last eight years. Scully's delusion that this is something worth bickering over, or something that more than a dozen people might care about, is so surreal it's almost endearing. If he weren't so ridiculously petty.
The final piece in the book is Evan Wright's long (70-page) profile, "Pat Dollard's War on Hollywood", which I haven't yet had the chance to read. Nonetheless, the overall quality of the other pieces is so high that I don't hesitate to give this book a four-star rating....more
Where's the option for 3.5 stars when you need it?
Points in this book's favor -
It's short, and very readable. In the second of two introductions, WoWhere's the option for 3.5 stars when you need it?
Points in this book's favor -
It's short, and very readable. In the second of two introductions, Wood promises to be "mindful of the common reader" and to try to "reduce .. the scholastic stink to bearable levels". He does a commendable job of keeping his promise.
Wood's enthusiasm for reading is evident throughout, and is infectious. The strongest aspect of the book are the many specific examples that Wood provides of what works and doesn't work in fiction. Refreshingly, the ratio of positive to negative examples is high, so that we are treated to eloquence inspired by enthusiasm, rather than critical disregard, for the most part. His insights on Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov (to name just a few) prompt me to go back and (re)read the work in question.
On the other hand -
Although I didn't find his style overtly pompous, there is an inescapable aura that one is reading dispatches from what Walter Kirn, in his wicked New York Times takedown*, refers to as "someone who has attained the detached, big-picture perspective of an orbiting critical satellite". A slightly offputting air of omniscience.
An enthusiasm for Flaubert (and, to a lesser extent, Henry James) that borders on burbling adulation. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but when coupled with what appears to be a blanket dislike for almost everything even remotely postmodern, one begins to feel that Wood might be a helpful guide only for a certain subclass of fiction. David Foster Wallace, for example, gets dissed several times throughout the book, with little recognition of his considerable talent and influence. Of the 90 or so works referred to in the book, only 20 date from 1965 or later.
On balance, though, I very much enjoyed the book. For a perfectly valid, and thoroughly amusing, view to the contrary, see Walter Kirn's NYT review at the link below.
We know that it's possible to write entertainingly about the process of writing a dictionary -- Simon Winchester has done it twice. Henry Hitchings doWe know that it's possible to write entertainingly about the process of writing a dictionary -- Simon Winchester has done it twice. Henry Hitchings doesn't have the knack. The word that comes to mind that best describes this book is "plodding".
The copy I bought was remaindered at $3.88. I can't say I was surprised. A dull, pedestrian, aimless book. Though I dare say the scholarship was accurate.
Hitchings has recently come out with another book: "The Secret Life of Words". According to The New Yorker , "Hitchings offers a rich array of anecdotes and extracts, but the absence of a strong over-all argument deprives his account of momentum".
If you're looking for a present for the word addict on your holiday gift list, "Alphabet Juice", by Roy Blount Junior, looks to be a better bet (based on the first chapter, which I read in the New York Times)....more
I thought this was a pretty disappointing effort this year. But this may simply be a reflection of the fact that Adam Gopnik gets on my last nerve. HiI thought this was a pretty disappointing effort this year. But this may simply be a reflection of the fact that Adam Gopnik gets on my last nerve. His meandering, pretentious introduction is a painful reminder of just how much David Foster Wallace's brilliance, wit, and low tolerance for bullshit will be missed (DFW was last year's editor).
Really slim pickings this year. I'd break it down roughly as follows.
Brilliant: Anthony Lane on the Leica camera; Hugh Raffles on cricket fighting in Shanghai
Engaging: Atul Gawande on geriatric medicine; Emily Grosholz on necklaces
Moving personal reminiscence: separate essays by Patricia Brieschke and Bernard Cooper, though be warned that each documents the horrific suffering of a terminally ill child and life-partner respectively.
Personal reminiscence that was only mildly amusing: Ariel Levy ("The lesbian bride's handbook"); David Sedaris mining his adolescence for yuks according to his standard formula (if you've read any of his previous books, you probably could have written the essay yourself)
Personal reminiscence that, although I know that I was supposed to be moved, just came across as whiny, self-pitying and ultimately annoying:
Lauren Slater (mommy issues and homesickness at summer camp: when she started "shuddering with grief", I lost interest) and - hey - I'm sorry that Lee Zacharias's father shot himself and that she seems to be obsessing about vultures, but I think her interspersed flashbacks about her family and assorted vulture/buzzard facts were just creepily embarrassing, and certainly no fun to read.
"Quirky" essays that flopped (the reader understands that the author is enthusiastic about the topic, but the author fails to engage or persuade the reader):
Albert Goldbarth on science-fiction comics of the 1950's; Sam Shaw on trying to attain transcendence through extreme long-distance running; John Updike (?!) on dinosaurs (it's only my admiration for Updike as a critic that is keeping this out of the "embarrassing" category)
Reasonable idea, execution marred by excessive cleverness, smugness, or implied condescension (the 'elite writing for the elite' tone):
Jonathan Lethem on plagiarism (some interesting points, buried in 30 pages of undisciplined prose); Louis Menand ("Notable Quotables"); Ander Monson ("Solipsism" - a thin idea, pushed way too far)
Cringeworthy, embarrassing, annoying, and/or just plain stupid:
Rick Moody "On Celestial Music" Rich Cohen on how his neighbors reacted when he grew a Hitler moustache (Not well? Gee! You don't say. THIS makes it into the top 21 essays of the year. Hmmm. Let me think about that) Joe Wenderoth on -- well, it's hard to know WTF it was about, actually. Something to do with a strip club - he can't have been sober when he wrote it, that's for sure.
The remaining two essays, by Jamal Mahjoub and Charles Simic were inoffensive, but also completely unmemorable.
You see why I am so annoyed at Adam Gopnik? He forces me to be mean in public.
Give this one a miss. 2 out of 21 home runs is pathetic. You may think I'm being unduly harsh. But there was very little joy in reading this book. Life is short. We have a right to expect more joy than is provided by this sorry collection.
Now, here's the good news. Probably right next to this volume, on the same shelf in the bookstore, you are likely to find a book called "The Best American Magazine Writing 2008". It's roughly twice the length of the Gopnik disappointment, and is introduced by Jacob Weisberg. It might cost you a few bucks more. No matter. Buy it! I will explain why in a separate review later on today.
This wasn't quite as brilliant as the first chapter, included as teaser in the New Work Times book review a few weeks ago, led me to expect. But thereThis wasn't quite as brilliant as the first chapter, included as teaser in the New Work Times book review a few weeks ago, led me to expect. But there is plenty of good stuff to cheer and amuse the reader.
The book is formatted like a dictionary, in which each entry is an idiosyncratic riff by Blount on some aspect of the alphabet, words, the English language, language generally, or English usage. (Blount is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary usage panel.)
What do I mean by 'idiosyncratic riff'? Here is a representative sample:
Why do so many reduplicative expressions (e.g. heebie-jeebies) in English begin with 'h' than with any other letter? (with an impressive list of 54 examples) Origins of the word 'mansuetude'. Menu-ese: language atrocities culled from menus. Goldwynisms; The (non)-admissibility of 'hopefully': Blount comes down squarely against it. (A position I disagree with - it seems to me to fill the same need as its German equivalent - "hoffentlich" - and Blount's charges of ambiguity seem unconvincing to me). Synesthesia. Great one-word, two-word, and three-word sentences; e.g. 'Fuhgeddaboudit', 'Nooses give', 'Omit needless words'. Ruminations on each of the individual letters of the alphabet.
To me, Blount's thoughts about the individual letters of the alphabet were hit-or-miss, with more misses than hits. Another recurring theme of his which was reasonably amusing the first couple of times he brought it up, much less so the fifteenth, was the property he refers to by the cutesy-irritating coinage 'sonicky'. Blount uses it to mean a broader kind of onomatopoeia - a 'sonicky' word is one which is acoustically appropriate to its meaning. As examples he cites 'chunky', 'squeeze', 'foist'. The concept didn't bother me particularly, but Blount's obsessive returning to it every few pages got old really fast, and the term 'sonicky' should have been put down at birth. My final complaint about "Alphabet Juice" is the unforgivable lack of an index - a lazy, annoying omission.
But this is mere caviling. These are minor flaws in a book which has more than its share of highly amusing entries. Blount's enthusiasm for language, and his appreciation for its oddities, are infectious.
This would make a good gift for any language-lover on your Christmas list. That is, assuming he or she already owns the five-star "Limits of Language" by Mikael Parkvall:
Oh my God! This arrived from Amazon and I just couldn't stop reading it. It's hilarious, outrageous, informative, entertaining, and Pope Brock, despitOh my God! This arrived from Amazon and I just couldn't stop reading it. It's hilarious, outrageous, informative, entertaining, and Pope Brock, despite his alarmingly ravaged looking jacket photograph, writes like an angel. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he has just the right demonic skill as a writer to do justice to his subject.
Goat testicles! Monkey glands! A larger than life scoundrel ("Doctor" J.R. Brinkley) with his own personal Inspector Javert (famed quackbuster Morris Fishbein). Dirty campaign tactics! Just what *is* the matter with Kansas anyway? The birth of FM radio. Country music, the Carter Family, and the blues.
Will Dr Fishbein, head of the American Medical Association, be able to take down J.R. Brinkley, the consummate charlatan of the age, before the count of the maimed and the dead gets completely out of hand? Follow their astonishing 20-year cat and mouse game to its nailbiting courtroom showdown. You couldn't ask for a better guide than Pope Brock, who captures the outrageousness of this hilarious, horrifying story brilliantly, with just the right kind of sly wit. I cannot avoid the dreaded cliche - it's a freakin' "tour-de-force".
Hands down the most entertaining book I've read all year.
(With special cameo appearances by W.B. Yeats and H.L. Mencken). ...more
The title sums up the premise of Glassner's book fairly accurately. He makes some valid points throughout the book, but they ultimately get lost, dueThe title sums up the premise of Glassner's book fairly accurately. He makes some valid points throughout the book, but they ultimately get lost, due to a lack of organization, signposting, and an overarching tendency simply to pick holes in the arguments of others without really stating his own position very clearly.
The book also lacks any kind of structural coherence - the chapters are more like scattered essays with no real unifying concept. The opening and closing chapters are generally concerned with establishing that much of the received wisdom about food (recommended daily allowances, epidemiological claims that a given food is harmful, the demonization of McDonald's and fast food generally, overblown claims linking obesity to mortality) is highly questionable. But two chapters in the middle of the book - "Restaurant Heaven" and "The Food Adventurers" - seem completely out of place, being little more than a catalog of memorable meals the author has been privileged to enjoy in various fancy restaurants. One doesn't begrudge Glassner his dream dinners prepared by Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller, but the rapturous descriptions included here are a pointless self-indulgence. And I think most of us don't need to have it pointed out that restaurant critics are likely to get better meals and service than your average nondescript diner.
In the end, this book was annoying, in that the valid points that Glassner has to make get lost in a welter of irrelevant detail and poor organization.
I waver between 2 and 3 stars, but ultimately give it 3; despite the distraction of the "Restaurant Heaven" chapter, the points made in the opening and closing chapters are worthwhile....more
In the weeks before the election, as the financial crisis spun ever farther out of control and the pundits' shrieks grew ever more shrill, I browsed tIn the weeks before the election, as the financial crisis spun ever farther out of control and the pundits' shrieks grew ever more shrill, I browsed through "Popular Delusions.." and found solace. Charles Mackay's extraordinary survey of the various manifestations of mass hysteria throughout history cannot help but offer perspective. He reminds us that, no matter how batshit crazy a particular fad might seem, it's already been done by our ancestors. There is truly nothing new under the sun; the catalog of human daftness, though entertainingly long and varied, is nonetheless finite.
It's all here in Mackay's book, laid out with a kind of detached amusement that leaves no doubt as to where the author stands.
Market craziness got you down? It may cheer you up to read about the Mississippi scheme that wrought such havoc on the French treasury in the 18th century, while the South Sea Bubble engulfed the English, or to refresh your memory on Holland's infamous Tulipomanic excesses.
Three of the longer sections of the book are devoted to alchemy, the crusades, and witch-hunting. By the accumulation of examples and anecdotes across the geographical and historical spectrum (i.e. from different times and places), Mackay demonstrates that human folly remains a constant down the ages. He doesn't beat us over the head with this message - he simply assembles the data, with no overt analysis, and leaves us to draw the inevitable conclusion.
Most of your favorite targets are discussed in the book: eschatological prophets, fortune tellers, spiritualists, mediums, and the good Dr Mesmer and his imitators. The anecdotes are often hilarious, even more so because of Mackay's tone of dry amusement. But he knows when to administer the coup de grace, as for example, when he shows how easy it is to attribute post hoc meaning to the notoriously vague quatrains of Nostradamus. One can only wish that the folks at The History Channel would read these sections and take them to heart.
Shorter chapters are interspersed on topics as diverse as the wave of spouse-poisoning that swept through the courts of Europe in the 17th century, the influence of politics and religion on men's hair and beard styles, haunted houses, popular admiration of great thieves, duels, relics, and the sudden rise and fall of certain catchphrases or songs in big cities. (Yadda yadda yadda, anyone?)
This book is ideal for browsing. It's all pretty interesting stuff, presented clearly and wittily. You can learn quite a bit and enjoy yourself doing so - what's not to like?
This book deserves its status as a classic....more