Recommended Reading: Mr. Sammler’s Planet

sammlerIt’s been a year since I read this review in City Journal of Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s 1970 masterpiece, Mr. Sammler’s Planet.  That’s how long something has to stand in line when it gets onto my to do list. 

This young curmudgeon loved every page.  The City Journal review lauds it largely for its precision in describing the squalid conditions of late-60’s/early 70’s New York City.  The first chapter, especially, is a delicately, surgically rendered reproduction of a previously fine world that’s fraying, splitting, flying to pieces. 

After about fifty pages I regretted reading a library copy and not buying it, because almost every page had these exquisitely quotable axioms about life that seemed like natural landmarks.  I wanted to underline them and keep them.  They belong in a museum.  Here’s just one: “Perhaps when people are so desperately impotent they play that instrument, the personality, louder and wilder.”  Yes. 

This is also the most literate, philosophical book I’ve ever read.  Usages of classic literature appear almost as frequently as the word “the.”  Not just references–usages.  No name dropping, but elements of everything from Norse mythology to Ulysses integrated into the text, gorgeously. 

That actually leads to the book’s only soft spot: Continue reading


Reviewed: James Joyce, by Edna O’Brien

joyceThis little biography is no encyclopedia entry on James Joyce, no dry recitation of the vital statistics, listing facts and just getting the job done.  Irish writer Edna O’Brien loves James Joyce, may well be in love with him, and that worshipful adoration shines on every page of her story of his life. 

O’Brien frequently quotes critics of Joyce’s, then skewers their interpretations with the defensiveness of a mother bear protecting her cub.  This emotionally invested element is part of what makes James Joyce such a refreshing work. 

The other major factor in its success is O’Brien’s writing: she’s no mere dispassionate acolyte, but a full-blown disciple.  Her style is fiercely tempered in the crucible of her master.  O’Brien’s prose is a gorgeous, flowing fountain of wordplay, a worthy tribute to Joyce and the only truly appropriate vehicle for telling his story.  Though she rarely quotes him directly, she alludes to his language often, weaving it into the fabric of her own tapestry. 

Consider this bit of O’Brien, waxing poetic about Joyce’s composition:

to grind up words in order to extract their substance, or to graft one on to another to  create crossbreeds and unknown variations, to marry sounds which were not usually joined; assembling and dissembling, forever.

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Pun Good Turn…

Thanks again to the good folks over at Arts & Letters Daily for linking to this delightful piece where an African immigrant opines on the surprising animosity America has towards puns.  The essay is not only a worthy appreciation of punning, but a lucid work of style in its own right.  (Local note: author Teju Cole makes heavy use of Nigerian poet and playwright Wole Soyinak, a Nobel laureate and apparently an inveterate punster.  Soyinka has been associated with UNLV for several years.  Strangely, though, there’s not a single reference to James Joyce.) 

I don’t know that Americans hate puns, though.  Drive through your town and look at the independent store names.  For some reason, especially the beauty salons.  In Las Vegas alone, some popular spots that pop into mind are: Curl Up and Dye, Clip Joint, and Scissor’s Palace.  All locally appropriate, those.  There’s also an “exotic” barber shop called…wait for it…A Little Off the Top. 

And while we’re on the subject, let’s bring on a few more groans with my personal list of terrible puns:

  1. Mildly humorous country in Eastern Europe: Chuckleslovakia
  2. Inspires people to appreciate motor vehicles: automotivational
  3. Sensibly applied care for the spine: chiropractical
  4. Very impressive technical innovation: scienterrific
  5. If U2 and Shakespeare collaborated: “Now is the winter of our discotheque.”
  6. Nepalese monster with strong stomach muscles: Abdominal Snowman
  7. Excellent Spanish speaking man: Juanderful
  8. Excellent Spanish desert: flantastic
  9. Bones of professional academics: scholartons
  10. A leisurely-perambulating homeless artist from a swanky part of New York: A slo-mo boho hobo from Soho
  11. A Celtic person lamenting a dearth of fortunate females: “Alas!  A lack o’ lucky lasses!”
  12. When I say something pretentious or tacky: Hustontatious

Alternative Acronyms

Family friendly web sites like this one have long labored under the baneful curse of catchy Internet acronyms, those cheesy shorthand abbreviations that allow us to communicate shallow, generic, vague profanities in a convenient manner.  What are we to do, to avoid picturing unsavory phrases in our mind’s eye when these ubiquitous initials (dis)grace our screens?

Here are some helpful things to keep in mind when you no doubt come across these uncomfortable cringe-inducers:

“WTF?” could also mean:

  • Where’s the fridge?
  • Who toasted flapjacks?
  • Wonderful turtles, Freddy?
  • Wolverines tickle furiously?
  • Walrus toenail fungus?

“OMG!” may better be read as:

  • Orange mutant gas!
  • Original manufacturer’s guarantee!
  • Ostentatious Malaysian germs!
  • Open, my garage!
  • Old Muppets gargle!

You’re welcome.

Recommended Reading: Madame Bovary

bovary1Short Review: This book is perfect.  It is now one of my favorites.

Longer Review: It always bugs me that when people list forms of art, they never put literature near the top of the list, or often won’t include it at all.  From now on, whenever anyone fails to recognize the artistic merit of literature, I will use this as my first and last proof. 

Madame Bovary is an exquisite masterpiece.  After I’d read the first few chapters, I realized that for the rest of the book, I wouldn’t be looking forward to the further unfolding of the plot (which was deft and well executed, but fairly pedestrian–unhappy housewife seeks satisfaction in adultery–so never really captured me), but rather to seeing more of Flaubert’s composition: his prose is some of the finest poetry I’ve ever seen, a bracing achievement of language crafted into its highest possible power. 

I was never disappointed.  Whenever I found myself daydreaming and not remembering what I’d just read, I went back and read it again, alert, not because I feared that I had missed some important turning point in the story, but because I knew I had missed some elegant phrasing. 

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G-H-O-T-I Spells “Fish”

droutIt’s been a long time since I’ve listened to an entire series of recorded lectures, but last week I picked up Michael Drout’s A Way With Words III: Understanding Grammar at the library, and I was immediately enraptured.  I haven’t listened to anything else since, burning straight through the seven discs during my drive times this week, absorbing the whole eight hour extravaganza. 

Drout is one of the most personable speakers I’ve ever heard lecture; his humor, pop references, voices, and casual approach were always perfect: he could have been sitting right next to me.  The lectures were substantive, too.  Not only does he review the basics, with some twists, but he clearly explained some things that I’ve seen other teachers clumsily belabor. 

For example, when the sticky issue of the pronoun of indeterminate gender came up (using “he” or “she” when you don’t know if the subject being referenced is actually male or female, as in, “Any student who wants to get a good education should read his little heart out”), instead of resigning himself to the lame stand by of using an inappropriate “their” (it’s singular, not plural), and decisively rejecting such politically correct constructs as “s/he,” he announces a policy so catchy and utilitarian that I’ve wanted to shout it as a battle cry ever since: Pluralize the antecedent!  (Which would make my example from before into, “Any students who want to get a good education should read their little hearts out.”) 

Ah, glorious.  I want that on T-shirts and posters.  I want to put on a mask and fight crime, with that as my rallying cry as I dash into a violent fray: Pluralize the antecedent!  Mel Gibson could paint half his face blue and ride in with that declaration ringing across the field. 

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Ave Atque Vale: William F. Buckley, Jr.

200px-william_f_buckley2c_jr_1985Today marks one year since William F. Buckley passed away.  As a conservative and, especially, as a proponent of elegant English, Buckley was an idol of mine.  I remember getting his little book, The Lexicon, when I was in college.  I found joy on every page. 

Since then, I’ve delighted in his many books and articles, though I’ve yet to read one of his spy novels.  In tribute, might I recommend an article of his on a subject near and dear to my heart: follow this link and enter these key words to search: defense use unusual words.  The article with those words in the title will come up for your languorous perusal.  (I couldn’t find a direct link to it.  Sorry.) 

A terrific memorial is up today at National Review, the vanguard political establishment that Buckley founded, and which remains the best print voice for the movement.  Even the New York Times ran a respectful obit when he died, which gave a solid overview of Buckley’s career in commentary and composition.

Recommended Reading: An Instance of the Fingerpost

14266575Two years ago I was waiting in the drive-thru at a Taco Bell, flipping through the newspaper.  I came across a review of a new book called Literacy and Longing In L.A.  It was a romance novel, but with a twist: the damsel in dating distress in this story is a bookworm, and she narrates her lovelorn saga with frequent references to things she’s reading. 

It sounded interesting, so I picked it up and gave it a whirl.  It was, of course, a disaster: every stereotype I’d heard about romance novels was right on the money.  It was Sex and the City with literary allusions. 

However, in its long list of names that were dropped I found two that I’d never heard of before that genuinely intrigued me.  The first was How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, which I quickly read and thoroughly enjoyed.  The other was Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, which looked a little more daunting, so I never dove into it until recently. 

And now 2009 has its first perfect ten. 

An Instance of the Fingerpost is a massive tome, set against the turmoil of 1660’s England as the monarchy is being reestablished, where four narrators argue that they know who really committed a murder, that of Dr. Grove.  Each narrator adds details to that central plot while telling us of his own adventures, each a self-contained novel complete, each in a voice wholly unique and convincing.  Think Rashomon, but with cameos by English philosopher John Locke.

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Recommended Reading: Reading The OED

27493046I mentioned this book a few weeks ago, with only mild enthusiasm.  The further I got into it, though, the faster I read through it.  No, it isn’t as ambitious as A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All; Jacobs drew funny and poignant parallels between his reading and some stresses and changes in his life, while Ammon Shea only goes as far as the occasional observational nugget in that vein. 

The great pleasure of Shea’s book, however, is its pervasive, unabashed, gloriously valedictory nerdiness.  Imagine someone making an exaggerated parody of word lovers.  Shea’s actual nerdiness is still deeper than that.  In fact, in a contemplative review section at the end, which compared to the pacing in the rest of the book is drawn out not unlike the similarly loving tribute that is the end of the third Lord of the Rings movie, he resists the temptation to brag about the tedious rigor of poring over every word of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and instead revels in the joy of it, calling it his favorite book, and carefully explaining his plan to read it again right away, savoring each page with the delicate attention of an enraptured lover. 

Heck.  Yeah. 

Shea writes a short chapter for each letter of the alphabet, starting with a quick essay on some aspect of the dictionary itself, his love of dictionaries, or the process of reading the OED.  Then, he gives a sampling of his favorite words from that section, most all of which are odd, rare, and hilarious.  (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that when the word “fizzle” entered the Anglo lexicon in the sixteenth century, it meant “a silent fart.”)  Like Jacobs, he splices clever wit into his commentary on each word (as Jacobs did with encyclopedia entries), and comes across as refreshingly engaging.  It’s not huis conversational style that makes this reader comfortable, it’s Shea’s confident use of polysyllabic vocabulary, as well as his casually deft array of complex grammatical constructions.  He sure doesn’t talk down to you, that’s for sure. 

Add to all that just a wee smattering of misanthropy.  This, I said to myself more than once as I read, is a guy I can relate to.  We may not have much in common (although I can’t help but wonder if his first name implies what I think it does), but we have a solid brotherhood of logophilia.  I briefly wondered if I should offer to buy him lunch sometime so I can gush about his work and bounce some hopefully-erudite ideas off of him, but I quickly remembered the (in)famous meeting of James Joyce and Marcel Proust which, no matter which account you believe, fizzled.  In every sense of the word.  So maybe lunch would be anticlimactic.

“Shy, Ugly, Flatulent Man Seeks The Impossible”

Last week I added a new link to my blogroll: the personal ads in the London Review of Books, which gets logged under humor, though I considered also putting it under language and literature.  That’s because these ads strive to break the mold, offering a zany, allusion-heavy parody of that most bland of genres, the personal ad.

You know how they go: “Fit professional SWM seeks fun-loving SWF for long walks on the beach at midnight.”  Gag me. 

When the LRB started doing these a few years ago, the submissions quickly turned into a contest to see who could write the most intellectually obscure–and the most ridiculously unattractive–personal ads.  Some of my favorites from the articles I’ve read about them:


  1. Romance is dead. So is my mother. Man, 42, inherited wealth.

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On the Joy of Sentence Diagramming


I recently finished Tim Russert’s memoir, Big Russ & Me.  It was moving and thought provoking, as it involved so many important events of recent history, and vividly captured the mundane but surprisingly fascinating aspects of typical American life in decades not too long gone by, but decidedly alien to today. 

One quote that particularly struck me was this:

What I especially disliked was an exercise that still makes me cringe when I think of it: diagramming sentences.  “I don’t know why we have to do this,” I used to mutter under my breath.  I also complained about it to Sister Lucille, but only in private.  “Nobody will ever ask us to diagram a sentence,” I assured her.  I had no idea what adult life held in store for me, but I was pretty sure that this particular activity was not included.  And yet I have to admit that diagramming sentences made me a better reader, and, I hope, a better writer.  (133, emphasis added)

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Ten Literary First Lines Translated For Text Messaging

Just this morning I came across the brilliant web site The English-to-12-Year-Old-AOLer Translator.  Let’s see what happens when we take some famous literary first lines and translate them:


Now is the winter of our discontent    



Call me Ishmael.

is translated as


All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

appears to go back into its native Russian as

!11!!!1!! LOL

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.

desecrates the memory of Thoreau when rendered as


I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

looks suspiciously like a psychotropic beatnik first draft as


In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

isn’t that substantially worse than some modern “translations” when communicated to us thusly:


The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

guarantees that schlocky pulp will thrive for another generation when written like this:


In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.

loses ever such a minuscule degree of Gibbon’s elegant grandeur here:


riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

is, perhaps not surprisingly, no noticeably more obscure after translation:


Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

is now ready to penetrate the deepest reaches of the adolescent soul:



Ever since high school, I’ve kept a list of my favorite words.  Some sound musically whimsical, some are bafflingly arcane, others are surprisingly utilitarian (did you know there’s a word just for throwing something out a window?). 

At first, it was a slip of scrap paper in the top drawer of a desk to which I added new words in different color inks every now and then.  Later, it became a page in my journal, with later entries scrunched up at the bottom of the small space I had foolishly allotted to something that clearly deserved better.

Now, it’s on my blog.  Presenting my 45 favorite words, often with links to or, preferably, the invaluable Wordsmith web site (if you don’t get their “word a day” email, you’re depriving yourself of a prime reason to get out of bed in the morning).  Onward, logophiles!

  1. persnickety
  2. discombobulate–“to confuse,” though I’ve also hear it used simply to mean “to disassemble”
  3. onomatopoeia
  4. schadenfreude–“pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.”  Shocking–shocking!–that German has a word for this
  5. facetious
  6. subterfuge
  7. coquettish
  8. extrapolate
  9. solipsism
  10. supercilious
  11. pontificate
  12. loquacious
  13. weltschmerz–a German version of the French ennui?
  14. potentate
  15. exacerbate
  16. oxymoron
  17. punctilious
  18. zeitgeist
  19. lackadaisical
  20. ululate–used in Lord of the Flies
  21. vociferous
  22. circumambulate–used in Moby Dick
  23. polyglot–first came across this one while reading commentaries on Finnegans Wake
  24. cachinnate–“to laugh raucously”
  25. obfuscation–as in “eschew obfuscation”
  26. abecedary
  27. besmirched
  28. cackleberry
  29. haberdashery–“a place that sells men’s clothes”
  30. sacerdotal
  31. skulduggery
  32. hobbledehoy–useful insult for a teacher to know
  33. expectorate
  34. defenestration–“throwing something out of a window”
  35. somnolent
  36. plenipotentiary
  37. whomp
  38. sniffy
  39. swivet
  40. fartlek–“a method of physical training that alternates intense activity with periods of low effort”
  41. penultimate–when I first heard this word, I thought it might mean something like “super ultimate.”  I was disappointed to find that it means “next to last”
  42. bifurcated–you know, like the devil’s tail!  :)
  43. canoodling
  44. twitterpated–from Bambi
  45. kerfuffle–I can’t believe I never heard this word until 2005’s Danish Muhammad cartoon kerfuffle

Bonus Simpsons Quote!  “Disingenuous mountebanks with their subliminal chicanery!  A pox on them!”  -Homer (no, really!), “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love,” Season 3

Error Message Poetry

Teaching a poetry unit in summer school this week, I used material from a contest sponsored by several years ago. 

Haiku are short, strict, sparse Japanese poems that focus on a single detail of the natural world, elegantly described.  Computer error messages are common, terse, and often frustratingly mired in jargon.  Isn’t it obvious that these need to be entwined?

Hence, Salon’s contest, which asked for new and improved error messages, written as haiku.  My personal favorites are:

With searching comes loss
and the presence of absence:
“My Novel” not found.


You step in the stream,
but the water has moved on.
This page is not here.

The rest of this digital whimsy may be found here.

Quotes, Pics, And Clips

Last night my family saw Bella Rumore in concert; they’re an excellent electric violin quartet that did a wide variety of rock covers (you’ve never really heard “Back in the USSR” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” until you’ve heard them on a viola and cello).  The little kids all ran around and danced in the orchestra area, and the wife and I got to relax.  I see they’re playing the Reed Whipple Cultural Center in November; that goes on the calendar now.

They played as part of the Movies, Moonlight, and Music series at the Rainbow Library (where, as you know if you read my last post, due to my North Las Vegas residency, I now have to sit at the back of the bus).  My wife said it was her favorite show that we’ve seen there.

Anyway, while this cross-genre extravaganza titilated our aural sensibilities, my thoughts turned to art and I was reminded of Terry Teachout’s great running feature of throwing up random quotes he comes across, and I thought this might be a good way for me to share more material, balance out my categories, and have a more regular routine myself.  I’ve wondered if this blog isn’t more popular because it covers so many topics–there’s something for everyone, but the whole package might only appeal to me.  Should I break it up and start a bunch of smaller blogs?

The answer is no.  I hate the idea of compartmentalizing my life, and I love the idea of mashing all this variety together so that fans of one area might strike out to new territory and explore something else.  A weekly quote collection might be a great way to do that.  OK, enough said.


Rembrandt, “Aristotle Contemplating Bust Of Homer”

A cautionary tale about selling out…

EDUCATION:  “Today we have discovered a powerful and elegant way to understand the universe, a method called science; it has revealed to us a universe so ancient and so vast that human affairs seem at first sight to be of little consequence….science has found not only that the universe has a reeling and ecstatic grandeur, not only that it is accessible to human understanding, but also that we are, in a very real and profound sense, a part of the Cosmos, born from it, our fate deeply connected with it.”  Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The wonder of discovery…

HUMOR:  “We constantly see surveys that reveal this ignorance, especially among our high school students, 78 percent of whom, in a recent nationwide multiple-choice test, identified Abraham Lincoln as ‘a kind of lobster.’  That’s right: more than three quarters of our nation’s youth could not correctly identify the man who invented the telephone.”  Dave Barry, Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort Of History Of The United States

If it were up to me, this would be required reading in U.S. History classes

LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE:  “Sleep comes to you each day, and so does the muse.  She comes softly and quietly, behind your left ear or in a corner of the next room.  Her words are whispers, her ideas shifting renditions of possibilities that have not been resolved, though they have occurred and reoccurred a thousand times in your mind.  She, or it, is a collection of memories not exactly your own.”  Walter Mosley, “For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day,” from Writers On Writing: Collected Essays From The New York Times 

LIVING WELL:  “Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  We need the tonic of wilderness….We can never have enough of Nature.  We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets.  We need to witness our own limits transgressed…”  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

POLITICS AND SOCIETY:  “It is necessary that there be an unpopular institution in our midst that sets clarity above well-being or compassion.”  Allan Bloom, The Closing Of The American Mind

I’m willing to step up to the plate…

RELIGION:  “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.”  Joseph Smith, History of the Church 5:134


Just in this scanty collection of quotes from diverse sections of the library, we can see strong strains of integrated, multi-disciplinary thought.  And it is good.