Friday, January 12, 2007

When Someone Dead & Famous Says So, It Sounds (More) Acceptable

"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?"
Jane Austen

Excellence: Enhanced

My online book club is discussing Charlotte's Web this month. I found the annotated version at the library. I've read this book again and again and have loved the language, story and illustrations. It's the kind of rare book that gets richer with every reading.

This version includes marginal notes on White's writing and revisions, on his beliefs on country life, on Garth William's collaboration and the notes between him and White on the illustrations. Neumeyer also points out when White breaks his own famed style rules (carefully to attain a certain effect).

One learns that White studied spiders for a year before writing the book, how Fern's character developed over several drafts and where the last sentence came from. Neumeyer points out what passages are especially suited to reading aloud, which helps the reader who isn't reading out loud to a child, but would appreciate that suggestion for that specific passage.

In addition Neumeyer includes addenda with White's drawing's of Zuckerman's farm, portions of important drafts, information on Garth Williams, diagrams of spider anatomy, correspondence with the publisher. All this adds to the reading and is of particular interest to anyone striving to write well.

Lost Luggage

I received Diplomatic Baggage from a friend, who's a fellow JET and has lived in Japan and France. It seems like a good choice for a gift as it's Brigid Keenan chronicle of her life as a wife of a diplomat wandering about the world.

I've been reading this book, for over a month. I read some, get tired of Keene's tone, which is complaining yet cheerful, and put it down and often lose it. I'll find it again because I'm looking for something else and feel I should read it because, after all, it's not completely bad.

While she adopts a sort of "Bridget Jones-esque" tone it seems (I never read that book), I couldn't get past how awfully unhappy this woman is despite her wit and pluck. Keenan and her family lived in some "interesting" countries and conditions, like in Port of Spain, where the beds were surrounded by some kind of linked gates that were locked nightly in case one's gardener tried to slit one's throat because crime was so prevalent.

I understand that living overseas is not always a picnic and granted I've never lived in an undeveloped country where one has to be extra careful about crime and disease, but Keenan's problems with her servants and problems with being bored and having nothing to do on Monday, just bugged me. I can see why it would be hard to give up a career to follow a husband who has an interesting career and to move every couple years, but is it so hard to amuse one's self on a Monday morning? Must giving a dinner party be such a traumatizing event? Repeatedly? When the hostess doesn't have to make the food, her cook does?

Two thirds of the way through the book, I wanted Keenan to get more adept at the expat social scene and cross cultural life. I don't expect her to stop making mistakes, I'd just hope she'd make different mistakes and have different problems. Imagine watching a Bridget Jones IX, her klutziness loses it's charm as she gets older. Such a character or person just gets annoying.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

2006 Pulitzer Prizes

I was just looking through the winners list for the Pulitzer Prizes for this year and saw that no one won for drama. Three plays were nominated (one by Christopher Durang whom I loathe - based on a terrible play years ago that was a painful way to spend an hour - my friend and I fled at intermission.)

Bravo for not giving a prize if nothing met their standards. How sad that nothing in 2006 did. Something's wrong.

Build Your Vocabulary: Read Proust

You can't read Proust and not reach for the dictionary. Not unless you have no curiousity whatsoever. One problem is that most dictionaries don't have a lot of the words he uses as he's fond of old, yet interesting words. Here are some I've noted down using a variety of online dictionaries.

Before providing the list, here's a link to a site that explains the Dreyfus Affair, which is mentioned throughout In Search of Lost Time What was the Dreyfus Affair?

Here are some words I've learned from Proust. They're all from Moncrieff's translation, Vol. II The Guermantes Plain:

  • tergiversate: 1. to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause or subject 2. to turn renegade (p. 66)
  • fugleman: (formerly) a soldier placed in front of a military company as a good model during training drills (p. 102)
  • volubility: good with speech and writing (p. ?)
  • palimpsest: a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for other text Jane Eyre and other books use this all the time. Why have we stopped? Well, computers, but the sound is so irresistible.
  • vatic: oracle (p. 125)
  • supererogatory: more than is needed or desired (p. ?) this we can still use
  • bluestocking:a woman having intellectual or literary interests (p. 199 and earlier)
  • principii obsta: resist the beginnings (p. 232)
  • arcades ambo: two of a kind (p. 232)
  • Émile Augier: 1820-1889 French poet & dramatist (p. 235)
  • dewlap: a fold of loose skin hanging from the neck of certain animals (or people - like a wattle)
  • nerudite: no results from Google (p. 246)
  • in petto: in secrecy, in reserve, in the breast (p. 249)
  • inter pocula: during a drinking bout (p. 249)
  • Japhetics: of or pertaining to a hypothesized group of languages of the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and southern Europe, including the Caucasian languages, Sumerian, Basque, and Etruscan, formerly thought by some to represent a stage in language development that preceded the development of Indo-European and Semitic.
  • mediatise: to annex (a lesser state) to a greater state as a means of permitting the ruler of the lesser state to retain title and partial authority.
  • Yellow Books: no useful results from Google (p. 269)
  • kobold: a gnome that in German folklore inhabits underground places (p. 272)
  • purblind: 1. Having greatly reduced vision.2. Lacking in insight or discernment. (p. 281)

N.B.This website has a list of characters and other interesting information on In Search of Lost Time:

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Preaching to the Choir, I'm Afraid

Lynn Truss' Talk to the Hand addresses the decline of manners with wit. It's an enjoyable read and I especially enjoy how she weaves in facts from history and science. Exasperated by rude customer service? At the end of your rope because there seems to be so much more spitting, swearing and out of control assertiveness? Truss provides the comfort you crave.

It's a fast, delightful read. Truss admits she's giving a homily, but you sense that she just can't sit idlely by watching civilization erode, or perhaps disappear, one moment longer. She offers many personal anecdotes such as the time she was with a friend driving in Denver and a fellow motorist waves at them. Thinking they might want something, her friend rolled down the window and asked, "Can I help you?" The other driver yelled in reply "What do you mean, can I help you? I was only being Effing friendly! Why don't you get back to your Cherry Creek Country Club, you rich bitches!" before speeding away.

The sad thing is so many of us can add our own stories. We've all had to wait for the clerk to finish his or her personal call before being able to give them money. We've accepted that we will not get an apology from said clerk. At the other end of the spectrum we get what Truss terms "aggressive hospitality." In other words, simply giving an operator your address merits a "Great!" or "Perfect!" As if you had zero self esteem.

The problem with this book is that it's rude to give it to someone who needs it, unless perhaps you're his or her parent. Only people who consider themselves polite would buy it. Hmmm. I do think the only way around that, and the only way this book could have influence would be if it were used in schools and discussed. It could lead to some great discussions, hopefully civilized ones.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Another Addition to My Reading List

My reading list is spinning out of control. Still I've been a big fan of Calvin Trillin's wry wit. He's such an inspiration. His humor tickles both the funny bone and the brain.

Today's Christian Science Monitor had the following review of his latest book.
"When a man loves a woman"
By Marjorie Kehe

She was bright. She was lovely. She was deeply caring. But most of all, she was Alice. About Alice, Calvin Trillin's moving tribute to his wife of almost 40 years, is a slender volume that packs a hefty punch. Anyone who wants to know what it might be like to love the same person for most of a lifetime has only to pick up this little book to find out.

Of course, that's not to say that Trillin wasn't already on record as a notably doting husband. He tells of a reader who once wrote him to say that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and wondered, "But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?"

Throughout Trillin's career as an author and staff writer for the New Yorker, Alice made regular appearances in his writing, often playing the straight man, "the dietitian in sensible shoes," as she put it, to his goofy husband. But the truth, Trillin writes, is that this was a woman with "a child's sense of wonderment ... the only adult I ever knew who might respond to encountering a deer on a forest path by saying, 'Wowsers!' "

Physically, Alice was a beauty. (If you doubt it, flip the book over and check the photo on the back jacket cover.) But in "About Alice," Trillin's focus on the inner charms of the woman he knew: the competent and caring daughter who became the protector of her somewhat feckless parents; the devoted mother who lived the maxim that "your children are either the center of your life or they're not, and the rest is commentary"; and the wife who so inspired her mate that he could say, "I wrote this for Alice. Actually, I wrote everything for Alice."

Although it's impossible to read this book without aching over the depth of Trillin's loss (and it's also difficult to read about the cancer - and the fear thereof - that shadowed so much of Alice's adult life), for the most part this is simply a warm and gentle tale. (Click for more.)

As a Trillin fan, I did have a picture of Alice, but didn't know about her cancer or that she'd died. The older I get the easier I cry. This was the first book review that brought tears to my eyes. I swore I wasn't going to get any more books. Thank god for wishlists, and maybe discipline.

Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama

I purchased this book used from eBay in October after Susie recommended it as a good book club selection. I picked it up now since I thought it would be an interesting follow-up to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

And so it was.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan ends in the 1920s just as Women of the Silk is beginning. Both books are set in the same general area of the country so many of the customs portrayed in Women of the Silk were already familiar.

Women of the Silk is the story of Pei, a headstrong, inquisitive middle daughter of a poor farmer who is sold to work in the silk factories to help her family survive a near famine. While this is traumatic for both Pei and her parents, in Pei's case, it turns out to be a positive and possibly life-saving move.

The book has a strong but subtle feminist streak and it does not dwell on the negative aspects of the silk workers' lives.

Neither the ups nor downs are presented in an overly emotionally gripping fashion but the author does create a well-crafted sense of foreboding towards the end of the book that enhances the book's page-turning appeal.

4.5 out of 5 stars