Tag Archives: book review

Long Haired and Wild: The Story of a Dictionary

“There, inside old books, we also find  “‘beloved and tender and funny and familiar things,'” which  “‘beckon across gulfs of death and change with a magic poignancy, the old things that our dead leaders and fore-fathers loved, viva adhuc et desiderio pulcriora.'”*
– 
David Skinner The Story of Ain’t (William Neilson quoting Gilbert Murray 28)

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My Inheritance: My father’s spelling disability and his Vest Pocket Webster Dictionary

I attended a fascinating lecture the other night: “The Dictionary as Data: An Alumni Talk with Peter Sokolowski.” The talk was not only impressive, it was also a bit of serendipity for me as I had just finished a wonderful book, The Story of Ain’t written by David Skinner.

“All that a dictionary like Webster’s can do is record usage and when opinion differs show its own preference.” William Allan Neilson quoted in The Story of Ain’t (89)

So said the editor in chief of Webster’s Second Edition. But, as it turns out, dictionaries are also a window into our psyches. Regardless of whether one looks at how dictionaries are used, or how they are made, the window is indisputably wide open.

“It is ironic,” Gove said, “that the very title of the book we are considering contains a series of words which almost defy definition. It starts with the word Webster, about which there seems to be considerable doubt. The exact meaning of the word New is anyone’s guess. The word International has never been clearly defined. We are not even sure of the precise definition of the word dictionary. And the word English is open to considerable discussion. The word language has had a multitude of interpretations, and, finally, it is almost impossible to define precisely the word Unabridged” (171-72).

Let the fun begin! Both  Sokolowski’s lecture and Skinner’s book concern Merriam-Webster dictionaries. The Story of Ain’t  is about the making of Webster’s Third edition in the early 1960’s.  The overblown and manufactured-by-journalistic-laziness controversy over the eponymous word wonderfully describes the cultural history of the era, and with fascinating symmetry, reinforces the crux of the theme of Sokolowski’s lecture: dictionaries chronicle the culture. The words that we define and codify reveal who we are at any given moment. Even the manner in which we go about defining and codifying, as Skinner shows, communicates a zeitgeist.

Webster’s Third […] “is not a dictionary as Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster conceived of one; it is a catalog. It is a kind of Kinsey Report in linguistics.”  (Right Reverend Richard S. Emrich quoted 261)

Skinner articulates the dark humor of the hysteria over Webster’s Third wonderfully. There were more than a few moments that I laughed out loud, alarming my son. I had to spend some time reassuring him of my sanity as my giggles over a book about a dictionary tended to cast doubt in his mind. Ah, well he already  sees me as something of lost cause…

“From its tendentious title- the work being neither Webster’s nor international, and only now and then a dictionary- to its silly systems and petty pedantries, the book is a faithful record of our emotional weaknesses and intellectual disarray” (Jacques Barzun quoted 293).

Skinner fully appreciates the high level of sophistication insults and condensations can reach in the ‘educated class’, and entertains the reader with one example after another. The comprehensive manner in which he uses the process and people involved with the making of the Third Edition to illustrate the culture of the time is skillfully executed and makes for a very fun read.

Peter Sokolowski, word maven and editor of Merriam-Webster turned the focus outward in his talk, examining the data that is currently being culled from online users of dictionaries. The trends are stark and fascinating: reflecting enduring conundrums (the etymology of “conundrum” is really fun, by the way) such as “effect” and “affect;” or a sudden interest in an obscure word mentioned by a newscaster or sports reporter. But there are also pairs of words that move up or down the ‘most looked up’ graph in concert with surprising constancy, or categories of words that occur in reliable order after cataclysmic events. The potential to glean sociological information from, of all things, dictionary data bases is astonishing, if slightly dismaying.

The interplay between our spoken language and the words that are then committed to writing is complex, illuminating, and meaningful. Dictionaries are used for all sorts of reasons: informational, instructional, etymological, philosophical (love, Sokolowski told us, for instance, is word that is looked up with curious relentlessness, considering its ubiquity). The potential insight provided by a digital platform’s newfound ability to uncover our relationship to words and what our language usage says about us is exciting, however, I must admit, I am somewhat nonplussed over my own inadvertent exposure.

*title from pg 193: Twaddle knew the letter writer,[…] and confirmed that he was a sane person whose views should be respectively heard. “There is nothing long-haired or wild about [him],” he said.

**Best Latin phrase ever – viva adhuc et desiderio pulcriora –  living still and more beautiful because of our desire.

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Etiolated Lives

She was the doorway to him, he to her.  At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, whilst the light flooded out from behind on to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission. 
-D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (87)

IMG_1258I recently watched an adaptation of Women in Love. I like it well enough, but there were more than a few mystery bits that I had no recollection of from the book. Upon closer inspection I saw that the adaptation was actually of both Women in Love and The Rainbow.  Now that I’ve read The Rainbow I’m sorry I didn’t read it first, not least of all because Women in Love continues the story of Ursula and Gudren. But more than that, for missing out on the natural development of the story in which Lawrence shows an unraveling of human confidence in love over the generations.

Is heaven impatient for me, and bitter against this earth, that I should hurry off, or that I should linger pale and untouched? (265)

The story follows three generations of women, finding, failing, or groping with anguished hope towards love: “the admission”- I love that. Admitting entrance to the other into one’s soul as well as admitting to oneself that the possibility exists. Running  forward chronologically, the story seems almost to run backwards novelistically. The satisfaction of true love comes early in the first section concerning the Polish immigrant widowed mother, Lydia Lensky. Tom Brangwen falls in love with her, and after the usual bouts of trammeled passion they arrive at their font of love. Things are more difficult for Anna, Lydia’s daughter adopted by Tom:

And in this state, her sexual life flamed into a kind of disease within her. She was overwrought and sensitive, that the mere touch of coarse wool seemed to tear her nerves. (314)

The tragedy here is passion without love. Lawrence describes with startling insight the gaps that motherhood fills, still, when Anna marries Will Brangwen having made the all important physical connection,  emotional  communion eludes them. Through their children the painful smolder of life and love half-lived is abated until eventually, separately yet peaceably, they find a lesser path, but at least it is a path –

And since she was nearly forty years old, she began to come awake from the sleep of motherhood, her energy moved outwards. The din of growing lives roused her from her apathy. She too must have her hand in making life. (395)

Let’s pause here for one brief moment to remind ourselves that this book was written in 1915. What Lawrence so boldly put forward- the physicality of life’s desires, is a truly remarkable thing. Sure, it’s no longer difficult to find myriad books focused on sex, even focused on the female’s perspective of sex, but it takes profound nerve to combine those human needs with a divine call to love.

Always, always she was spitting out of her mouth the ash and grit of disillusion, of falsity. (412)

The story ends with Ursula. The depth into which Lawrence takes the reader is awing and inspiring. The questions and possible answers he raises become deeply embedded in the reader’s thinking and feeling soul. Woven into each part of the story are philosophical musings on religion, God, the suffragette movement, the horrors of corporal punishment, the sickness of institutions, the emptiness of formal education, social hypocrisy, and then, at long last he gives us – the rainbow, spread over it all, in regal refulgent splendor.  The beauty. The beauty.

She wanted so many things. she wanted to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them forever; she wanted to know big, free people; and there remained always the want she could put no name to. (384)

All That’s Buoyant

And she was unperturbed. She was cold. How did it happen, that something no longer mattered, that it had been judged inessential?
James Salter, All That Is (220)

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All That Is by James Salter concerns the adult life of Philip Bowman. His life, not so much as a search for love but more a drifting, swelling,  rip tide, crashing into or reeling from love. All other mundane details of his life, while interesting, are decorative but not essential. Love is water- it’s just the profound weight of it all: the liquidity of love, slipping through your fingers, keeping you afloat, or dashing your heart against the rocky shore, the weight of the water is always there.

“People deceive you,” she said softly.
“Yes.” (120)

Sometimes you get caught up in a book, in a story, and it feels like a dream, every pore gets immersed in a world of the other. It’s like the writer creates an ocean, and you swim out to meet the surf. For some books you swim further in than others, and you can never know, just by looking, how far your own stroke takes you and how much the tide of the story is taking you as it would take anyone.

He was not depressed, but was living with the feeling of injustice. (187)

It’s not accidental that I saw myself under water, then swimming at a quick clip, then gasping for breath, as I read the story. Salter begins and returns to the ocean again and again throughout the book. Everything begins in the water.

The other day I swam out to the middle of a lake. There was no one else around. I swam straight out to the middle, I love placing myself in the center of a large expanse of water with the blue sky above…it’s not easy to float in fresh water, but floating may be one of my favorite things to do so I am well practiced. Without the salt’s assistance, I had to arch my head all the way back and let my feet dangle straight down, toes pointing towards the deep. My arms stretched away to let my chest rise, keeping me afloat. The water made a tight circle around my face, and I bobbed there in a sacrificial pose for some lovely minutes. That moment of staying perfectly still in the water, surrendering to the water, breathing, breathing, so as to not disturb anything was exactly how All That Is left me.

She wanted to talk. There were some things she wanted to say, but she did not. She sat silent. (284)

Becalmed, I suppose. The reading. The floating. The heartbreak. It’s a state in which the danger of sinking is avoided, and yet- it’s always there. Under the pull of the weight, heavy and lugubrious, is something mournful, mesmerizing yet out of reach. The water is invigorating and essential. It is also dark, deep and mysterious. And still, we float, seems we shouldn’t, but we do. Salter’s prose quietly touches on, and moves through, all of these elements- some lovely minutes is all that is.

Waking Inclination

DSCI0016The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll is a black and white dream. A clinging monochromatic oneiric post-war chill that is-  there is one word, and I hesitate to use it to describe this book because of its criminal overuse to describe thousands of books, but this should be among the first- one of the base line books worthy of the word- haunting.

The large, bold-faced R inside the red rectangle produced a fear in her that was gradually turning to nausea (24)

The nightmare begins with a certified postcard calling Hans up to duty. The mother’s reaction to that small white card with a blood red stamp on it, a bureaucratic horror marking the very end point of innocence, is skillfully rendered by Böll. It’s that sense of knowing: she can’t look at it, can’t even hold it in her hand, she knows that she doesn’t want to know, and yet, she knows that it’s too late because she already knows.

Böll skips the details of the war itself. After all what difference does it make? The same familiar blackened bits of humanity in varying degrees of guilt and innocence are all that’s left and are always the same.

He was sick of the whole thing, she’d know why – and she did know why. (22)

There is an unsubtle use of symbolism throughout the story:  the buying and selling of identities, blood, stone muted angels, the cold, decay, money: the smell of which he describes thusly, “– but it occurred to him that it was the smell of blood, the extremely diluted and refined smell of blood…” (115) And yet, more often, the overall effect is one of subtlety. The psychological divide between before and after is handled delicately by Böll. The conformity and hypocrisy of our lives is a malaise of immeasurable weight but, once held against the scale of truth rendered by abject destruction, the heft is revealed as pathetically flimsy.

He was tired; boredom and despair seemed to blend more intimately, a sluggish stream without end, whose bitterness was not sufficient to give it savor…” (112)

But it is the radical simplicity of love that is, I think, Böll’s meaning. All the societal niceties (and cruelties), all of the “accepted norms” that cause us to cower and hide ourselves away from what we feel and what we desire, once those instituted shackles fall away by the ravages of war, what are we left with? Love or hate? Happiness or fear? What’s left to savor?

Eating is an inexorable necessity that will pursue me throughout my life, he thought; he would have to eat daily for the next thirty or forty years, at least once a day. He was burdened with the thousands of meals he must somehow provide, a hopeless chain of necessity that filled him with fear. (123)

Hans understands in hindsight that his first marriage was born of expectation, fear, and polite reticence. There is a connection within a loveless marriage to the dread with which one is reduced to “eating to live,” rather than living in a world or society where life’s pleasures are ours to seize, ours to want.  When he meets Regina he has already been given his life back from a man’s sacrifice, Willy Gompertz, who provides the subplot (or counter-plot) of lives lived in fear and hate and who saw in Hans a man whom “want[s] to live.” Hans only needs to catch up to that insight. Böll beautifully shows Hans’ mental process of making the decision to feel:

He had accepted life, it was concentrated for him here; a brief span of infinity, filled with pain and happiness…” (131)

He makes an intellectual decision to connect to his heart and let himself experience the pain and happiness of desire, yes for a woman, but more, for it seems to me that the very birth of our empathic humanity is – to want to want.

He entered suddenly without knocking, went straight up to her, and kissed her on the mouth. He felt her soft, slightly moistened lips and saw that her eyes were open. (133)

*This was Böll’s first book written in 1950, but not published until 1992 in Germany, titled Der Engel schweig. Post-war Germany was not quite ready for the story, but Böll went on to write many books and win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. This edition was translated by Breon Mitchell.

Other books by Heinrich Boll:

18 Stories: Process of Elimination
What’s to Become of the Boy? : The Howling Void
Billiards at Half-Past Nine: Abscissa and Ordinate

Sun and Stone

To love with all one’s soul and leave the rest to fate, was the simple rule she heeded. – Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (40)

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I regret my occasional tendency toward a penurious sympathy. While I am deeply empathetic to the underdog, I have been known to scoff or display ungenerous feelings of exasperated chagrin when reading page after page of the wonders of other people’s good fortune.   As I began Speak, Memory I was afraid I might come down with a severe case of exasperated chagrin. Nabokov is one of my favorite writers, and I didn’t want to disturb my love.  I was not at all sure I was in the mood to go along side the memories of a man who had an idyllically over-privileged aristocratic Russian youth and turned out to be a literary genius to boot – a gluttony of riches I pity myself never to have known.

And yet, this tremendous autobiography won me over in every way: content, form, and fancy all come together to tell a biography of an amazing life in an extraordinary time.

In choosing our tutors, my father seems to have hit upon the ingenious idea of engaging each time a representative of another class or race, so as to expose us to all the winds that swept over the Russian Empire. (153)

Nabokov begins the story with a natural focus on his mother, and she sounds wonderful, (the opening quote at top describes her creed) but it was in his loving and amused description of his various tutors and studies that I really became transfixed by the unique world of early 1900 Russia- to say nothing of his fascinating lepidopterology or esteemed father. By the time we come to his family’s exile, the simplicity and true profundity by which, through him, we have come to experience a slice of the vast beautiful curiosity and complexity that is Russia is fully realized in his regardant prose.

Nabokov is at once self-deprecating while at the same time scathingly opinionated. But what comes through most beautifully is his tenderness. Well into the book, if I am not mistaken in the chapter concerning his brother, whom he has painfully little to say (by his own admission) he suddenly addresses the reader- and it is you. You (Vera).

When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. (297)

He is telling the story to his wife. At each “you,” a stab of affection ran through my heart. With a delicious casualness reminiscent of Ada, or Ardor’s Van we know she is the meaning and purpose of this book, and his life. He never describes her, their meeting, or how they came to love each other, she is simply the one – you. By the end of the story the intimacy of his referring to her is completely out in the open. It is lovely.

Here is a man to whom everything good was given, a lot of which was taken away, and yet all that is good, worthwhile and true- all the love, remains.

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern- to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. (139)*
*Here he is explaining his passion for lepidopterology – the study of butterflies.

 

An Inexplicable But Pelagic Hope

This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever
– Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her (72)

45817_10151542606933132_1238016564_n-1This book stared at me for weeks as it sat on the Featured Book wall-display across from the circulation desk I sit behind. I would always stare back at it whenever I walked by. Once or twice I even picked it up, held the spanking new volume wrapped in snapping clear polyester and contemplated reading it. I was already reading a few books, had promised a few others I would read them next, then there’s homework, and jobs, children, applications with their punishing piles of forms to fill that are covered front and back with questions that I cannot answer- I take that back,  I can always at least manage question number one: name. After that, my life simply does not fit into the square boxes. So no, Junot Díaz, I don’t have time to read your pretty little book with deckle edged paper. Stop looking at me. Mercifully, one day the display was changed.

This novel wouldn’t let it go however. I was asked to gather a list of books off the stacks the other day, and there it was again, in the New Reads section. Damn it. I picked it up. For the first time I actually opened it. All of my will power was undone in a page – this is how you read a book in one day. I read the first chapter standing, facing the shelves. Then I got a hold of myself went back to my desk to finish my studying, eat an orange, read a long, interesting article about Jane Austen a friend sent me, and then I read the book, drove home, and read it to the end.

The story is devastating, smart, and tender. The idiosyncrasies of Dominican culture mixed with the peculiar regularity with which people, in this case- Yunior, fuck up their lives is told with verve and nerve. The book is funny, heartbreaking, bleak, but buoyant.

It takes discipline and perhaps the confidence from growing up in a loving home to avoid the urge to insecurely fling oneself heedlessly into what looks like Love, or my favorite non-love description: Camus’ vanity and boredom. One of the fascinating things about the life of Jane Austen was that she knew the requirements of her own heart, and just because she never realized (at least publicly) a true love, she was content to be alone and pour her passion into her art rather than forfeit her need to Love truly. Possibly her heart was set on one man in particular, turning it cold to anyone else—that’s a bit of speculation, but there was that Irish fellow…not enough money, family expectations, blah blah blah, we know the story—in fact we know it well because of Austen’s smart, tender books.  Funny though, how in both cases—Jane and Díaz’s Yunior—they end up alone. Do the reasons matter?

Like Yunior, Elinor in Sense and Sensibility acts recklessly in her love life. The idiosyncrasies of the English class system mix painfully with Elinor’s sensuality. Elinor is rescued from that cowardly rake Willoughby’s renunciation by Colonel Brandon’s adoration—which is so kind of Austen, but still  Elinor, again like Yunior, is a bit wrecked, body and soul, by the experience.

A few years back I resignedly  concluded that there is no reason why I should be hopeful. No reason to assume “things will look up.” No reason, certainly, to think Miss Austen had a firm grasp of real life with her wrenchingly wonderful happy endings. This is How You Lose Her is a story that I love for its full frontal look at reality. Yunior is what one might  call a “dog,” and yet you feel for him. He can’t love because he wasn’t loved at those critical stages of youth: the plasticity of the heart must have an expiration date.  Years go by, and we can’t all have a Captain Wentworth, who has that rare Love that can never bring itself to forsake the lovely object of his ardor: Anne Elliot in Persuasion—my favorite Austen book. I tend to think Persuasion represented Austen’s rewrite of her life, (the article suggested P&P née First Impressions, maybe they all were to some extent, but Persuasion was her last novel…).

Yunior and I would like a rewrite. Instead we get reality, Yunior’s body starts to break under the pressure until the only thing that’s left is his poor calcified heart. Save me! It cries out. save me. 

His heartbreak is long, intense, and perhaps permanent. Maybe the most some can hope for is to get over the disappointment of their own shortcomings. It is enough I suppose to try not to make it worse. At a certain point you stop worrying about going up and simply become determined not go down. Jane Austen found her rather brilliant way to not make it worse and yet, her body too failed her long before it should have— desuetude of the heart devastates too. That, is life. Both Austen and Díaz give the gift of hope and humor against despair and cynicism. Laugh or cry, it’s the battle we wage everyday.

The half-life of love is forever.  – Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (213)

*Painting by my daughter,  Victoria Accardi, oil and embroidery thread (the tattoos are embroidered onto the canvas).

Flickering Sanity

“Well,” said Paul, “if she looks at a man she says haughtily ‘Nevermore,’ and if she looks at herself in the looking-glass she says disdainfully ‘Nevermore,’ and if she thinks back she says it in disgust, and if she looks forward she says it cynically.”  –D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (254)

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There is a satisfying onomatopoeia in the word frustrate. Your mouth must build up steam to run up and down all the central consonants and then just when things start going again- full stop on the hard “ate.” There is plenty of time to consider the word in one’s mouth while reading Part Two of Sons and Lovers- the sentiment sputters out of the novel at a consistent rate. Part Two’s focus is the “Lovers” of the title, but only frustrated lovers lie therein. Perhaps it is…. Englishness that lends even the dialog a frustrated rhythm, the fits and starts of people full of something to say fracturing under the magnitude of self-edits, fears, and censures.

But no; she dared not put her arms round it, take it up, and say, “It is mine, this body. Leave it to me.” And she wanted to. It called all her woman’s instinct. But she crouched, and dared not. She was afraid he would not let her. She was afraid it was too much.

Lawrence develops the character of Paul so slowly and naturally from boy to man that even though I wanted to throttle him, my heart ached for him, as a mother and as a woman.

Paul’s inability to Love anyone other than his mother, whose own passion was sacrificed to an unhappy marriage, renders his heart an otiose, useless thing. And yet it still beats. So what to do? The usual course in love and novels is: act stupidly.

So he left her, and she was alone. Very few people cared for her, and she cared for very few people. She remained alone with herself, waiting.

Knowing that you want something is not the same thing as knowing what you want. This is Paul’s problem, his heart calls, but he has hidden it behind the door of his loyal and passionate love for his mother. He tries to love, but only makes misery.

Everyone tries to love, in fact. There is Miriam and Clara, Clara’s husband and more mothers, the fellas in the mines, the girls in the office, all trying to satisfy their hearts. The bucolic beauty described throughout the novel where one loses oneself  and dirties their shoes on amorous walks in the wood makes it more bearable, but also more poignant.  You just want someone to become sane for a moment, like that wonderful moment in E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View when George climbs a tree in a spectacular field and just starts shouting the truth, “Beauty! Beauuttyyy!!!!” I love that. Sons and Lovers is a beautifully told story, but it is all a maddening circle that coils and festers.

There is a wonderful scene towards the end of the story when Paul and his sister are smashing up morphine pills to essentially kill their mother. She is already dying, but they wish to relieve the suffering- hers and theirs.

“What are you doing?” said Annie.
“I s’ll put ’em in her night milk.”
Then they both laughed together like two conspiring children.
On top of all their horror flicked this little sanity.

It’s a lovely, touching, funny moment: Paul trying to disguise the bitterness of the pills in the sweet milk, just as he had tried so valiantly to disguise the bitterness of his mother’s life. It’s so bitter, is all she can say. And it is. The heartbreak is that Paul’s effort has shut his heart off from ever really being pierced, and fulfilled. His heart lives in the shadow of his mother’s trying to fill the space that should have been absorbed by her husband, her man.

No; her life’s nothing to her, so what’s the worth of nothing? She goes with me – it becomes something. Then she must pay – we both must pay! Folk are so frightened of paying; they’d rather starve and die.”

And that is Lawrence’s point- people starve themselves. Suffering from an emotional anorexia nervosa, the frustrations create a sort of insanity: the insanity of an inability to love, and a reluctance to feel. To go so forcefully against our nature is not possible without damage. In the end I think Paul will be alright. I want him to be. I want to agree with Lawrence: listen to Forster’s George – open your heart.