Category Archives: print

Just resting

Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketchThis article in Lapham’s Quarterly on Roget’s Thesaurus got me thinking (pondering, contemplating, considering, musing, putting through the meat grinder). The thesaurus has a mixed reputation, and is often derided as a hollow crutch for writers who are unable to find their own language.

Its creator, Peter Mark Roget, was a 19th century Englishman and apparently compulsive list-maker who pursued his life’s work with an Enlightenment-inspired religiosity. Lapham writes:

“His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel. By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam.”

Roget ordered the unruly language into 1,ooo categories of meaning.  “The synonyms that we find gathered together in a thesaurus are typically … like siblings that share a striking resemblance,” Lapham writes.

I was surprised to learn that Roget’s index was an afterthought. I’ve turned to that index with greater or lesser frequency since I received a thesaurus for my bar mitzvah in 1972. It may be my most-loved and most-used present that I received that day. It sits near my computer, much closer than “up on a high shelf,” where poet Billy Collins describes his as resting in the poem “Thesaurus,” an indication, writes Lapham, that Collins believes the best place for the book is at arm’s length.

Because if Roget sought to tame the language, he is often undone by the wild humans who use the thesaurus.

“To be sure, the potential for abuse is a constant danger, especially for eager students who may go overboard when hunting for impressive words,” according to Lapham.

Lapham was thinking of college students, eager to express their intellectual bona fides. In my case, the thesaurus was like a ticket to the circus midway.

In a short story I wrote in 1973 called “A Clash With Death,” two high school friends, Eric and Jim, must overcome Death in an ordeal to save their lives (I had just learned about “The Seventh Seal“). Jim, as I wrote him, never went anywhere without his thesaurus.

“I’ve come to get you, Eric,” said Death.

“You won’t take me without a fight!”

“That’s right!” said Jim. “OK, well, I’ll be seeing you guys later.

“Wait a minute,” said Eric. “You can’t leave me in my hour of need.”

“I have to. I’m one who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs.”

“You mean a coward?”

“Gritless would be a better word,” said Jim.

This was the exuberance of discovering the rhythms and colors of language. I was learning the humor of the unexpected and the freedom in an unwieldy accumulation of words. Far from wanting to sound impressive, I reveled in a chaotic  derangement of the senses.

When “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” came to America a couple of years later, I recognized the same exuberant impulse, particularly in the Dead Parrot sketch:

Mr. Praline: VOOM?!? Mate, this bird wouldn’t voom if you put four million volts through it! He’s bleedin’ demised!

Owner: No no. He’s pining.

Mr. Praline:  He’s not pining. He’s passed on. This parrot is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies. His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig. He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!

Yes, and Death is The Pale Priest of the Mute People, That Grim Ferryman, The Old Floorer.

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Top 9 books of 2011

Top 9 Books of 2011Last month, the New York Times came out with its 10 Best Books of 2011. Seth Rogovoy at the Berkshire Daily mentioned that he hadn’t read any of them, and when I checked the list, I saw that I hadn’t either. Yet we’ve all been reading. Something.

So here is my list of the top 9 books I’ve read in 2011 — fiction and non. (I wasn’t able to come up with a 10th that still resonates with me.) Only two were published this year, but that’s what reading for pleasure is like.

Non Fiction

City Boy, by Edmund White (2009), is White’s memoir about life in the rough and randy NYC of the ’60s and ’70s. White amiably fills the pages with beautiful insights into art, the people he knew and the new paradigms of identity and relationships that gay liberation tried to bring into the world.  The first part of Chapter 1 is so wonderful it should be read aloud:

“In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon…” it begins.

Life, by Keith Richards. Here is the rare guy who got to do his thing, and overall seems to have enjoyed it. As a book, Richards’ life is a fun ride, although things get thin after 1980. Sure I was thrilled to read how he plays those songs, but do I care how he makes bangers and mash? Still, A natural storyteller as well as musician, he manages to share his pleasure with the reader.  After I read the book I read Greil Marcus’ review, which fleshed out shortcomings that I had only sensed. (“Richards needs a Dominican retreat to get away from his Jamaican retreat.” Cry me a river.)

“Positively 4th Street,” by David Hajdu. (2002) Dylan is a nerdy creep. Joan Baez is a narcissistic channeler for Joe Hill. Her sister Mimi is sweet and ethereal and too young to have been swept into the folk music pantheon. Mimi’s lover-then-husband, writer-turned-musician Richard Fariña, always a half-step behind Dylan, pulls the couple into the folk-rock mainstream. Easily the most engaging of the four main characters in this history of the folk boom, Fariña was the kind of guy who would meet you in a bar for drinks, and you’d walk out hours later having agreed to a grandiose plan to write a joint novel.

“Dylan was offensive in that he would really be rude to people, and Dick wouldn’t really be rude to people. But Dick was like, ‘Look at me — here I am. Dig me!’ Dylan was like, ‘Look all you want. You’ll never see me.’ ”

The First Tycoon,  by T.J. Stiles. (2009) I loved American history when I was growing up, but had an aversion to Captains of Industry like steamship and railroad pioneer Cornelius Vanderbilt. But the story of “The Commodore” was instructive to me in this time of teetering economics. Vanderbilt was among the first to understand the power of the abstract economics of capitalism: corporations, the stock market, competition and monopolies. He constructed his railroad empire as much in the board room and on data as on the ground of running tracks.  His relentlessness over some 80 years makes for a biography that doesn’t flag.

Secret Historian,  by Justin Spring. (2010) The fascinating biography of  the American writer Samuel Steward who began his career as a novelist in the circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and later reinvented himself as tattoo artist Phil Sparrow. As Phil Andros he wrote gay porn. Steward was a lifelong journal keeper, who kept detailed notes of his sexual experiences which he provided to researcher Alfred Kinsey. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and dying at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Steward’s remarkable life is a reminder of how awful things were for gays, of the price paid for being in the closet — or for not being in the closet.

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. (2010) Even in decline, Theodore Roosevelt was more vital, more vivid than most people. This is the last of Morris’s trilogy on the 26th president. It begins with the set piece of Roosevelt’s post-White House African big game hunt in 1910. It follows through endless election seasons, including a failed run for president in 1912, the disastrous Amazon expedition of 1913, and Roosevelt’s energetic lobbying for national preparedness in the run-up to World War I. Between it all, Roosevelt wrote, wrote, wrote. A late-life magazine profile was titled, “The Most Interesting American.” In Morris’s telling, that description is certainly accurate.

Fiction

History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago. (1996)  On the potency of words and imagination, and the Christian conquest of Muslim Portugal. A milquetoast proofreader alters a historical text with the addition of a single word and his life changes, as he struggles to re-imagine the history of his city to conform to his emendation, and win the woman he loves.

House of Meetings, by Martin Amis. (2006) The first book by Amis I ever read, and the first of two that I read this year.  An intense, grimly absorbing exploration of Stalinism and the Gulag and a probe of the Russian mentality, reflected in the lives of two brothers.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. This is the only book listed on the Washington Post’s “Best of” list that I’ve read. It’s also the first of Patchett’s books that I’ve read, and I found its story of hide and seek in the Amazon jungle, with its twists and revelations, neither shallow nor deep. The character of overbearing, manipulative Dr. Annick Swenson, though, is a fascinatingly drawn study of  ego and will. Glenn Close could play her in the movie.

That’s my list. Please add your top 9 books of the year, or top 10, or 5…

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‘Cartoon dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman.’

Comic Sans was created to give Microsoft Bob a cartoon voiceI seem to remember that one definition of a weed is a flower you don’t like and which grows uncontrollably. I realized the font called Comic Sans was a weed after seeing this video a few years ago in which designer Vincent Connare tells how he created the font to mimic the lettering in comic strips.

Looking over the brand new Microsoft Bob, Connare realized that “cartoon dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman.” And Comic Sans was born as a remedy.

Suddenly I was noticing Comic Sans everywhere. In newsletters. On flyers. In emails and YouTube videos. People turn to it as they turn to any cliche. Using Comic Sans indiscriminately this way is tacky, like a bad hairpiece.

Comic Sans is as hated as anything ubiquitous could be — see here and here. The Onion has had its say on the Comic Sans hilarity factor. And this parody shows Hitler’s reaction to Comic Sans.

Now comes “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole,” which Lori Rice, who knows more fonts than anybody I know, has brought to my attention.  Written by Mike Lacher and published in McSweeney’s, the piece is a rant from a font on steroids. It aims to put some muscle behind Comic Sans’s runaway popularity.

But that’s just part of the joke. Comic Sans was created to be a touch of whimsy in the garden. The people who use it as their serious default font are just blowing dandelion seeds around.

One cliche upon another is tacky, tacky, tacky.

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Going green.

God and Moses in "The Comic Torah"Moses is black and God is green — and a she — and both bear a strong  resemblance to their real-life creators in “The Comic Torah,” a graphic reimagining of history’s enduring bestseller.

Husband and wife Aaron Freeman and Sharon Rosenzweig have written and illustrated a biblical midrash that is colorful, deep, funny and mind-blowing — just like the original.

And just like in the original, holy business is a messy business. And no one in the Torah is more contradictory and unfathomable than God herself, known here as YHWH.

“Vain, opinionated, wrathful and flirtatious, her larger-than-life personality impresses itself on followers and enemies alike,” Kent Worcester wrote in a review in The Comics Journal.  “[The Comic Torah] doesn’t censor the source material but instead revels in its strangeness and perversity.”

As the Five Books unroll — with each Torah portion presented in a sumptuous double spread —  the relationship between God and Israel develops in all its glory and chaos.  What caught my imagination was the shifting relationship between God and Moses, sometimes like parent and child, other times like mistress and servant, and still others as mismatched lovers, even as Moses dreams of the Promised Land.

Those dreams are not so innocent and holy. Rosenzweig and Freeman depict the Israelites’ ultimate quest as a blonde bombshell called Honey “The Land” Milkand.  Other characters include an oily Jacob, with a suit, narrow tie and pencil moustache, and a dreadlocked Aaron. Other gods, dwelling in the etymological mists of the biblical text, make an appearance,  including Zeus, who God turns to for advice. “You have a pantheon of support,” she complains. “I’m a single parent.”

“The Comic Torah” doesn’t disparage the tradition that has grown up around the Torah. Freeman and Rosenzweig have clearly wrestled with the text. But they have also tapped into one of the secrets of the Torah’s resilience, it’s weirdness and primalness. “The Comic Torah” reads like a strand of tradition that never made it into the canon.

And it’s often sharply funny. As God reveals to Moses her plans for a Tabernacle in the desert she conjures the image of a unicorn. “To cover the ceiling — Tachash skin!” she says. “Wow, it’s beautiful,” Moses says, gazing at the creature whose non-existence has broken every child’s heart. “Can I have one?” “No,” God says, “I’m only making one. But you can kill it for me.”

I wonder how some of the jokes will hold up, particularly popular references such as “Jew Tube” and to the Obama presidential campaign. (Joshua is a ringer for the president.) On the other hand, the Torah comes around every year, and is new every year, as Freeman and Rosenzweig acknowledge. “The Comic Torah,” they write “is a snapshot of the arguments we had this year. Next year, different arguments.”

And let us say: Amen.

Disclosures are in vogue. I’m never quite sure if the people who disclose really need to disclose, or if they get some sort of ego rush from doing it. While I’m sorting that out, I’ll tell you that I’m a big fan of Ben Yehuda Press, which published “The Comic Torah.” I wrote about another one of their books here. Also, I was a member of a group that helped fund the printing of “The Comic Torah.” So go now and read.

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Believe in magic.

The Magician of Lublin, by Isaac Bashevis SingerThis article in Tablet about the reissue of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel The Magician of Lublin made me dip back into my memory to figure out whether I read the book or saw the movie first. It might have been the film first, with Alan Arkin playing the restless magician Yasha Mazur. Either way, the story had a profound effect on me, on how I view possibilities and limits in life, and the book remains one of my favorites.

If my history with The Magician of Lublin were a current question, I could enter a few keywords and perhaps draw from the cloud the dates I read the book and saw the movie.

Search is one of the greatest inventions of our time, a bit of magic compared to the alternative:  going through boxes from decades ago to see if I saved the ticket stub from the movie and, by chance, wrote the date on it.  Tedium.

Lacking facts, I’m free to remember the story of my discovery of Singer’s world of the damned and the doomed as I think it happened  or, failing that, as I wanted it to happen.

The reissue of the novel comes at the 50th anniversary of its original printing.  In his Tablet article, Adam Kirsch notes the plot of  The Magician of Lublin “is one that must have resonated personally for Singer, since it is substantially the same as those of Enemies: A Love Story and Shadows on the Hudson: A man suffers a spiritual crisis as he juggles love affairs with three different women.”

This is a much more insightful and certainly more subtle description of what I’ve always thought of the story: A depressed Jewish magician sleeps with three women at once and remains depressed.

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Let me be Frank!

Anne Frank

It’s Holocaust Remembrance Month at Scholastic, the Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Google and Bank of America of book publishers. And I say this with an exclamation point, so you know how important I think you should think it is!

In the edition of Scholastic’s Arrow catalogue that came home from school with my son last week, I found the familiar face of Anne Frank smiling at me from a spread called “It’s Time To Celebrate!” which also included books for Poetry Month,  Mother’s Day, Earth Day and April Fools’ Day. In addition to Anne’s own “Diary of a Young Girl” (The World-Famous Autobiography! as Scholastic informs us), the Holocaust Remembrance Month offerings include the “Holocaust Pack” (3 Stories of the Holocaust!).

I don’t know which is the most offensive, the continued romanticizing of the Holocaust and sugar coating of Anne Frank’s life and terrible death; the clueless placement of the Shoah alongside mundane and even trivial “celebrations”; the grotesquely named  Holocaust Pack, which sounds like it should come wrapped with a slab of bubble gum inside; or those damned exclamation points!

Beware when exclamation points are confused with periods. It means the writer has no clue as to how to create emphasis or focus, or doesn’t believe the reader will be able to draw the proper conclusion from a sentence, or fears the reader might somehow miss the sentence altogether, and so decides to say “look at me, look at me” by punctuating with an exclamation point.

But emphasize everything, as one of my university professors taught, and you emphasize nothing. Anne and her family hid from the Nazis for two years! Scholastic tells us, not far from Fool your friends with these hilarious jokes and pranks!

In that case, doesn’t Anne at least deserve two exclamation points?!

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Failure is an orphan quote.

Air quotes quotes and orphan quotes around "coffee" and "churros"

If the desire to “go green” leaves you feeling a bit overwhelmed, keep it simple with a “less is more” attitude…

“Go green”? “Less is more”? Why, exactly, are there quotation marks around these phrases (which I found in a newsletter)? Certainly not because they’re quotations.

They’re what my friends Kim and Elizabeth, nimble writers both, call orphan quotes.

Orphan quotes are quotation marks that people habitually use to surround a word or sometimes two. More recently they’ve broken out of the written sphere, becoming air quotes.

I’m very much against them. My hard line on orphan quotes was solidified when I read a pamphlet called “On Punctuation,” which my friend Glenn had given to me.

“Quotation marks should be used honestly and sparingly…” it advised.

Now that I’m able to search for it online, I find that what I thought was a pamphlet actually is a chapter in a book of essays, The Medusa and the Snail, written by Lewis Thomas and published in 1979.

Dr. Thomas’s admonitions have stuck with me through the years:

Above all, quotation marks should not be used for ideas that you’d like to disown… Nor should they be put in place around cliches; if you want to use a cliche you must take full responsibility for it yourself and not try to fob it off on anon. or on society.”

Simply put, people use orphan quotes when they use a cliche or some other form of lazy writing they don’t want to take responsibility for. It’s cowardice.

For a couple years now, my friend Ben has been carrying out a worthy crusade against the misplaced apostrophe. And so I was glad to discover today that the Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks is performing a similar public service by cataloging misused quotation marks.  It’s where I snagged the photo for this entry.

To quote Dr. Thomas: “The most objectionable use of quotation marks … is seen in advertising, especially in advertisements for small restaurants…”  To look at just a few of the blog’s photos amply proves this point.

[ADDITION: And here is the Gallery of “Misused” Quotation Marks.]

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