Author: Allegra Goodman
Year: 2006
Genre: Literary fiction

Intuition is the story of an academic controversy in which one graduate student accuses another of falsifying results. There's a lot of talk in the book about how science is a search for "truth," while I've always understood it to be a search for "facts." In this case, truth is hard to come by: not only the scientific truth of the results of the experiment in question, but even the more mundane truth about what happened in the laboratory.

Goodman draws up her characters masterfully. What I liked most about it is that there are no clear good guys and bad guys. Instead, you sympathize first with one character, then with another. I really wanted to take sides one way or the other, but I couldn't do it; the characters were too complex.

DMZ Vol. 1: On the Ground

Author: Brian Wood
Year: 2006
Genre: Graphic novel

There's a civil war going on in North America. Long Island belongs to one side, New Jersey belongs to the other, and Manhattan is the DMZ. A young reporter gets stranded there and has to find a way to survive, and hopefully send back some exclusive news.

The comic's first impact is a visceral reminder that war is real, and that modern war happens to everyday people in the place where they live. Amid the horrific vision of a bombed-out lower Manhattan, you're forced to remember that the realities of bombed-out Baghdad (and countless other places as well, but especially Baghdad) are just as close to home.

Premise aside, the book's plot and characters are interesting enough to carry you through the first few issues. Future installments will tell whether they're meant to function as your guide through the nightmare landscape of urban war, or will exist as independent entities in their own right.

Unknown Quantity

Author: John Derbyshire
Year: 2006
Genre: Science history

I like math. I was a math minor in college, and would have double-majored if I could have taken math classes on my junior year abroad. In high school I was really good at math, but when I took honors math classes in college I was just good enough to hang on for the ride. I realized that, as much as I enjoyed learning about group theory, complex analysis, and the search for really big prime numbers, I wasn't good enough to do it professionally. Sadly, if you don't live in that world full-time, it's astonishingly difficult to keep up with it at all, and so I let my math lapse after graduation.

Unknown Quantity is a rare exception: a book about math and math history made accessible to the interested layperson. And Derbyshire doesn't just write about math; he writes about algebra, possibly the most abstract and conceptually challenging branch of theoretical mathematics. By covering the history of algebra over the last 6000 years or so, the book follows how emerging awareness of numbers in ancient Babylonia led to the Greeks, the Renaissance, and the algebra that most people remember (or don't) from high school. Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, algebra took a sharp turn to the abstract, but Derbyshire makes clear connections to show how it evolved from more representational problems. He challenged me, but he never lost me entirely.

The Two Towers

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Year: 1954
Genre: Fantasy

After whiling away a summer afternoon with Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring movie, I wanted to continue the story. So, I bought the DVD of The Two Towers online, and reread the book while I waited for it to arrive. Of course we watched the movie as soon as it got here, and of course my attention was drawn primarily to the differences between the book and movie versions.

Now, I'm not one of those die-hard LOTR fans who finds fault with any deviation from the original. On the contrary, out of the four most important variations I noticed, two of them were positive:

  • In the book, Merry and Pippin convince the Ents to fight against Saruman. In the movie, Treebeard is reluctant to join either side in the war, and Merry has to trick him into walking near Isengard and seeing the devastation for himself. I like Merry's having to do something clever (any redeeming moments are welcome for those two troublemakers), and it's really effective on film to see the horror of deforestation from an Ent's perspective.
  • In the movie, but not in the book, the elves come to the aid of the Rohirrim at Helm's Deep. This led to some cool fight scenes and gave Viggo Mortensen the chance to speak a little more Elvish. More important, though, the alliance between elves and men is one of the recurring themes of the epic, and it's thrilling to see the Anglo-Saxon-like Rohirrim and the numinous Elves fighting together.

I also noted two differences that I thought took away from the story:

  • Tolkien's Faramir is immune to the Ring's temptation, while Jackson's Faramir actually kidnaps Frodo and tries to bring him back to Gondor. I believe that Jackson is making the point that all men are corruptible, but the point of Faramir in the story is just the opposite. He represents the noblest tendencies remaining in the fallen race of Gondor, the nobility of Númenor that persists in his line. In the movie, he wants to steal the ring, but in the book, he says to Sam, "Not if I found it on the highway would I take it."
  • On a related note, the sibling rivalry between Boromir and Faramir is played up much too strongly in the movie. Mostly, I don't like Jackson's interpretation of Denethor (who doesn't even appear in the book until The Return of the King). The Steward should be mad with despair, for regardless of whether Mordor or Gondor prevails in the war, the reign of the Stewards will end. He should have a sense of mortality and impending doom on a grand scale, not just for himself but for his family, as if he had failed his noble ancestors. With such a hopeless outlook, he should have no interest in playing favorites between his sons.

On balance, I consider the book and the movie to be complementary ways of telling the story. Tolkien's writing is strongly visual, presenting a challenge to which Jackson's production design responds admirably (while also working wonders for the New Zealand tourist board).

The Penelopiad

Author: Margaret Atwood
Year: 2005
Genre: Literary fiction / Mythology

Margaret Atwood retells the story of the Odyssey from Penelope's point of view, interspersed with commentary from the twelve maids that Odysseus kills after his return to Ithaca. These days, there seems to be a trend of new fiction based on classic literature (see Finn and March), and Penelope is an obvious character to pick up, especially for someone like Margaret Atwood.

The book did have its interesting parts. I liked the look at Penelope's early days as a sheltered princess in Sparta, ugly-duckling cousin to the slutty Helen. It's easy to forget that those mythological royal families had more intermarriage than the 19th century crowns of Europe, and that characters who are generally considered to symbolize different aspects of femininity are also people who would have known each other. In fact, I'd say in general that Atwood succeeds when she reconsiders mythological characters as people, rather than symbols.

Unfortunately, though, through most of the book, she uses the characters of the Odyssey as symbols that suit her own agenda. Her treatment of the maids is the most glaring example: in Homer's version, it's true that they are needlessly slaughtered by Odysseus and Telemachus, but there's not much more to say about them. Atwood inflates them into figures of more importance by saying it over and over, albeit in different literary forms: there's free-verse poetry, folk music, courtroom drama, and even a sea shanty. The introduction notes that "the maids form a chanting and singing Chorus," but this isn't the sort of chorus you'll find in Aeschylus; rather than commenting on the action of the main story, they have their own story to tell. And to repeat. In the end, I didn't feel sorry for them anymore, just guilty and defensive on behalf of men for the mistreatment of women throughout the history of the world.


Author: David Almond
Year: 1998
Genre: Children's fantasy

This is a dreamy, mystical story about a young man named Michael who is trying to deal with life crises that are bigger than he is: a new home, an unwell infant sister, and his parents' being distracted by all that, leaving him to work things out for himself. Plus, there's a man with wings living in the garage, suffering from arthritis, living on aspirin, Chinese takeout, and beer, and waiting to die.

It's a story about balancing the spiritual and the material, two tendencies that are symbolized by our young hero's friends. With his school buddies, Coot and Leakey, he stars at soccer and clowns around. His companion in his personal struggles, however, is his next-door neighbor Mina. She does not go to school, but is receiving an education at home that involves birding, sculpture, and William Blake. Michael stays at home for some time exploring an old abandoned house with Mina and meeting the mysterious Skellig in the middle of the night, while he builds the inner resources to deal with his life's problems. There's a difficult scene, drawing on the story's symbolism as well as the trials of friendship among 12-year-olds, in which Michael's school friends come to visit him at home, and he joins in their mockery of Mina. It's clear that Michael's place is in the world, but he hasn't truly come to terms with things until he can return to school, to be friends with Leakey and Coot, and also with Mina.

Names are of great importance in this story. Both Michael and Skellig come from the island Skellig Michael, and Michael is also the name of a winged angel. Mina is short for Wilhelmina, which echoes William Blake. Coot is simply a nutty character, while Leakey, a character who expresses skepticism about the evolution of human beings from the great apes, refers to the family of paleontologists. Perhaps most important, the baby sister is nameless throughout most of the story, and the family's act of naming her at the book's conclusion definitively recognizes her as one of the living.

Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series

Author: Eliot Asinof
Year: 1963
Genre: History

An interesting history of the 1919 Black Sox scandal from a journalistic perspective. It's the book that John Sayles's movie was based on.

I picked up this book (for $1!) because of my casual interest in baseball history, but baseball isn't really the point of the story at all. Instead, it's a sad reminder of the way that power protects the powerful, whatever side of the law they might be on, while pawns and servants (innocent or not) are left to take the fall. It seems clear that all of the eight banned players were present during discussions about throwing the World Series, and that at least some of them actually cheated during the games. It's also clear, though, that the gamblers who really benefited from the fix got away clean while cheating the players out of most of their payoff. In the end, there was a sort of unspoken agreement among the more powerful gamblers, lawyers, and baseball team owners that the easiest face-saving decision would be to treat the eight suspected players as harshly as possible — and then to do nothing else. It's even more tragic because baseball is all that guys like Shoeless Joe Jackson knew how to do.

I wonder how much has changed since 1919. Of course, with baseball players now regularly paid in the millions, they have little reason to throw games for money. They're much more powerful than they were. I believe, though, that there still exists a sort of collusion among teams, players, and the media to perpetuate a wholesome, nostalgic view of baseball. (How often did "kids" and the "national pastime" come up in contemporary discussion of the 1919 World Series? How much are they mentioned in connection with Barry Bonds?) Talking about baseball as a cultural institution is good for business, after all, and talking about it as a business, well, isn't.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature

Author: Robin Brande
Year: 2007
Genre: YA fiction

Mena begins her ninth grade year in a bit of an awkward situation: she comes from an evangelical family, but all the kids from her church are ostracizing her. ... Freaks of Nature is her diary, and as we follow the story, we learn what all the trouble is. It's the story of a girl who's learning to think for herself, and beginning to create an adult relationship with her parents.

I don't read a lot of this kind of book, so there's not much for me to compare it to. I do know that Brande is a bit misleading on the science. Of course, the evolution unit in Mena's biology class becomes a battleground for the fundamentalist kids, and evolution itself is treated as a metaphor for personal change. BUT! That means there's a lot of equivocation between character development and actual biological evolution, which does not happen in one individual's lifetime! I feel like the science teacher needs to come out at one point and say "Yes, that's very good, you feel like you're evolving, but that's not what I mean when I talk about natural selection."

Meaghan and I talked a lot about who the target audience must be for a book like this. It's certainly not addressed to the hard-core fundamentalists, who would probably take exception to their being portrayed as snotty teenagers. In the end, we decided that it might be intended for kids like Mena, who come from a religious background but are starting to question. On the other hand, it might be meant for kids like her boyfriend Casey, who know that most religious belief is ridiculous, but haven't had much to do with believers before.

Girls vol. 1: Conception

Author: Luna Brothers
Year: 2007
Genre: SF

One dark night in Pennystown (pop. 65), Ethan picks up a beautiful, naked, silent "mystery girl" on the side of the road. He takes her home, where she forces herself on him (not meeting much resistance). In the morning, she lays eggs that give birth to identical mystery girls, who then begin assaulting the women of Pennystown.

This first volume features the madness and uncertainty of the beginning of a monster movie. There are freak occurrences, violent deaths, interpersonal conflicts, and a wide supporting cast who may or may not turn out to be simple stereotypes. The series may go on to say something interesting about gender roles and relationships, or it may turn out to be a pulp story with sexy zombies.

The art is unusual, featuring digitally enhanced color separation, lighting, and depth-of-field effects. More important, the characters' visual representation supports their individual personalities, which is essential to keeping track of the dozen or so townspeople.

Town Boy

Author: Lat
Year: 1980
Genre: Memoir

In his native Malaysia, Lat is a phenomenon. A cartoonist since age 9, he's been enormously popular for the last thirty years, and was even commissioned to draw the artwork for AirAsia jets. Of course, he's practically unknown here in the United States, but First Second Press (publishers of American Born Chinese) are introducing him to American audiences by publishing two autobiographical volumes, Kampung Boy and Town Boy.

I haven't read the first volume, but that was no handicap at all. This book starts off when Lat's family moves from a village (or kampung) to the town of Ipoh, and follows the exploits of Lat and his friends through their first (age 10) and last (age 17) years of school together. They discover rock 'n' roll, cheat on the cross country race, perform in the marching band, and dream about pretty girls.

The striking thing about this kind of story is the mix of similarities and differences from what I would find familiar. While all the subplots could (and probably would) be found in an American memoir from the same generation, the setting shows some tremendous cultural differences. Malaysia is a very diverse country, and the English edition of the book includes some aspects of Malaysian English (notably the multi-purpose particle lah) as well as bits of dialogue in Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese, and what I believe is Tamil. Also, the schools are boys only, and the British-derived educational system makes some of the school scenes difficult to understand completely.

Despite the foreignness of the Malaysian setting, though, the overall feeling is of the warmth of friends and family. Lat has fond memories of childhood fun and mischief, an engaging storyteller's style, and a wicked caricaturist's sense of humor. I look forward to reading Volume 1.

The Road

Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006
Genre: Novel

Some years following an unnamed cataclysmic event, a father and son wander through the desolate wasteland that was once America. They hide from bandits and cannibals, living on hidden caches of canned goods and other forgotten products of the earlier world. It's pretty bleak.

I read the story as a thought-experiment in morality. The boy and his father constantly reassure themselves that they are "good guys," still "carrying the fire." If the earth can no longer support life, though, then everyone is doomed. What does it mean to be a "good guy" in such a world? When faced with a choice between hoarding a week's worth of food, or sharing with a stranger and running out in six days, what is the right thing to do?

Although he's grown up almost entirely in the post-cataclysmic world, the son has somehow acquired a very highly developed moral sense. Not only are murder and robbery out of the question, but even taking advantage of a windfall — for instance, the untouched survivalist bunker that they find by chance — must be explained and rationalized, its original owners supposed to be dead or otherwise past caring.

The father's morality, on the other hand, has shrunk around the figure of his son, who now takes up the entire universe. What helps the son to survive is good. While the son cares about "other people" in general, the father's concern is with this one specific other person (which may be McCarthy's comment on parenthood).

There's an arresting passage near the end where an old man steals the father and son's few belongings. The father tracks him down and takes everything from him: not just the food and blankets that were not his to begin with, but down to the clothes on his back. The father later says of it, "At least we didn't kill him," to which the son replies, "But we did kill him." This highlights the two characters' different worldviews: the son's feeling of responsibility to all humanity, the father's protectiveness of his remaining flesh and blood.

I initially considered the book's extreme setting to be a place where morality must be reconsidered. The world has basically ended; what consequences can our actions have? The more I read, though, the more I found McCarthy's post-cataclysmic morality to be just as applicable to the real world. After all, nuclear winter or not, all of us are going to die one day, and our every act of selflessness is simply a postponement of someone else's inevitable end.

So what does McCarthy leave us with? He considers different aspects of moral obligation, and vividly describes the horrors of a world where those obligations have not been fulfilled, but provides few clear answers in the end. The book's final image, of a stream with fish swimming in it, does remind us of the fragile beauties of our world, but The Road is not environmentalist polemic. Rather, this image signals the end of our journey into hell; we return, like Dante, "to see the stars again," but changed by the persistent memories of what we have witnessed.

Istanbul: Memories and the City

Author: Orhan Pamuk
Year: 2004
Genre: Memoir

Orhan Pamuk is a lifelong resident of Istanbul, and in this book he tells both the city's history and his own. It's a terribly difficult book for me to write about because there's a lot going on: he doesn't just write a history of Istanbul, but also a history of Istanbul writers and painters (both Turkish and Western), of himself as an Istanbullu, of himself as an Istanbul writer and painter, of certain buildings or classes of building or times of day that he finds evocative, of the different moods that these buildings and times of day evoke. There's a lengthy discussion of hüzün, which is a peculiar sort of Turkish melancholy that the residents of a city can feel collectively because of the knowledge that they have been the capital of three empires but are now marginalized and impoverished.

And, there are the times when Pamuk addresses himself directly to the audience and hints at his deeper purpose in telling the story. That purpose, as I understood it, is to describe the artistic lives of Orhan Pamuk and of Istanbul, but through tangential stories that show their richness as well as their deep interconnections.

Reading this book is like listening to the ramblings of your favorite uncle, if your favorite uncle were Turkish, and a Nobel-winning novelist.


Author: Atul Gawande
Year: 2007
Genre: Science / Current events

A doctor takes a long, hard look at the modern-day practice of medicine and catalogs its weaknesses. He asks a lot of embarrassing questions like "Why don't doctors wash their hands as much as they should?" and "How much money do doctors deserve to make?" and "Is it really worth the effort to eradicate polio?" Gawande is a very readable writer and clear thinker, and following the path of his researching and soul-searching can be educational.

I bought this as a father's day present for my dad, who is also a member of the medical profession. He found it notable that Gawande, a surgeon, would draw attention to his own weaknesses. In particular, Gawande tells the story of a patient who developed a post-operative infection, and admits the possibility that he himself is to blame for spreading it.

In the end of all his investigation, Gawande makes some pretty interesting points. I don't remember all of them (and can't check now, as I've given the book away!) but here's what I remember: don't be negative; take a critical look at what you're doing, in a way that's interesting to you. He intends his advice to be for doctors and other medical professionals, but I think they're more widely applicable, and I've been trying to apply them to my own profession of teaching.

Black Hole

Author: Charles Burns
Year: 2005
Genre: SF/Fantasy

In 1970s Seattle, a mysterious sexually transmitted plague turns teenagers into hideous monsters. Amid typical teenage dramas of love and independence, kids try to continue their normal lives despite the threat -- or fact -- of having caught "the bug."

This is obviously symbolic of something, but what? Does it represent the 1970s herpes outbreak and the AIDS epidemic to come? Does it mean that these former children have a hard time forming and recognizing their new adult identities? Is a loss of innocence signified by acquiring a tail or webbed fingers or a second mouth in your throat that talks when you're sleeping? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's just another impossible situation that young people can find themselves in when they've acquired access to the adult world but don't fully understand adult responsibility.

Burns's detailed, high-contrast black-and-white art provides a feeling of surreality to the whole story.

Mrs. Pollifax on Safari/on the China Station

Author: Dorothy Gilman
Year: 1977; 1980
Genre: Mystery

OK, it was the end of the school year and I needed some brain candy ... and you don't get much better than old Mrs. P. I once knew a fifth grade teacher who used these books to teach geography, and it's not hard to see why (although a lot of the political stuff is really dated now). But of course, I read them for good old-fashioned escapism.

Gilman's languages got better as the series progressed; the Chinese in China Station was correct as far as I could tell, and she made some attempt at reproducing African languages on Safari (I have no idea how faithfully). This is a long way from her Yugoslav characters calling Mrs. Pollifax Amerikanski in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. (It should be Amerikanka.)


Author: Andrew Clements
Year: 2004
Genre: YA fiction

This book isn't just a well-written story about a bright fifth-grader who learns to question authority. It's also a children's introduction to prescriptive and descriptive linguistics. Both linguistics and irreverence are dear to my heart, so of course I love this book. In fact, on rereading (and Meaghan didn't believe me when I told her this) the scene in the end, where an adult Nick goes back to meet his fifth grade teacher, actually made me tear up.

Y: The Last Man Vol. 8: Kimono Dragons

Author: Brian K. Vaughan
Year: 2007
Genre: Action-adventure

In this installment, the party arrives in Japan and splits up, with Yorick and 355 following Ampersand's trail to a Canadian pop star, and Dr. Mann and her new girlfriend looking for Dr. Mann's mother.

The writing is still really creative. One memorable bit was basically porn for girls: a handsome android who says "Tell me about your day" and "Would you like to hold me?"


Author: Neal Stephenson
Year: 2004
Genre: Historical fiction

Stephenson claims to be a science fiction writer, but I have to disagree. Like Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver is not science fiction so much as historical fiction about scientists. Maybe he calls it science fiction because his audience is the same; SF or no, Quicksilver can unquestionably be shelved under "zany fun for geeks."

What a tangle of subplots: there's the Puritan in Restoration England, the early history of the Royal Society, 17th-century financial intrigue a la A Conspiracy of Paper, Louis XIV court intrigue that's not too far removed from Mel Brooks, and two pirate stories. Half the fun is keeping all that in your head.

I'll see if I can still remember it when I get around to reading Book Two.

The Feast of Love

Author: Charles Baxter
Year: 2000
Genre: Literary fiction

The concept of The Feast of Love is that a lot of different people are telling their personal love stories to the character Charlie Baxter. The stories, which intersect, deal with mostly ill-fated love for spouses, partners, children. I originally took the "author as narrator" thing to be a standard post-modern gimmick, but my fellow book club members convinced me that it does serve a purpose: it gives all the characters a reason to tell their story, leading the various narrators to be characters as well, each with their own motivation and point of view.

For the most part, I thought the characters were interesting and believable; I liked some of them, and disliked the ones I was supposed to dislike. The one exception was the teenage character, whose voice I found to be exaggerated and unconvincing. I thought this was something I could talk about with some authority, being a high school teacher, but my fellow book club members disagreed.

The love stories, as I said above, are ill-fated, but that's really what makes a story. Baxter deals with this fact specifically. As one character says after having found true love:

We do what you do in tandem when you belong together ... We fit together. (I avoid saying these things in public; people hate to hear it, as if I'd forced them to eat raw sugar.) There's nothing to talk about to strangers anymore, if you know what I mean. Everything I want to say, I want to say to her. Life has turned into what I once imagined it was supposed to be, as complacent and awful as that sounds. In fact, I don't really want to talk about this anymore. As the poet says, all happy couples are alike, it's the unhappy ones who create the stories.

I'm no longer a story. Happiness has made me fade into real life.

El beso de la mujer araña

Author: Manuel Puig
Year: 1976
Genre: Literary fiction

I read this years ago for a college seminar on voyeurism, and picked it up again, this time in the original, to practice my Spanish.

Other books have led me to write about how speech patterns and dialogue can be tools for characterization, but this book is nothing but dialogue and character. It's a story of two men in a prison cell in 1970s Argentina, the young political prisoner Valentin and the old homosexual Molina, and is written primarily as a record of their conversation. Aside from the talk about their lives in Buenos Aires and their hopes for when they are released, much of the novel is taken up with Molina's retelling the plots of films to pass the time.

Valentin does not talk like Molina. In fact, in developing his characters, Puig shows himself to be practically an applied sociolinguist. Their turn-taking and interrupting, politeness strategies, and discourse styles are distinct. For instance, it's my impression that Molina "talks like a woman," using more typically female conversational styles. (I wonder if Deborah Tannen would agree.) Not only is each character realized and developed through dialogue, but as their relationship grows, their speech patterns mirror those changes. They move away from the self-conscious stereotypes of the revolutionary (brusque, businesslike, analytical) and old queen (emotional, hypersensitive), and become more well-rounded personalities.

The Complete Concrete

Author: Paul Chadwick
Year: 1988
Genre: Science fiction

Most American comics fall into the superhero genre, and a lot of the most thoughtful ones use that genre to make an interesting statement. Concrete falls into that second category, along with Astro City, It's a Bird, and others of my personal favorites.

The concept is the normal guy who is mysteriously granted super powers, a Silver Age cliche that recalls Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk. This time, though, our hero is not a desperate teenager but a grown man, a politician's speechwriter, and recently divorced. Also, unlike his Marvel predecessors, Concrete does not live in a world of superheroes; he is the only one of his kind. This premise leads to a more realistic consideration of the superhero in society: there are government cover-ups, scientific research, celebrity appeal. Concrete becomes a licensed character, and goes on tour with a musician who resembles Prince. Wherever he goes, he is the center of attention.

In the end, it's a poignant story of a man who is granted new opportunities at the same time that the possibility of simple human existence is taken from him. He can (and does) attempt to swim the Atlantic Ocean and climb Mount Everest, but work, romance, and family are no longer part of his life. Throughout all of his trials, though, Concrete remains a believably human character. This volume's cover image says it all: it's a portrait of Concrete, whose two fragile eyes peer out from behind a face of stone.

Pragmatics and Natural Language Understanding

Author: Georgia M. Green
Year: 1996
Genre: Linguistics

It's pretty clear that the meaning of words is conventional. I use the word computer to refer to this thing that I'm typing on because when I write that word to you, you know what I mean. The first time I realized this important fact about language, it seemed like the end of the discussion because it explains so much. On the contrary, though - it's just the beginning.

Pragmatics is the field of linguistic inquiry that explores how language is used to construct meaning between individuals. This can mean the flexibility in the meaning of individual words: we know what computer means, but when I talk about the New York Times, do I mean:

  • a copy of the newspaper (I bought the Times today)
  • the information contained in it (I can get the Times online)
  • the paper's editorial board (The Times says the Democrats are right)
  • the business that publishes the paper (The Times owns the Boston Globe)
  • or what?

Mostly, I judge from the context of the conversation and from what I know of you to determine what you're probably trying to express. This sort of conversational mind-reading guessing game is going on all the time; it's what allows us to express nonverbal ideas in a verbal medium, and to produce infinitely many thoughts with a finite number of words.

Pragmatics also deals with the ways people use language to achieve social goals, from a simple request to an attempt to persuade or change someone's mind. The assumptions we make about other people's prior knowledge are pragmatic, as are the form and function of politeness.

Georgia Green's book explores all this and more. It's a rewarding read for anyone who is interested in the hidden details of language and the assumptions behind its use, as long as they're not put off by a modicum of technical language or too cool to read textbooks for fun. (I'm clearly not.)


Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1966
Genre: Literary fiction

So much has been said about this book that I'm not going to attempt a comprehensive review. Since this is a reread, I'll focus on what I noticed in particular this time:

Imagine that Billy Pilgrim's daughter Barbara is right, and that Billy's time travel and Tralfamadorean dreams are, in fact, hallucinations. He's experiencing an extended episode of post-traumatic stress disorder initially brought on by his presence during the bombing of Dresden. He can't look at his wartime memories, but neither can he look away, so he feels that he has come "unstuck in time." Everyday events remind him unpredictably of the horrors he witnessed (typical of PTSD sufferers, I believe), leading him to see them so vividly that he believes he is literally reliving them.

The constant bouncing between 1945 Dresden and 1960s Babbittry, together with the all-too-human wishful belief that someone out there knows all the answers, starts to take its toll on Billy's sanity. Becoming the sole survivor of a plane crash pushes him off the deep end, and he invents himself some someones in fantastic Kilgore Trout style. The result is the Tralfamadoreans, whose four-dimensional sight tells Billy just what he has always wanted to hear: that one cannot totally escape from horror, but one can ignore it. 130,000 people burned to death? So it goes.

My father also reread Slaughterhouse-five recently, and found it to be a shallow book with little to offer beyond "People die; war is bad; so it goes." I think he might be right about his conclusion, but I don't agree that it comes from shallowness. Rather, I would argue that Vonnegut is expressing humility before the awesome and unspeakable events of war. So it goes, I believe, falls somewhere between a Zen koan and Wittgenstein's "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."


Author: Craig Thompson
Year: 2004
Genre: Autobiographical

Everything seems bigger and more important to a teenager. A bad grade feels like a personal insult, and one bad day can make them think their life is over. As for the things that by any measure carry serious weight - consider romance, or family, or religious faith - adolescents often experience them with an intensity that makes adult life seem a pale imitation. In Blankets, Craig Thompson's art and storytelling somehow transport you back to that phase of life. He reminds us of the 17-year-old's persistent emotional rawness caused by the mere fact of living, the immediacy of the world seen through adolescent eyes.

The story focuses primarily on young Craig's first serious romance, during his senior year of high school. His relationship with Raina begins as a bible-camp flirtation, but when he stays for two weeks at her house, the time they spend together develops an almost religious importance. They offer each other an escape from the constant frustrations of teenage life: school responsibilities, lack of privacy, his family's rigid fundamentalism, her parents' impending divorce. The two are the "blankets" of the title (represented by a quilt that Raina makes for Craig, as well as the constant snowfall of the Midwestern winter); they shelter each other from the harshness of life that teenagers are often so ill-equipped to face alone.

During their two-week idyll, Raina leans on Craig and Craig literally idolizes Raina, as his love for her forces him to question his Christian faith. At first, he worries over literal-minded questions of lust and temptation, but eventually he finds a more profound spirituality, recognizing immanence in her earthly beauty. This brush with the divine is symbolized in the artwork, where a motif of radiance takes on the forms of a snowflake, a pattern in the quilt's fabric, and a halo for the deified Raina.

Their love is a small and fragile thing. After Craig returns home, their connection is quickly broken by long distance and everyday responsibilities. The next ten years of his life are told in a space of some five pages, showing that he has gotten over Raina without allowing the reader to move on as well. On the contrary, we look back with a deep nostalgia for his adolescent romance, and forward to her influence on the adult he will become: an artist, a thinking Christian with more questions than fundamentalism, a man who forms a fully adult relationship with his younger brother.

Perhaps comics, as a combination of images and words, is uniquely able to convey the unmediated emotion of adolescence, the sense of unbearable significance. Thompson makes a strong case: the experience of reading Blankets is like being surrounded by ghosts of your own teenage years. I certainly wouldn't want to return there, but I feel I have a different appreciation of it now.

The Sportswriter

Author: Richard Ford
Year: 1986
Genre: Literary fiction

I recently realized two things: I've lately been splitting my reading attention between serious nonfiction and escapist fiction, and I need more things to do after work. I picked up The Sportswriter because it's the next book club pick for a bookstore in my neighborhood, and thereby supplies me with both a serious novel and a Wednesday-night outing. The club hasn't met yet, so if I gain any new insights on the book, I'll post an update.

This story of a man drifting through life as he tries to find meaning in his comfortable existence struck me as a Fight Club for the '80s (and, I'll admit, I'm talking about the movie because I've never read the book). Ford's Frank Bascombe, like the nameless narrator played by Edward Norton, begins his downward spiral with a feeling that his hard-won materialistic cocoon no longer provides him any solace, acts odd around his girlfriend, breaks off connections with old friends, and ultimately attempts to abandon life-as-he-knew-it altogether.

Where Fight Club's Tyler Durden & Co. take "hitting bottom" as something of a mission statement, though, Bascombe drifts downward slowly, gently, and in a state of complete denial. He doesn't blow up his fellow suburbanites; on the contrary, he swears that suburbia is wonderful, the perfect life for him, all the while failing to find anything fulfilling or meaningful in it. Having been rejected from law school and failed at serious writing, he works half-heartedly at his third-choice job, but tells us over and over that he couldn't imagine anything better. His friends, his girlfriend (Vicki, short for "Victory," whom he can flirt with but never really win), his relationship with his ex-wife: it's the same story over and over, of low expectations masking a crushing disappointment just out of sight.

The style of narration completes the portrait. As a storyteller, Bascombe is continually distracted from his narrative to fill in backstory (though he claims that the past isn't important to him), to protest that his life really is glorious, or simply to make excuses for himself. It's no wonder that, the more serious he gets, the less seriously Vicki takes him.

As a stand-in for modern masculinity, Frank Bascombe is not extreme like Tyler Durden, but perhaps more realistic for that. Many of us might entertain fantasies of mayhem, but in the end, most settle for what Arthur Miller called "quiet desperation" -- and perhaps, like Bascombe, they only survive because they don't realize how desperate they are.

King Solomon's Mines

Author: H. Rider Haggard
Year: 2002 (1885)
Genre: Adventure

This is it: the grand-daddy of adventure stories. It's the story that inspired the pulps that inspired Indiana Jones; its hero is a founding member of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; it's the original source of more cliches than Citizen Kane. There's a lot of expectation built up around such a classic, and Haggard's wild ride does not disappoint. The story features a deadly desert, a long-lost brother, an ancient map, treasure from Biblical times, an evil witch, a king in exile, and an all-out civil war. It's said that Haggard completed the novel on a bet in a whirlwind six weeks of writing, and the reader's experience is similarly breathless.

For modern readers, the "classic" European view of Africa and Africans is always likely to be politically troublesome, and you might worry that King Solomon's Mines would fall on the racist spectrum somewhere between Heart of Darkness and Little Black Sambo. The introduction by Alexandra Fuller deals with just this question, and comes to the surprising conclusion that Haggard (through Quatermain), in his 19th-century way, shows great respect both for Africans as individuals and for the diversity of African culture and geography. Haggard lived in Africa for many years, and his setting is based on a real place, not just a savagely exotic "other." (Lest we get too smug in our own political correctness, Fuller contrasts Haggard's Africa with the pastiche of stereotypes in the most recent film adaptation.)

Squids Will Be Squids: Fresh morals, beastly fables

Author: Jon Scieszka
Year: 1998
Genre: Children's

Another delightfully offbeat Scieszka-Smith collaboration. These guys have got to be the They Might Be Giants of picture books. (Sadly, They Might Be Giants have released a picture book, and shown that they are not, in fact, the They Might Be Giants of picture books.)

Meaghan showed me this book ages ago, but I forgot about it until the other day, when I was reading an article about books with simple language and sophisticated concepts, suitable for use in teaching English and/or literacy to teenagers. Squids Will Be Squids is such a book -- its fables satirize a lot of common foibles in such a way that my students would recognize themselves and their friends -- but it succeeds because it's not designed to be this kind of book. Textbooks read like textbooks; no matter how "fun" they are, they're never really fun. Squids can be funny for kids and parents, something like Sesame Street. It can make you laugh, it can make you think, and it won't make you worry too much about vocabulary.

Y: The Last Man Vol. 7: Paper Dolls

Author: Brian K. Vaughan
Year: 2007
Genre: Action/Adventure

I was an avid Y reader through the sixth collection, but I put off buying #7 because I had heard a lot of disappointed reviews. Specifically, I heard complaints that nothing happened in Paper Dolls, that the story had lost its way.

Now, it's true that the plot doesn't advance a great deal in this story arc. There's a lot of backstory and a few subplots are updated, but we're no closer to any answers to the Great Central Questions. Readers who were once burned by The X-Files may now be feeling a little shy.

That said, I don't count myself among them. I felt that Paper Dolls was putting the pieces in order for an upcoming Big Event (our heroes' arrival in Japan). I have faith in Vaughan, at least for the time being, that he does know where the story is going.

Most important, I'm still enjoying the story. Vaughan, much like my other favorite comics writer of the moment, Joss Whedon, writes characters who feel like individuals. The writer/artist John Byrne once wrote that characters need to look different from one another, targeting comics where you can only distinguish them by the color of their hair or the logo on their costume. Characters in Vaughan (and Whedon) not only look different -- they talk different. That sort of writing can keep my interest through a serial's inevitable lulls.

The Linguistics Wars

Author: Randy Allen Harris
Year: 1993
Genre: Linguistics

I came to this book hoping that Harris would be the Stephen Jay Gould of linguistics: someone who understands the field well, and can explain major ideas in their historical context. Upon reading, though, The Linguistics Wars strikes me more as an academic Homicide: an intimate portrait showing that science is a dirty business done by real, flawed human beings.

Our story begins with Noam Chomsky as a rising star of linguistics and philosophy in the 1950s, and then focuses primarily on the well-established Chomsky c. 1970 and his conflict with a group of former students who broke off to follow a research program called "generative semantics." While the substance of generative semantics and its differences from Chomsky's "interpretive semantics" program do receive some attention, Harris spends far more time on the personal antipathy between Chomsky and the generative semanticists, most notably George Lakoff. I was left with an impression that, whatever the respective merits of the generative and interpretive theories may have been, the actual unfolding of the debate had more to do with personality than with science.

Not that there's anything wrong with that -- necessarily. An early stage of the debate, it seems, was scientifically productive. The dislike that grew between the two camps did inspire its share of nasty ad hominem and polemic, but also caught linguists by their competitive instinct, resulting in some of the field's most original and influential research. With time, though, scientific debate gave way to personal sniping, and eventually, the generative program fizzled and the "wars" faded away.

The moral of the story is that scientific "progress" is largely a product of the culture that the scientists inhabit. (Maybe the comparison of Harris to Gould is not so far wrong, then; see my review of The Mismeasure of Man.) In the case of Chomsky et al. vs. Lakoff et al., that means the culture of research in modern theoretical syntax; and as Harris points out, it's not inaccurate to say that Chomsky, the ultimate victor in the Linguistics Wars, had founded that culture. In a larger sense, though, it also means the culture of the United States in the 1960s and '70s. While Chomsky was (and remains) an outspoken political ultra-liberal, Chomsky-the-academic is deadly serious and strictly authoritarian. (Perhaps he inspired the discussion in Lakoff's Moral Politics of people who are both politically progressive and academically conservative.) Harris contrasts this with a picture of the generative semanticists as academic hippies, bringing the "sex-drugs-rock & roll" counterculture and its collectivist ethos to their way of doing linguistics. Their hypotheses were grand and their failures public; they promised a map of the human mind that, in the end, they could not deliver.

The Hungry Coat

Author: Demi
Year: 2004
Genre: Folklore

I was already familiar with this story, one of the better-known of the Turkish stories of Nasreddin Hodja. (It's also one of the more moralistic, reading almost like an Aesop fable where other Hodja stories are whimsical fantasies or even jokes.) What was new to me, though, was Demi's beautiful artwork. Her illustrations are a tribute to the decorative arts of Turkey, from miniature painting to Anatolian rugs and Iznik tiles.

The incorporation of real Turkish art into the illustration shows Demi's respect for the culture that she takes her story from. Unfortunately, the text itself isn't quite so authentic; this version of the story is more moralistic than any other I've encountered. Whether she felt it was necessary for American audiences, for her own aesthetic, or to fill out pages 31-32 of the picture-book format, Demi concludes the story with a two-page spread that restates the moral about three more times. Without the last two pages, it's a beautiful book; with them, it's a beautiful book that teaches you a lesson.

Salt: A World History

Author: Mark Kurlansky
Year: 2002
Genre: History

I'm not sure what to say about this book. Does salt, as a basic need of human societies past the hunter-gatherer stage, open the door to a uniquely global world history? Kurlansky does connect it to historical figures from Marco Polo to Humphry Davy to Gandhi. Also, as salt is so intimately connected to the home life of ordinary people, there are recipes and other social-historical morsels that provide a sense of common humanity across times and places; after all, how different can "they" be from "us" if everyone makes pickles?

On the other hand, the book as a whole seems somewhat trivial and forgettable. Kurlansky suffers from the same popular-history syndrome as some of the other history books I've reviewed here: it reads like a list of random facts without much narrative force or broader significance. "Salt" is too small a topic, and "world history" too large, for the book to make much of a statement about anything.

Batman: Year One

Author: Frank Miller
Year: 1986
Genre: Mystery

This is my favorite Batman story. Unlike the frenetic, postmodern future-Batman of The Dark Knight Returns, Year One is the story of a young Bruce Wayne as he learns to be Batman. More Death Wish than Watchmen, it's simple, solid, and as spooky as a good Batman story should be.

Batman is a perfect Frank Miller hero: like Daredevil, Marv, and Martha Washington, he is a victim turned vigilante, seeking both personal redemption and social change through violence. Gotham, like Sin City or the Kingpin's New York, is corrupt from top to bottom; but, Miller tells us, one man can try to change all that with little more than his fists, his friends, and his righteous anger. Of course, the struggle is never-ending, and our hero is doomed to failure, but he will win some battles along the way and leave his city somewhat less disgustingly rotten in the end.

I read the new edition, which includes some really cool David Mazzuchelli sketchbooks as a bonus feature.

Borrowed Time vol. 1 & 2

Author: Neal Shaffer
Year: 2007
Genre: Mystery / Adventure

I wasn't sure whether I should post about this, because it's basically a monthly comic book published in graphic-novel format. In the end, I decided that anything with an ISBN belongs in my LibraryThing catalog, and can merit a review here.

Borrowed Time is the story of a journalist who goes to investigate the Bermuda Triangle and gets sucked into the world of lost things. I feel like this fantasy idea has been used and overused, but the only example I can recall offhand is an episode of Ren & Stimpy that otherwise bears no resemblance to Shaffer's world of bleak desperation. Through the first two issues, our hero has tried to find his place in his new world without giving up hope of returning to the old one; time will tell what happens to him.

The "regular guy walking the line between coping and denial when the world he knew is gone" storyline bears some resemblance to Y: The Last Man, but Vaughan's man-killing science-fiction plague is replaced by a wall of stubbornly unexplained mystery and obfuscation. Like any good serial writer, Shaffer will have to make monthly revelations around the edges of the mystery; the test of the series will come from whether we believe we're getting closer to its center.

Franny and Zooey

Author: J. D. Salinger
Year: 1961
Genre: Literary fiction

Just having finished a volume of Walker Percy's densely technical philosophy, I picked up Salinger because I hoped his conversational prose would provide a change in my reading. As it turned out, the style was certainly different enough - it took me six weeks to finish The Message in the Bottle, whereas Franny and Zooey clocked in at around twenty hours - but once you scratch the surface, you find that the two books share a common theme.

Like The Message in the Bottle, Franny and Zooey is a deeply spiritual book, concerned with the search for transcendence and relevance amid the artifice of modern (particularly academic) life. Ultimately, both arrive at the idea that, since modern man cannot happily be in the world (because it's full of phoneys), we are faced with a choice between cynical alienation and religious detachment; and that, although the two orientations may share some outward similarities, they are fundamentally opposite ways of being. The choices are nothing less than suffering and enlightenment.

Franny Glass is clearly suffering. In the first quarter of the book, the story "Franny," we see her put up with her pretentious Ivy League boyfriend, stop putting up with him, criticize herself for her impatience, and pass out in a restaurant. Much of her frustration seems rooted in the classic Salinger problem of upper-class social conformity, and the near-impossibility of escaping it. But while Holden Caulfield had to be institutionalized, Franny seems to be seeking release through the gentler madness of religious mysticism, specifically the Jesus prayer.

The remainder of the book is called "Zooey" for Franny's next-eldest brother in the Glass clan (see also Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"). In this story -- almost a one-act play, really, since it's all dialogue -- Zooey, an actor, attempts to cure his sister's malaise by playing the roles of Young Groucho Marx, Philosophy Professor, and his late older brother Seymour. In the end, Franny sees through to her brother's authentic self, and this mere touch of authenticity seems to bring her peace, if not satori.

Any reading of "other" Salinger novels requires a comparison to The Catcher in the Rye, so here it comes: I found Franny and Zooey more accessible because it's not as adolescent. Like Holden, Franny is suffering with problems that people with real problems don't have time to worry about; still, her spiritual crisis has more adult, intellectual relevance than Holden's acute affluenza. We can feel bad for Holden, even fall in love with him if we're 15-year-old girls, but from Franny we might learn something.

The Message in the Bottle

Author: Walker Percy
Year: 1975
Genre: Philosophy

When I started reading this book, about six weeks ago, I was really excited. The introductory essay, "The Delta Factor," is written in an engaging style (Percy was primarily a novelist) and draws together provocative questions on modern alienation, the nature of consciousness, the scientific method, the relevance of religion in the technological age, and the fundamental philosophy of language. At its root, he says, a lot of these questions lead back to our complete lack of understanding of the relationship between a word and what that word means, and a Martian coming to Earth to investigate that connection (Percy's metaphor for "non-psychologist" or "novelist") would find no satisfactory answers from philosophy, behaviorist psychology, structural semiotics, or cognitive science. The essay itself is such a wide-ranging, skeptical, incisive feat of language geekery that I felt it was the sort of thing I myself might write, if I were better read in philosophy. The essay awakened my own inquisitive spark.

Unfortunately, the further I read, the more Percy lost me. The book is a collection of essays about the philosophy of language that he wrote over a twenty-year period, so it's bound to be uneven. It also documents his thoughts over a span of years (roughly 1955-1975) during which tremendous changes (not to say "advances") took place in cognitive linguistics, so some of the complaints about the inadequacy of theory that he made in Essay A were no longer valid when he wrote Essay B, not to mention now that another thirty years have passed. Percy was clearly frustrated with the failure of behaviorism to explain language; well, I was frustrated to read his response to behaviorist theories of language now that they have been thoroughly discredited.

Another serious problem with the book - and perhaps Percy's editor is to blame - is that the essays are arranged from most accessible to most technical. The pieces toward the beginning deal with alienation, metaphor, and Percy's way of realizing his Christian belief through his own writing, all interesting topics addressed with curiosity and clarity. Later in the book, though, it's all behaviorist psychology, structural semiotics, and technical philosophy of language. In parts, you have to know the differences between signs and symbols, or between the Vienna school and the Scholastics, to make any sense of it. As a result, I started spending longer and longer times away from the book - hence the six weeks.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is the same kind of nerd that I am; and then, I would only advise them to read the first half.

Homicide: A year on the killing streets

Author: David Simon
Year: 1991
Genre: True Crime, Journalism

The woman who plays Maria on Sesame Street once told a story about a friend of hers who tried to impress a young child by saying "Guess what? I know Maria." The kid felt such familiarity with the TV show that she responded, "So? I know her, too."

After reading Homicide, I get a bit of that feeling every time I see a police officer. David Simon's year-long chronicle follows a shift of eighteen Baltimore City homicide detectives through searches, autopsies, interrogations, arrests, and trials, through sixteen-hour days working high-profile police shootings and child murders, and ghettos where drug murders happen almost daily. By the end, you feel like you've come to know them: their black humor, personality clashes, red-tape frustration, borderline alcoholism, expertise, instinct, and the sheer amount of work that goes into police work. Simon also communicates a deep respect for these men (and pretty much all of them are men) who face acts of absolute evil every day and still somehow maintain their sanity.

I picked up this book because I was a big fan of the TV show, and it was interesting to note the correspondences as I read. A few plot points are lifted from the book (the polygraph by Xerox, for instance), and some of the characters seem to be drawn on real Baltimore detectives. The TV producers used innovative writing and filming techniques to make the show seem up-close and personal, but in book form, the stories have an intimacy that can't be explained by the mere fact that it really happened that way.

Assassination Vacation

Author: Sarah Vowell
Year: 2005
Genre: History

This was a quick, entertaining read about presidential assassinations. I haven't had this much fun since I saw Assassins (and I've had the soundtrack stuck in my head the whole time I've been reading this book). There are a lot of interesting historical details about Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, but mostly it's the story of the author's compulsion to visit morbid presidential history sites while forcing her friends to tag along.

Since it's a book full of trivia about one woman's obsession with historical minutiae, Vowell's attempt to conclude the book with a hint of grander significance (weird coincidences in history give us a sense that life might not be random and meaningless) falls flat. It doesn't matter, though - that's not the point of the book. Vowell is more like the high school history teacher who can make you like her class, even if you don't like history, because she evidently loves it so much. Since the McKinley chapter, I've been feeling strange urges to check out the new biography of T.R., and if I do, it's to her credit.

The Best American Mystery Stories 2000

Editor: Donald Westlake, Otto Penzler
Year: 2000
Genre: Mystery

It seems they don't make mystery stories like they used to.

In the introduction to this collection, Otto Penzler defines mysteries as "any story in which a crime or the threat of a crime is central to the theme or plot," which traditionally (to me, at least) always meant detective fiction. Out of the twenty stories in this book, though, only two or three could be described that way (and then only loosely; for example, "Annie's Dream" by Bentley Dadmun follows a senior citizen as he tries to answer some old questions for the owner of his retirement community). There are two private eyes for hire, two legal dramas, one quasi-police procedural, and zero Miss Marples assembling all the suspects in the drawing room for a decisive confrontation.

Instead, the collection features disturbing, morally ambiguous stories that offer a view inside the mind of a killer. Favorite formulas include the good person who is forced by circumstance to do evil deeds ("Running Out of Dog" by Dennis Lehane), the point of view of a murderer who may or may not seem sympathetic at the beginning ("Sheep" by Thomas H. McNeely), and the criminal who takes things a step too far and finally gets what's coming to him ("The Island in the River" by Chad Holley). The stories are included in alphabetical order by the author's last name, but coincidentally, seven of the last eight are really creepy, leaving you with an aftertaste of what Buffy Summers would call "the wig."

I'm sure there's a lot of sociological analysis that could be done here. For instance, compare The Best American Mystery Stories with CSI:. Both feature a preponderance of morally depraved characters whose crimes sometimes approach mystery-horror, but CSI: situates these nasty individuals within a morally upright world where the inexorable trail of evidence (and David Caruso's righteous indignation) leads to their inevitable apprehension by the authorities. In the book, though, some of the nastiest characters get away, or fall into the hands of someone even nastier. Even more tragic are the good people, upright characters in a depraved world, who must sacrifice their closest friends and family, and then pay the consequences. Both TV and literature give recognition to the darkness within us; perhaps mass culture seeks to reassure its audience with happy endings, while individual writers of thrillers (at least the thrillers that Otto Penzler likes) see the world's unredeemed brutality.

One could also consider the role of women in these stories. Most are dissatisfied (which usually means unfaithful) wives, many are murder victims, but there are notable exceptions. In David Edgerley Gates's "Compass Rose," the daughter of a prostitute is forced to commit murder in order to make herself a better life in the man's world of turn-of-the-century Texas. In the decisive moment of "Grit" by Tom Franklin, the moll turns on the gangster. But in the end, for every serial killer driven by unexplained evil, there is another who kills because he has reached the extremes of sexual frustration; misunderstandings between men and women are the seeds that grow into violent crimes.

The collection is also notable because it reprints one of Shel Silverstein's last stories, a courtroom comedy called "The Guilty Party" where a rapist pleads innocent because his "Sam Johnson" did it.

Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall

Author: Bill Willingham
Year: 2006
Genre: Fantasy

I was always skeptical of Bill Willingham because I first heard of him as someone who took over Sandman characters when Neil Gaiman was done with them (for example, Thessaly and Merv Pumpkinhead). In fact, his adaptation of folktales to tell his own stories is very similar to Gaiman, and his multiple stories - multiple artists format is familiar from Sandman collections like World's End, but the stories themselves are imaginative and draw on different influences (mostly from fairy tales, while Gaiman prefers mythology).

Although I had never read Fables before, I found this book to be mostly accessible. It tells a lot of backstory of what I assume are familiar characters; when prior knowledge of the series was not required, the stories were quite enjoyable, and when it was required, I just said "Huh."

The Harp of the Grey Rose

Author: Charles de Lint
Year: 1984?
Genre: Fantasy

I picked up this predictable, derivative Pringle of a book because the other two books I'm reading are too brainy for me to read without a break (and one of them is too heavy for the subway). Just in time for Valentine's day, it's a romantic fantasy, the story of one young hero's love for an otherworldly princess ... or perhaps it's really the story of Charles de Lint's love for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Some of the more obvious recycled plot points include:

  • The hero is an orphan whose parents turn out to be magical.
  • He falls in love with a girl whom everyone mistakenly thinks is evil.
  • He kills a big baddy with a magical sword.
  • When he gets to the big city, the high court is under the influence of an evil power (i.e. Wormtongue).
  • Elves and dwarves.
  • The dwarf rediscovers the long-lost underground dwarven kingdom (i.e. Mines of Moria).
  • In the end it turns out the big baddy wasn't who the hero thought it was; it was someone else equally obvious.
The book held my interest enough for me to finish it -- after all, it's a formula I know and love -- but when I was finished I moved on to another piece of relative mind candy. Maybe it's just time for February school vacation.

Underneath the Lintel

Author: Glen Berger
Year: 2003
Genre: Theater

Martin Amis's The Information uses big truths to symbolize little stories: he makes his tale of midlife crisis seem larger and more significant by comparing it to the eventual explosion of the sun and heat death of the universe. (As a result, reading the book practically made me want to kill myself.) Underneath the Lintel takes just the opposite tack. As Berger explains in the afterword, what inspires his work is the necessity of remembering "three incontrovertible Facts ... the immensity of the universe, the incomprehensibly vast history of the Earth, and our inescapable mortality." To illustrate these truths, though, he takes a microcosmic view: a librarian checks in a book 113 years overdue, and follows its history until it takes on intimate personal significance for him.

The story becomes a meditation on how one small but important mistake can doom a person to eternal misery, and how a spirit of contrariness can animate an otherwise mearningless existence. Realizing that his search will likely remain inconclusive, the Librarian finds meaning in the search itself. He leaves the audience with two morals that are totally opposite, yet both true on a deeper level: "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here," and yet, "there is joy, too, in that."

La grammaire est une chanson douce

Author: Erik Orsenna
Year: 2001
Genre: Kids' fantasy

What is the purpose of the Académie française in the 21st century? How can it rejuvenate its image to make it seem like a positive force for the French language, rather than a reactionary, prescriptivist, anti-American relic? This book, which has been translated into English as Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song, shows how one Académie member would answer the question: Language needs people to care for it, not in the way that museum curators preserve holy relics, but as nurses love and protect their delicate patients.

The plot is an airy fantasy: a brother and sister are shipwrecked on a desert island and lose their ability to speak, and must learn to "respeak" with the help of a kindly old man called Monsieur Henri. On their adventure, they meet an old woman who revives dying words in the dictionary; visit the village of words, where adjectives and nouns get married; and tour the sentence factory, whose machinery transforms meaning into grammar. There's also a villain whose laboratory takes the souls out of words through cold scientific analysis and brutal pedagogy (shades of The Golden Compass's "Gobblers"), but Orsenna cannot stand to look at such cruelty, so our heroine is promptly rescued.

It's clearly kid stuff; and when Monsieur Henri says, "If you don't love grammar by the end of the week, I'll smash my guitar," it's obviously Orsenna addressing his readers. Despite his saccharine Little Prince allegories, you can see that his heart is in the right place - and he speaks to an issue that is of clear professional importance and personal interest to me. (Just last week, I was complaining that I want language teaching to be treated as an art, while heartless bureaucrats are trying to make a science of it.)

As I was reading, I amused myself by considering the challenges of an English-language translation. Like any book on language, this book includes a few scenes that would really have to be re-envisioned to make the same impact on an English-speaking audience. In the village of words, for instance, the article's job is to announce the grammatical gender of the noun that employs it. In the evil lab, teachers are forced to read from publications of the French Ministry of Education (Orsenna's foray into politics). The secret back room in the factory hides the workshop where Saint-Exupery, Proust, and La Fontaine are secretly still writing. What would be the English and/or American equivalents? I'm curious to look at the existing translation; I suspect that the translator may have left it more or less French.

Batman: The Long Halloween

Author: Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale
Year: 1999
Genre: Mystery

I read this book years ago, and we recently acquired it, so I read it again. It's a pretty compelling mystery story with enough plot twists to keep you interested.

The thing that strikes me about Batman as a mystery story (and they are mystery stories; the character first appeared in Detective Comics) is that it lives on the fine line between fantastic and ridiculous. Batman himself seems more or less like a hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett-type, and recent versions like Loeb & Sale tend to play up the grittiness of it (see also Frank Miller's Batman: Year One). If he's such a badass, though, why does he wear a cape and pajamas? I have no problem with Catwoman in her catsuit - she reminds me a little of Diabolik, which is comparatively (i.e., next to Batman) realistic - but The Joker? Come on! And despite The Long Halloween's close and sympathetic portrait of Harvey Dent, despite how bad you feel for him when he's burned by acid, you can't help but think that his half-gray flannel, half-gangster pinstripe Two-Face suit is just tacky.

The Long Halloween brings out this contrast in stark relief because it's Batman vs. the Mafia. It literally begins in The Godfather and ends in Arkham Asylum. You could view it as the story of Gotham City's transition from "normal" mobsters to criminal "freaks" like The Riddler and Poison Ivy, but it's hard to shake the feeling that fairy tales and film noir just don't mix.

Unless, of course, you're Jasper Fforde.

The Golden Ratio

Author: Mario Livio
Year: 2002
Genre: Science / Math

Before I read this book, I'd heard about a lot of the astonishing mathematical properties of Φ, as well as the Golden Ratio's aesthetic appeal. What struck me reading Livio's book is not the math itself (as interesting as that was; I haven't studied math seriously in many years). No, what really caught my attention was the number of times that Φ has been cited as the basis for great works of art, that turned out to be pure B.S. Consider the following:

  • Φ is not the ratio of the height of the Parthenon to its width.
  • Φ has no role in the design of the Pyramids.
  • While Da Vinci did illustrate a mathematical book on Φ (The Divine Proportion by Luca Pacioli), he did not use it as a guide to composing the Mona Lisa or anything else.
  • Mozart and Mondrian didn't use it, either.
So, The Golden Ratio succeeds as a debunker's compendium. Livio makes the history of Golden Ratio fanaticism seem like so much Da Vinci Code-style overblown hokum. (All the more ironic that Dan Brown's praise for The Golden Ratio is given pride of place on the front cover.)

After that, the best part of the book for me was the end, where Livio digresses into fractal geometry and the enduring philosophical conundrum of why mathematics (a purely abstract human invention) mirrors the physical universe so precisely. These fundamental questions are more interesting to me than any laundry list of Φ trivia.


Author: Garth Nix
Year: 2003
Genre: Fantasy

This was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy (Book Two reviewed here). I especially like that Nix justified all of the cosmology he set up in Books Two and Three as he was tying up the loose ends; there's a reason that there's always five and seven and nine of everything, and in the end it all comes together. You also learn (if you didn't already figure it out) who the magical companions really are.

This book also wasn't as message-y as Book Two. Mostly it was just a good adventure story. I was a little surprised by the image of a mushroom cloud, used to describe the aftermath of the Big Bad Guy's major assault; but since there is no other attempt at real-world significance in the book, I assume it was just description and not symbolism.

How Language Works

Author: David Crystal
Year: 2005
Genre: Nonfiction (Science/Linguistics)

I've read several introductory books on linguistics, and this is by far the broadest. Such books usually describe neurology, phonology, morphology, syntax, acquisition, and historical linguistics, and offer a nod to sociolinguistics. Crystal casts his net much wider, addressing writing, sign language, bilingualism and its politics, foreign-language teaching, the maintenance and extinction of rare languages, and the prescriptive-descriptive debate. (He's got a bullet with Lynne Truss's name on it.)

Lone Wolf and Cub #1: The Assassin's Road

Author: Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima
Year: 2000
Genre: Historical fiction

Reading Understanding Comics alerted me to some of the differences between Japanese and American styles of comic-book storytelling. This, in turn, inspired me (months later) to read a little manga. I've never been into it in the past; before Lone Wolf and Cub, all I'd read was Akira and a few issues of Crying Freeman. A serious gap in my comic book literacy, I decided.

I don't remember a lot of the peculiarities of manga that Scott McCloud identified, but as I was reading this book, I did have the feeling that something not quite "normal" was going on, as if I was watching a foreign movie. The structuring of the plot never seemed quite logical to me, and the conclusions were never fully satisfying. After seven or eight episodes, though, I started to get the feel of it.

The stories themselves are pretty formulaic, which helped. Itto the assassin and his son Daigoro show up somewhere, looking innocent; it turns out that someone is involved in illicit dealings involving land ownership or feudal succession; there's a big fight in which Itto's unbeatable samurai technique and/or the unexpected involvement of Daigoro carry the day; and we finally learn that Itto was hired by someone and on the job all along.

It's an enjoyable formula, though, and the strangeness helps to keep you engaged. The book is also interesting as a piece of historical fiction. It turns out (according to the last story in the book) that certain aspects of the decline of Japanese feudalism, particularly the disappearance of the shogun's assassin and executioner clans, remain unexplained; Lone Wolf and Cub, says Koike, "is one answer to this mystery."

Hello to All That: A memoir of war, Zoloft, and peace

Author: John Falk
Year: 2005
Genre: memoir

This book alternates between Falk's own experience with chronic depression and the struggles of ordinary Sarajevans he witnessed as a freelance journalist during the 1992-1994 seige. The parallels between the two settings keep leading you back to the same messages: in life, bad things happen to people; the important thing is how you deal with them; and regardless of whether you are fighting Chetnik snipers or your own brain chemistry, the love of your family can make all the difference.

Falk goes a long way to make these relatively obvious points, but the real significance of the story is that he himself had to travel to the depths of depression and war, and come out the other side again, before he really learned them.

One detail that I noticed and appreciated is that Falk subtly acknowledges his own poor understanding of the conflict. Even with his graduate degree in foreign affairs and his coursework in the political differences between rural and urban Serbia, he arrives in Sarajevo knowing more or less the BBC-CNN version of the war: Serbs=aggressors, Bosnians=victims. He gains a greater appreciation of its complexities from, of all people, a Bosnian Catholic sniper, who teaches him about the happier days of former Yugoslavia, which most Serbs, like most Bosnians, had preferred to the war and brutality of the 1990s; and about the deep ethnic divides that went unacknowledged for so many years, but eventually led to the war in which the sniper himself had to assassinate his former best friend.

Desolation Jones: Made in England

Author: Warren Ellis & J. H. Williams III
Year: 2006
Genre: Mystery

Film noir, in its golden age in the '30s and '40s, was a chance for audiences to shock themselves a little. The stories were filled with dirty people doing dirty things, but in the end, the hero would always prove himself to be a moral man in an immoral world, or else be punished for his transgressions.

In this comic-book/superspy updating of The Big Sleep, Warren Ellis goes to some extremes of dirtiness and immorality in order to shock his comparatively jaded 21st-century audience. Excessive violence abounds, and the MacGuffin is a missing porno film starring Adolf Hitler. While the hero does follow his own personal code of ethics to the end, he goes to great lengths to show that he's not above killing and maiming when he considers it necessary. This makes him difficult to relate to, and the story, on balance, seems callous and cold.

The art, on the other hand, is so good that it makes the whole experience worthwhile. Williams moves easily between washed-out L.A. scenes, trippy psychedelic hallucinations, first-person torture flashbacks, and slow-mo superspy fight scenes. In one memorable sequence, high-contrast black-and-white-and-red are paired with moment-to-moment transitions to show Jones fighting dirty to beat a 300-pound gimp in a Lucha Libre mask.