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.