Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Miscellany

Bad sex, Romans, fanfiction, Americans abroad, creepy dolls, rhetoric. I blog you it all.

I picked up Worst Laid Plans: When Bad Sex Happens to Good People while I was weeding clearance at work, and I opened it and read some and it was very funny, so I read more in the break room later on, and it was still very funny, so I took it home to avoid reading a sex book in front of all my co-workers. Worst Laid Plans is more consistently funny than any other book, and nearly all the contributors are hilarious. Unlike, say, a collection of a travel essayists, all the slutty New York and L.A. writer-comedian-actors who contributed to this book can write well and have loads of experience with the topic in question.

"Don't use butter as lube, guys."
"Instead of someone saying, 'Hello, Sailor," I'd rather he say, 'Hello, Michael Feldman wearing a sailor suit he bought on eBay.'"
"And then he went up on me."

That last is from a story about a man who finds a hookup on Craigslist and doesn't cancel when the man turns out to be a midget, because he doesn't want to discriminate like that. There is also a story about a man who thinks he is gay because he enjoys opera, wine, and such, and a high school student whose finger is severed under circumstances. Also, "That Time I Accidentally Molested a Girl with a Mustache," farting rapist, masochist ignored. Of course, frequent readers of my blog know what happens to people who have sex: Their relatives forgive them on their deathbeds and then they die.

Agricola by Tacitus was my first foray into the Classical authors, and I felt very smart all day because had I managed to read an ancient text while I was tidying up on Saturday morning. It was only one and a half hours on audio, and quite simple to understand. Agricola was Tacitus' father-in-law and the Roman governor who finally got a solid grip on the British Isles. Tacitus implies that previous Roman governors of the UK managed things poorly and only controlled the ports. Agricola, using moderation when prudent and brute force when necessary, subdued the Britons, and was moderate in his personal habits as befitting a Stoic. He never tooted his own horn. Tacitus says he was almost relieved that Agricola did not live to see the reign of Caligula. Aren't we all?

Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl has already been acclaimed by poodles of other people as one of the best new adult books of 2013 and she fucking deserves it. This book made me so happy and nostalgic for the heady pre-Deathly Hallows days of the 2000s when the internet was a lot more interesting. Cather is the internet-famous author of an alternate-ending tome of the Simon Snow series, which is not Harry Potter wink wink nudge nudge, and she manages to make no friends her first month as a freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, until her roommate realizes that Cath's only been eating power bars for said month and takes her under a wing in conjunction with roommate's ex-boyfriend Levi, who has beautiful eyes. This book killed me, and I had it on audio so I had to walk around with my iPod on for several days to finish it. Brilliant voice performances, by the way.

The Daily Mail is gross and pervily misogynistic, from what I understand, and it was just as wretchedly scandalous in the hot summer weeks leading up to World War I in Earl Derr Biggers' The Agony Column, but instead of nip slips, the Daily Mail had a Missed Connections (or "agony column" in British): "I saw you, in white with a scarlet ribbon, alight from the omnibus at Piccadilly and glance playfully at me. Write if your heart went out to this gentleman in a pince-nez," and you could pay five pence a word to have this put in the newspaper and scandalize all of London with your boldness. The Agony Column is all about this shocking lack of introductions. I highly recommend it. The protagonist is a young man, an American in London on business, who is reading the agony column in the dining room at the Carleton one morning when a beautiful young woman and her father come in and sit down to breakfast. The young lady produces her Daily Mail and laughs at a puckish entry in the column of our discussion and her father wonders aloud why she reads that nonsense. Enchanted, the young man goes back to his lodgings and writes a notice to be placed in the agony column. And the woman responds! She writes, via the Mail, to say that she would not normally speak to a gentleman in this way but his note was so intriguing and she is a lover of intrigue. He has seven days to write seven letters proving his worth. He writes, from his lodgings on Adelphi Terrace with the magnificent garden, about his travel before he arrived in London, to Interlachen, where he had met an unusually gregarious young Englishman who insisted on writing a letter of introduction to his cousin, and how that cousin, a colonel in the Indian Army clomped about upstairs as our young man sits writing the letter to the mysterious young lady, when he hears voices and a struggle. He races upstairs to find the man murdered. This cousin is not what he seemed. Nothing is what it seems. Or is it? In seven days, in seven letters, he must tell the young lady about the web of suspicion, intrigue and international mischief that surrounds him as England descends into war. Stellar Librivox audio recording as well.

Doll Bones, by the author of the Spiderwick Chronicles who is Holly Black, is a good audiobook but a fantastic book. Doll Bones rocks a line on early puberty without getting too enthusiastic about the coming changes or promising that everything will stay the same forever. It has a male protagonist and manages to keep itself something that boys will read while not propounding a narrow definition of masculinity. And there's a china doll made of the bones of a murdered girl with the rest of the ashes tucked into a small sack in her innards. Plus some proper swashbuckling adventure. The kids even steal a sailboat. This is good stuff. Well done, Holly Black. Very creepy and very well told.

As I mentioned before, I listened to Agricola on audiobook in a morning and was very proud of myself because I can comprehend Ancient Roman Language once it's translated into modern English and read to me. So I downloaded Phaedrus, which seems to be one of Plato's less exciting dialogues. I asked Sammie about it and she said The Symposium was her favorite so I might try that next. Really, I'm working up the The Republic.

Phaedrus is a trip and a half. I plan on reading about it later because that will elucidate some points, but for now Phaedrus is three or four fairly disjointed segments read by an old man from Hazelmere, Surrey who can "aah" and chuckle just like Socrates. Worth listening to for that reason alone. The premise is that Socrates and Phaedrus go for a walk beyond the wall of Athens and Phaedrus brings an argument of Lycius' and reads allowed this text saying that the non-lover is better than the lover because the lover is irrational (to sum up forty five minutes in one word). Phaedrus wants Socrates to comment on this text and Socrates gives his own speech, stating that the lover is selfish and the non-lover superior. They discuss the relative merits of Lycius' written and Socrates' off-the cuff arguments, and then Socrates exclaims that he has sinned against the gods, Eros being the god of love, and gives a colorful defense of love, the thrust of which is that each soul looks on their lover as an image of their preferred god (e.g. Zeus, Hera, Dionysus) and that love is therefore a manifestation of a remembered communion with heaven. Socrates illustrates his points with souls as chariots, and horses of good and evil, and angels spinning, and six types of madness, and peoples' sojourns in heavens all through his speech. Then Socrates says, "Now why was Lycius' speech wrong?" and he goes through and explains where Lycius fails in his rhetoric, which is the highest of all arts and comprises the last bit of Phaedrus.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

East Lynne, the Shocking Conclusion, and Another Terrible Place

The story comes back after Lady's Isabelle's bastard is born, but he doesn't come into the story much. Lady Isabelle is sitting miserably in rented rooms in France, her pale, sickly newborn in the cradle beside her, when Levison comes in. He abandoned her months before, but he's come to offer her money. She, retaining pride, refuses and swears that she knew not forty-five minutes of happiness with Levison before she wished she were back with Mr. Carlisle and her poor children. and she has rued leaving every moment since. Levison leaves, appreciating how easy getting it was to get rid of her, and Lady Isabelle thinks that she will look into that working-for-a-living-and-becoming-a-governess-thing finally. But on the way from one place in France to another, there is a train accident and her baby is killed. The newspapers says that she is killed, too, and when Mr. Carlisle reads that, he finally asks Barbara for her hand in marriage. You see. Years pass. Mr. Carlisle and Barbara make a baby. Lady Isabelle finds a position governessing under an assumed name. She is changed, no longer the beautiful, innocent flower who once was the light of her father's eye. Grey-haired, stooped, limping from the railway accident, with a scar on her lower face, old-fashioned colored glasses, always with a shawl and veil, she looks queer but not unemployable. In fact, when a lady from West Lynne comes to France on holidays and happens to tell Lady Isabelle's employer that the Carlisle family of East Lynne is looking for a governess, Lady Isabelle applies. And suddenly she is back at East Lynne. In shame. In disguise. With her husband married to the woman that he promised her he wouldn't marry. Rather than say, "I didn't really love you from the beginning, but I had to marry you because my relatives are abusive and I had no options. You were having an affair with Barbara Hare! Remember when I told you not to invite my second cousin to East Lynne?" Lady Isabelle takes every moment as a penance and beats herself up with it. One of her children dies, and she beats herself up with that too. She becomes weak and consumptive. She prays for forgiveness. She coughs blood. You can probably guess who reveals what and who forgives whom on whose death bed.

I won't spoil the murder bit for you, although I can say that a rake is a rake is a rake and it's really obvious who was courting Athie Hallijohn under the name of Thorne from about the middle of the book. Only one scoundrel per novel.

Mrs. Henry Wood did not write East Lynne to promote the emancipation of women, but she may as well have. Lady Isabelle's inability to control her own destiny by any means except marrying the first nice-ish person who came along is her real tragedy. Carlisle isn't a bad man. Mrs. Wood writes him as a kind gentleman, and he is, but he treats both his wives like they're the cutest kid in the whole kindergarten. As for Miss Carlisle, her role is superfluous and comic, but she was my favorite. All those brains and all that energy, and nothing to do with it. The poor woman. This book was written slightly after women gained the right to keep property brought to a marriage after its disolution by death in England, and that's mentioned briefly. One small step for women, but nothing like the rights that these women needed to avoid their tragic fates.

One last note on East Lynne: It's full of interesting details about early Victorian England. Lady Isabelle's disguise includes colored glasses. One day, when she is walking with Miss Carlisle and Isabelle Junior, Lady Isabelle in disguise breaks her glasses and they go into the spectacle shoppe to buy new ones. Miss Carlisle, who is too smart not to suspect Lady Isabelle, suggests she gets white glasses, which are the fashion, and Lady Isabelle says she is used to colored ones. White glasses? Now you know: white glasses. Also, when Miss Carlisle is meddling in her brother's business, she always says, "What's up?" 1862 usage of "What's up?" It's not just what teenagers say to each other. It's older than the abolition of slavery in America. Speaking of...

I saw Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze on a list of good books with bad covers, and it is, although the cover's okayish. The words inside it are bloody brilliant. I did say, however, that this pair of blogs is about terrible places to live, and the Fairchild Plantation is the worst. No one in East Lynne or Old Trail Town owns slaves.

The Freedom Maze has this interesting historical novel within a historical novel thing going on. Sophie Fairchild-Maxwell is being left with her aunt and grandmama for the summer while her mother, groundbreakingly divorced, it being 1960, goes back to school to become a CPA. Sophie has free run to explore the plantation, poke around in the crumbling slave quarters, swim in the bayou, and walk through the hedge maze, where a trickster spirit pops in and fools with her. Sophie, having grown up in the city away from legends, thinks this is jolly good fun and ends up telling the spirit that she wants lots of friends and an adventure. Bad choice. She foomps up in the big house in 1860, she knows it, with all the pretty dresses in the closet, the pitcher and basin on the table, the silver brush and comb. While she's inspecting those valuable items, her sixteen-year-old great-great-great aunt comes into the room and starts screaming. In front of her great-great-great-great grandpa, Sophie tries to explain what's happened and who she is, but it's already obvious to everyone in her family what's going on: a curly-haired, tan young girl who looks exactly like them in the face and is in possession of a distinctive Fairchild nose has to be the octaroon daughter of Uncle Robert in New Orleans and some slave woman. Sophie is put to training as a house slave or lady's maid.

All the slaves on Fairchild plantation are named after countries or continents. Sophie rooms with a woman called Africa, one of the strongest people in a place full of strong women, and her daughter Antigua, who's an older teenager, a younger daughter who befriends Sophie first (as per Sophie's wish), and a son who might be sweet on Sophie. Sophie is grateful for the kindness, after the pain of not going home right away wears off into a dull blur of work and vague memories. Delia Smith moves Sophie around the plantation and the life of slaves in touching in the humanity they can bring to such a barbaric system. When she's blamed for trying to steal the silver hairbrush, she gets put out to the sugarcane processing facility, which is nearly unbearable. Eventually, Sophie's sojourn in 1860 ends trying to help Antigua escape and she's left to face her life in 1960 and dig through the detritus of her slave-owning ancestors to try to find what happened to Antigua, Africa and everybody else. The Freedom Maze is fantastic. Fairchild Plantation is horrible place full of slave-owners.

Next up: a miscellany.

Terrible Town

I've promised you crap places, and I will present them to you, in descending order of badness. First is Old Trail Town, which is not that bad really. The children are playful and well-fed and the whole place has a kind of Yankee sensibility taken too far, like a weak version of The Lottery. Zona Gale's Christmas, A Story, which I audiobooked before Christmas, starts with Old Trail Town holding a town meeting to determine the fate of Christmas. You see, Old Man Ebenezer has shut down his factory, the main jobs provider in the town, because he can manufacture wheelbarrows more cheaply in his other, city, factory. The town's merchants, both of them, supplied last Christmas on credit and the town's bills are past due. So Old Trail Town has a choice: Christmas or no Christmas. Some ladies of the town bring up objections: "My children haven't popped corn all winter so it will seem special on Christmas night?" "What if we only do handmade gifts?" "What about Jesus?" The clergy approve of cancelling Christmas, and Christmas is voted cancelled. See how terrible Old Trail Town is?

Mary Chavah, old maid of Old Trail Town, doesn't keep Christmas anyway. She's persnickety, and set in her ways. Jenny, Bruce's wife, Bruce being Ebenezer's nephew, comes by Mary Chavah's house with secret exciting news: Jenny is expecting. Bruce and Jenny live in the city now, and Jenny is home to lie in. She's already made economical presents out of only $2 worth of material and thinks the whole Christmas ban is preposterous.

There's a lot of back and forth and around in Old Trail Town. It's an introspective place when people aren't going to extremes in town meetings. Even Old Ebenezer looks up at the sky and wonders what life would be like if his son had lived. Christmas, A Story is unlike anything I've ever read, weaving between fifteen protagonists down to Theophilus Thistledown, the turkey who will not be killed for Christmas. It jumps between spots of plot and long soliloquies about the nature of man and generosity. One passage, where Old Ebenezer walks down the street and sees only places of commerce and not a community, is right out of The Great Good Place, which we discussed last summer. Being called Christmas, A Story, I knew that there must be Christmas after all. The way it happens is this: Mary Chavah gets a letter from Out West saying that her sister is dead and her newly orphaned nephew is being put on a train to come live with Mary. Mary questions and equivocates, and says, "What could I do with a child?" In the locked-up chambers of heart, though, she likes the idea, and she goes into town to buy a pitcher and basin with dogs on it. Mrs. Busybody says, "You'd better not be buying a Christmas present, Mary Chava," and Mary says, "My sister's boy is coming to stay with me" and asks Mrs. Busybody to stay at the house and tend the fire and heat the soup while Mary goes to pick up the boy from the train station on the evening of December 24th. Mrs. Busybody tells every person in Old Trail Town, and the whole town choreographs a festive potluck, some edict-breaking outliers happen to bring a tree, and the people of Old Trail Town circumvent their own Christmas ban.

I was ogling East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood for a few days when it was back in the clearance section, wondering if buying it and maybe not reading it and having it clutter up my house for years would be worth $1. It had a proper Victorian picture of someone lying prostrate, as though tubercular, on the cover. Then a random customer dude bought it out from under my nose. He was really excited. He told me that this book outsold Dickens in its day. Having my suspicions about the worthiness of East Lynne confirmed but being unable to buy it for $1, I went home and downloaded the Librivox audio for free, like I do. Thank you, internet and Librivox in particular.

West Lynne, the town close by the estate of East Lynne, is worse than Old Trail Town. People in Old Trail Town are robust and democratic, even if they go crazy and cancel holidays sometimes. People in West Lynne suck. West Lynne is a modest town (considering that the population of England was only 500 at the time I can assure you that West Lynne has at least twelve residents) and is adjacent to a country estate called East Lynne. East Lynne begins the book as the property of the Earl, Lord Mountsevern, but in the first chapter he quietly sells it to a respectable lawyer called Mr. Carlisle. Lord Mountsevern was a profligate cad in his youth and now he has severe gout and one beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter, to whom, even with the sale of East Lynne, he is unable to leave a single penny. Mrs. Henry Wood says, in that first chapter, after Mr. Carlsile has gazed at Lady Isabelle Vain and departed and she is alone with her doting father Lord Mountsevern that "If he had known what was to come, he would have struck her down dead in an instant," and I thought, "Is she going to be a murderer or something?" But, no, she just has some sex. And, boy, is she punished for it.

Being gouty, Lord Mountsevern dies and is buried, leaving his daughter to her fate. Lady Isabelle finds that the house she has been living in has not belonged to her father for several months now and she is ruined, ruined! "I'll make my own way," she says, but her uncle, the new Lord Mountsevern, and Mr. Carlisle explain pointedly that even if she knew how to work, the shame of working for a living would be unbearable to a woman of her rank, so she is packed off to live at Castle Stupid, the other ancestral home of the Mountseverns. She lasts ten months. Some very important things happen here: Lady Isabelle's uncle is married to her second cousin Irene, and Irene and Isabelle's other second cousin Frances Levison is visiting. Unlike in healthy nations with large breeding pools and incest taboos, Isabelle falls in love with Levison because he's a sexy, rakish man. Cousin Irene accuses Isabelle of flirting, and Cousin Isabelle, the innocent, accuses Cousin Irene of flirting, and Cousin Irene caps ten months of verbal abuse by slapping Isabelle across the face.

Meanwhile back at East Lynne, Mr. Carlisle is forcibly reminded of the murder that happened in West Lynne ten years ago. Murder! His friends, the Hares, need his help. You see, ten years ago Richard Hare was courting Athie Hallijohn. Richard was there, at the Hallijohn cottage, the night of Athie's father's murder. Richard was, in fact, seen running from the cottage with a gun and then he scarpered off out of the county and no one's seen him in a decade. Until he comes back. His sister Barbara sees him lurking in the garden. He must hide, even at the home to which he is heir, because his own father, Justice Hare, has sworn to string him up if he ever lays eyes on him again. Barbara rushes out to talk to him and Richard Hare tells her that he is innocent and needs help, for which Barbara enlists her discreet lawyer friend Mr. Carlisle and his sister Miss Carlisle enlists herself to help as well. Poor Miss Carlisle! She's the most tragic figure of the book. She is Mr. Carlisle's older half-sister, and she owns a house and gets some hundred pounds per annum, but she has nothing to do. Nowadays she would become a lawyer too, and probably a judge, possibly a Supreme Court Justice, but as a single woman in 1862, all she can do with her days is boss the servants around and meddle in her adult brother's affairs.

But back to Castle Stupid. Lady Isabelle is crying and wondering how to embark on the shameful career of governess when Mr. Carlisle happens to stop by randomly because he has business in the area. Seeing that Lady Isabelle is destiture with no friends in the world except her slappy second cousin, he proposes. Because that is the only good and honorable option. Lady Isabelle says she doesn't love him and doesn't know if she can learn to, but Mr. Carlisle says, "That's fine, let's go," and Lady Isabelle is whisked away from Castle Stupid to her childhood home at East Lynne, even though it's not so much her home anymore and Miss Carlisle moves in to boss Lady Isabelle around. Lady Isabelle warms up to Mr. Carlisle enough to bear him three children, but she has her doubts, especially about that Barbara Hare. She overhears a servant saying that Mr. Carlisle and Miss Barbara have a history, and she notices Mr. Carlisle and Barbara going on long walks together in the garden of an evening. But they're not having trysts! Richard Hare, the accused murderer, is back in town, telling of a man named Thorne who was also courting Athie Hallijohn, and who he believes murdered Athie's father. Lady Isabelle is sick with worry that her husband is cheating on her. She makes Mr. Carlisle swear never to marry Barbara Hare, no matter what happens, and he gives his word. As Lady Isabelle is recovering from the birth of her third child as well as being sick with worry, Mr. Carlisle sends her to France to breathe sea air, where she runs into Captain Levison. Being cousins, they promenade on the seashore together, and Lady Isabelle finds herself falling in love with him again. When Mr. Carlisle comes to collect her, he invites Captain Levison, who is hiding from his creditors in France, to stay at East Lynne while he settles his debts. Lady Isabelle says, "Please don't invite him, please!" and Mr. Carlisle pats her on the head and says, "Don't you worry about a thing." So you see, Lady Isabelle is at East Lynne with her husband and the man she loves, and her husband is nose deep in the Hare affair. Captain Levison even encourages Lady Isabelle to believe that her husband is straying. Then one evening, everything goes Gothic. Lady Isabelle is angry at Mr. Carlisle, Barbara Hare is saying goodbye to her brother Dick, Captain Levison is poisoning Lady Isabelle's mind while acting sexy, and then there is a meeting in the road. Dick Hare sees the murderer Thorne, and Thorne sees the accused, although he is concealed by a false beard of unruly Dick Hare. Later, in the moonlight, Levison convinces Lady Isabelle to run away with him and they thunder away in a carriage, Isabelle already regretting what she's done. That night, Lady Isabelle is presumed a suicide, before it's discovered that Levison is missing too. A few days later, the whole of West Lynne knows that the murderer Richard Hare was spotted on the road...

Tales from the Non-Fiction Section, Part II

 I'm writing about non-fiction. Shit gets real here. Shit will get made-up again in my next blog.

Last blog, I wrote about John McWhorter and his illustrious career. I don't know anything about Jason Vuic's career, but he's written a quite good book called The Yugo:The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History. He qualifies, or rather negates, his subtitle in the introduction, with a short list of cars worse than the Yugo, but goes on to make a case for the Yugo's status as popularly acknowledged worst car ever. This book is funny. I'm not a car guy, but I like Top Gear and I thought this book would be the next best thing to watching Top Gear at work. Then I realized that this book is better than watching Top Gear at work because I don't have to haul my laptop back and forth.

The Yugo is a very short history of the Yugo in America, as it went from Yugomania in 1986 to utter collapse in 1989. The rest of the book is about the history of Yugoslavia, small car marketing in America in the '70s and '80s, and a man named Malcolm Bricklin. Bricklin is a chronic business starter-upper of the most alarming kind. Vuic never suggests that he's mentally ill as well as incompetent, but it rather comes across. Bricklin started his first company operating a chain of hardware stores, which allowed him to sell the licensing rights to more hardware stores than he had the capacity to supply. After that bankruptucy, he imported small Japanese cars until he nearly went belly-up again and was bought out by competent people, which is why you've heard of Nissan. Bricklin then went on a collaborative venture with the government of New Brunswick, for heaven's sake, to produce an acryllic-bodied car called... The Bricklin. Had the technology existed, the car would have been revolutionary. But it didn't. Have you ever seen an acryllic-bodied car? No you haven't.

The Yugoslav Zastava factory made munitions during World War II, switched to producing a small Fiat-based no-frills automobile, and continued making that same little off-brand Fiat until Yugoslavia's break-up in the '90s when it started producing munitions again. Zastava was already exporting to some European companies, but was not near competent to make a car that would pass American safety and pollution standards. However, Bricklin made promises and everyone worked like dogs and the Yugo was approved for US import. Paying $3,500 for a car was enough to get a segment of Americans extremely excited, and the novelty of an import from a Communist, but not Soviet Bloc country (because Yugoslavia, under Tito, was not part of the Bloc. They were in fact, an American ally. Who knew? I need to research this further, but allying with Tito seems like an unspeakably bad thing.) appealed to an American sense of internationalism that was wafting around in the '80s. The Yugo cheerfully arrived in America, as thousands of people had pre-ordered them. People bought Yugos en masse. One dealer had a "buy a Mercedes, get a free Yugo" scheme. It was all downhill from there. Consumer Reports gave the Yugo an F and the US government gave Yugo a low, but not the lowest, safety rating. The Yugo chronicles a company crumble, restructure, and end, from which Bricklin walked away with $15 million. The Yugo is remembered as a colossal failure, unlike the Crimean War, which we've all forgotten. Honestly, the only person in common memory from the Crimean War is Florence Nightingale, and what other war has ever been remembered only for a female non-combatant? After Florence, people know The Charge of the Light Brigade, which, as a battle, was a clusterfuck on par with the rest of the war. General Raglan sent an messenger to the commander of the Light Brigade, with word to seize back some English guns that the Russians were seizing. The commander said, "Which guns?" The messenger said, "Those guns," pointing at some Russian guns far away across a plain. The commander said, "Really?" and then sent the Light Brigade out to capture them. "It is not ours to question why." The Light Brigade had been itching to do something anyway, as they were underutilized in the first few conflicts of the war.

The Crimean War started out as a bad idea. Orlando Figes starts out with a hundred and fifty pages of the politcial climates of Turkey (sick man of Europe), England (Russophobic newspapers), France (we had an empire), and Russia (God-appointed tsar gone batty). The war itself started out with a Russian invasion of the Danube delta, which failed miserably. With Russia out of the Danube, England had a choice to invade Russia, go home, or leave its soldiers in the delta for another few months to die of cholera. England partially chose against the latter and sailed for Sevastopol, with plans to sail home again in a month or two. The assessment was: the war would be quick, and if it wasn't, they'd be fine. Why send in winter provisions? How bad could a Russian winter be? (If you are ever in an army that underestimates Russia's winter, please desert immediately.) Really, the French were the only army that encouraged the survival of their own troops. England's army was made up of anyone too drunk to have enlisted to go to India, Canada, China, etc., led by a geriatric aristocracy. Russia had a set of equally incompetent generals ruling a serf army fed on bread that dogs wouldn't eat. France, with universal conscription and The Rights of Man, gave their people soup and mittens and Minie rifles, the most important development of the war. France was first army to issue accurate, long-rang rifles to their troops, which proved decisive in most of the first battles of the war.  The Crimean War chronicles the confusing, badly planned battles leading to mostly English/French victories and the eventual taking of Sevastopol.  Along with Minie rifles, the Crimean War introduced newspaper readers to war photography and pioneered the use of the train and telegraph.  

My colleague Ethan, a fiction enthusiast, says he wants to read the definitive work on any non-fiction topic, to save himself the trouble of having to read more than one book about something unliterary and leave himself more lifetime time for novels. Well, Ethan, The Crimean War by Orlando Figes is the only book you ever need to read about the Crimean War. It is the definitive history of the Crimean War for this generation. At only 493 pages, excluding the index, The Crimean War is significantly shorter than Mr. Figes other books. The Whisperers, about Stalinist Russia, which I read a while ago, and Natasha's Dance, which I haven't read yet.  Orlando Figes is good stuff. Read it. Give it a couple months. You'll get through it.

Next up: Places you never ever want to visit.

Tales from the Non-Fiction Section

Apologies, my readers. My internet is down. It's great, really: I've diminished my time faffing about on the internet and have more time to read. This does, however, impact my ability to post timely blog entries.

I work in a bookstore and people often ask me where the non-fiction section is. My job is to explain to them that there is no non-fiction section. Non-fiction is everything that is not fiction, obviously, duh, come on people. If there was a non-fiction section, then books about puppies and books about Hitler would be shelved next to each other. People who are looking for the non-fiction section usually want book about a concept that they have no words for. Ladies, oftentimes, asking for the non-fiction section, want memoirs about women just like them, but they don't know the word for memoir, or they don't understand that the thing they want is a memoir too, because "memoir" sounds more literary than My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler. Men who are looking for the non-fiction section don't know what they want, but if you pick them up and carry them to the military history section and set them down, they will be happy enough.

The true non-fiction section is the clearance section. If a person is simply looking for an interesting book that is not about made-up stuff, he should go to the clearance section, spend a bit of time browsing, and spend $10 for five fine books that matches his whim and interest. However, browsing for books is, to some, a difficult concept. This is compounded at the State Fair Sale, which happens in mid-October and is well worth attending. A person will walk up to me and say, "Do you have any books about gardening?" and I wave my hand at the quarter-acre of non-fiction filling roughly half of the Grandstand and say, "Probably." They are befuddled because I don't have a gardening section, just a non-fiction section. I have to say, "It's kind of a treasure hunt," and smile, and they remember that treasure hunts are fun!, and they must now go on one, and then they buy fifteen pounds of books and have trouble getting them out to their car. I will now tell you about the books that I have been reading, straight from the non-fiction section:

John McWhorter is one of the coolest popular explainers of race and linguistics in America today, and I'm surprised at how he has managed to fly under everyone's, including my, radars for so long, especially because his awesome book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America was a New York Times bestseller, so someone must have bought it. McWhorter made a series of lectures on The History of World Language for The Teaching Company, that company that sells lecture series in the back of the New York Times Book Review, which is how I found out about him, because I listen to those, although not, of course, for $299.95 NOW $69.95! We have them at work, and the library has them. I recommend the one that I'm talking about right now and Bob Briar's History of Ancient Egypt.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter is a damn fine book if you like linguistics. I would however, recommend his Teaching Company lectures or one of his other books to start off with. This is not a general overview of the history of English or of world languages, both of which McWhorter has written, or of creoles, which are McWhorter's forte. McWhorter's point, this is a very pointy book, is that the standard narrative of the history of the English language is simplistic and flawed in three particular ways.

Firstly, English has more Celtic influence than anyone has acknowledged up to this point. English is an extraordinarily peculiar Germanic language in many ways, but one of its queerest features is the meaningless "do." It's unique among other European languages... except Welsh and the other Gaelics!, and it confuses the hell out of English language learners. Why do we say "Why do we say?" when other languages are perfectly content to say, "Why we say?" "Porque nosotros hablamos?" Chaucer might say, "Why say we 'do'?" to phrase that phrase. We also say "ing." I am explaining this to you in my blog. If I explain this to you in my blog, that takes a slightly different shade of meaning. I do choose to be explaining this to you instead of watching Top Gear on a lazy Friday off. Guess which other language has an "ing" construction? Welsh! And those other Gaelic languages. In the common story of English, a bunch of Angles and Saxons invaded England, killed everybody or shoved them up into Ireland and Wales, and replaced the Gaelic languages with Beowulf Germanic.  McWhorter argues that it was more complicated than that. What probably happened, rather than full-on genocide, was the usual: kill the men, marry the women, and the kids end up speaking a pidgin which takes on features of both parents' languages. This happens again in English, too, in McWhorter's second point of the book, popping the language from Olde to Middle English. The Norsemen invade and suddenly English changes from a language of painfully complex conjugations, worse than good old yo hablo, tu hablas, nosotros hablamos, vosotros huh, usted hables, ellos hablandos Spanish, and maybe horribler than German, with its multiple crazy noun endings, to a nice language, easy on the verb endings, where I go, you go, he/she/it goes, and they go. He argues that this came about, again, by non-native adult speakers of the language not bothering to learn the arcane complexities of their wives' tongue. They were Vikings, after all. Their children dropped endings, and people began speaking something much closer to modern English than the language of Beowulf, in the North at least. A mass migration of Northeners to Southern England in the late middle ages/early modern period, brought the simplified language to the capitol in time for the printing press to codify it as the language of the land. Now let's swing back to one of McWhorter's asides: People don't write as they talk. Especially not in the olden days, when writing was the purview of an elite few. The fact that people were writing a Germanic-sounding, ending-heavy formal English up to the Norman conquest doesn't mean that was how people were speaking. Most English speakers who could write were writing in Latin at the time, and English-speaking English writers could well have been writing a stylized, formal English. McWhorter argues that scholars need to stop assuming that written language and spoken language are the same thing when it comes to tracing English usages.

McWhorter's third point is that the English weirdness among the Germanic languages started before the Angles ever laced up their pants and went invading. He says a third of old, old Germanic words aren't even Germanic. They're funny. And they describe sea things. They seem foreign. Almost Semitic. They seem like Phoenicians established settlements on the west coasts of Europe (now underwater) and made babies with the locals and those babies grew up speaking a Phoenician-influenced Germanic creole that left its mark in words like "sea." McWhorter makes it clear that he has less to back this up than his other points.

Not wanting to become an academic linguist just to find out if McWhorter's theories are on or not, I will take him at his word that these are cogent theories. One assumes that John McWhorter is publishing this stuff in academic journals as well, while writing books about topics in popular linguistics, commenting on African American issues in various news media, writing more books on contemporary African American issues, giving a TED Talk, serving as Carnegie fellow, and owning a cat with a people name. He is so cool.

Next up: More non-fiction.