I WAS feeling pretty down the other day. In fact, on a scale of 1 to Adele, I was truly miserable. Unlike the angst-ridden singer, for me it wasn’t a case of love gone wrong, though. It was far worse – I’d been beaten by a word.
That doesn’t happen to me very often. Actually, I can’t remember it ever happening so to say it was traumatic is an understatement.
In spite of the arsenal of reference books at my elbow – not to mention that word-wide resource, the internet – I just couldn’t find out what it meant. Not even in my brand-spanking-new 1,904 page, 620,000-word definition Chambers Dictionary!
It was all the fault of fellow word nerd, and regular reader of my newspaper column, Doug Williams. Challenged by his American friend Brice – they do this kind of thing to one another apparently – Doug passed the puzzle over to me.
“This is a test,” wrote Brice to Doug. “I want to know how skilled you really are. And don’t you dare Goggle [sic], although it probably wouldn’t produce a result.”
Doug’s mind-goggling test was to come up with the meaning of the word “quillen”.
Instead, he came up blank – and turned to me.
“Are you sure the word isn’t ‘quillon’,” I asked Doug. “That’s the name for either arm of the cross-guard on a sword handle and also on some knives.”
It wasn’t. Reluctantly – after much searching – I threw in the towel, too.
“Okay. I give up. Please enlighten me,” wrote Doug to a doubtless very happy Brice, who wasted no time with his response.
“It relates to train whistles or, more appropriately, horns,” he wrote. (Well, of course it does!)
“Considerable effort and pride are invested in these devices. Many rail companies have their own distinctive sounds. And engineers have their own distinctive methods of ‘playing’ these instruments. An engineer’s horn signature is his quillen.”
Someone who really loves the sound, explained Brice, is Dan, another old friend of his – so old they go back as far as pre-school. Dan’s a marine engineer specialising in the repair of old diesel engines, and a musician with a master’s in music ethnology.
“He also is involved in a small local rail link here in Seattle,” writes Brice. “A couple of years ago he acquired a five-horn train whistle, which he promptly mounted on the roof of his shop [Brice is referring to a workshop here, I reckon] together with an automatic device to blow it every day at noon.
“The neighbours complained. It was very, very loud. Cops arrived, end of train whistle.
“Dan likes loud. He once got his hands on a steam calliope [that’s a kind of keyboard fitted with steam whistles, in case you’re wondering] and damned near everyone in Seattle heard it.”
Now all of this is all very well, but reading it through I’ve decided I won’t concede defeat after all. Not until I see formal proof.
What kind of a word is it that has no documentation, no written definition – and can’t even be “Goggled”?
No word at all.
Suddenly, I feel so much better. — Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)
… by Edward Kelsey Moore
Reviewed for NewYork Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
A CLUTCH of husbands, wayward and otherwise, a vicious small-town bigot, and even a couple of benign ghosts – including a most unladylike Eleanor Roosevelt – are among the characters who inhabit the pages of professional cellist Edward Kelsey Moore’s enchanting debut novel.
But it’s Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean – nicknamed The Supremes by their friends and watched over by avuncular diner owner Big Earl – who bear testament not only to the author’s literary skill, but also to his own supreme listening skills.
A childhood spent, by his own admission, eavesdropping on the women in his family as they talked at family gatherings, has paid off, enabling Mr Moore to breathe real life and warmth into his three very different, though equally memorable, main characters.
As he explains: “Even when I was too young to fully understand the often very adult subject matter of their conversations, I was struck by how quickly the topics veered from heartbreakingly tragic to wildly hilarious. I was also amazed that the aunts and cousins who had the hardest and saddest lives were always the funniest people at the table.”
The Supremes of the title comprise the seemingly fearless Odette, who chats regularly with the ghosts of her mama and her spectre sidekick, the hard-drinking Eleanor Roosevelt (“… the perfect little lady when she was in the White House – all lace doilies and finger bowls – but since she died … drunk as a skunk”) with as much equanimity as she does with her friends.
Then there’s Clarice Jordan Baker, whose original claim to fame is that she was the first black child born at University Hospital, in Plainview, Indiana, a fact her mother made sure everyone knew. Her birth, rhapsodised one newspaper article, heralded the arrival of ‘the new Negro family of the desegregated 1950s’. A talented classical pianist, Clarice has for years suppressed her own needs for those of her Ken-doll handsome, feckless husband, Richmond. When her dam of frustration finally bursts, Richmond’s almost swept away in the flood.
Barbara Jean’s start in life is far less salubrious. Born to a drunk on a stranger’s couch, it’s only when Odette and Clarice take her – somewhat grudgingly at first – under their collective teenage protection that she’s free to reach for her true potential. Loved to distraction by her wealthy, older husband, Lester, she’s nonetheless a fragile beauty, damaged by the socio-political times of her youth as well as a personal tragedy that’s almost too huge to bear.
The tumultuous story of the women’s enduring friendship, much of it played out at their regular table at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner – the first black-owned business in Plainview, Indiana – spans some 40 years, from the time the civil rights movement starts to take hold.
I strongly suggest you read this book in its enchanting entirety before the inevitable movie deal comes to pass.
The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore is published by Knopf.
(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)1 Comment »
Wonderful typos in today’s MailOnline in a caption under a photograph of Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to London’s underground (in yet another of those pointless PR exercises):
“Queen Elizabeth stands next to plague with her named on it on platform 1 of the Northern-bound Metropolitan Line”Comments »
At a low level, they’re enough to keep any intermittent and unexpected background noise from disturbing my train of thought and yet, surprisingly, I’m able to tune in (and that pun really wasn’t intended – only noticed it as I wrote it) if a favourite song comes on, in which case I take a three or four-minute break and crank up the volume.
The only other time I tune in is when indecipherable words give me a mental hiccup, which is how I found myself having a chat to a world-famous singer the other day.
“Open your mouth, Annie,” I heard myself crossly telling Ms Lennox.
Well, it was the third or fourth time I’d mentally sung along with her, repeating “softly circumcision”, which was definitely what she seemed to be singing.
I couldn’t get the ludicrous oxymoronic phrase out of my head, and it wasn’t helping what I was trying to write one little bit.
There was nothing else for it – I had no choice but to break off and look up the lyrics.
Thank heavens for the internet. In the “olden days” I’d be turfing books from shelves in a desperate attempt to answer such a niggle, and I’ve even been known to phone a local librarian if my own reference library didn’t come up with the answer.
Impatient? Moi? Perish the thought.
I found the Love is a Stranger lyrics after skirting my way around half a dozen websites trying to sell me songs for my cellphone ringtone.
Love’s not only a stranger, “it’s savage and it’s cruel and it shines like destruction”, according to the not-entirely-unintelligent words. “It distorts and deranges, you too,” continues the Eurythmics hit – which is just what the unintelligible bit was doing to me.
It turned out to be much more prosaic, (probably why Annie mumbled it): “And I want you, And I want you, So it’s an obsession”.
Relief at last, and my own obsession over.
Still, my musical misinterpretation wasn’t as bad as one of my late mother’s. She was horrified years ago to find out that while she’d been happily singing “Lady Elaine”, along to a Bob Dylan track, the words were actually “Lay, lady, lay (lay across the big brass bed)”.
In a flash, what had been her absolute favourite turned into “that disgusting song”! — Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)1 Comment »
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books
by Stevie Godson
IT’S not very often that I agree with book “blurbs,” which tend to be embarrassingly over-the-top paeans of praise for the contents, encouraged (paid for?) by the publisher and presumably approved by the author.
The blurb for this book, though, underplays its awesomeness. Grant Ginder’s novel Driver’s Education is, indeed, as it says: “In the tradition of Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish, a poignant and eccentric novel about fathers, sons and the power of stories to change the way we see the world ….” But it’s so much more than that.
Ostensibly, it’s about reality show assistant story editor Finn trying to fulfill his dying grandfather Alistair McPhee’s wish to have returned to him his ’56 Chevy Bel Air, named Lucy after his dead wife. It’s a favour involving a cross-country road trip from New York – where Finn must retrieve the ancient car from an enigmatic man named Yip – to San Francisco, accompanied by his somewhat reluctant and grumpy buddy Randal and a three-legged cat named Mrs Dalloway.
There’s a map marked by Finn’s granddad, to which route, the old man says, the motley crew must stick: “When I unfold the paper,” Finn explains, “it smells ancient and important, like newsprint …. There are cities and towns circled, places my granddad has been …. Artifacts from his unbounded memories. And then, in the margins, there are new notes: instructions he’s written expressly for me. Like: In Chicago—Never look the Gangster in the eye.”
In a way, Driver’s Education is also the story of Finn’s father Colin, the Screenwriter (the book’s capitalisation), who turned to writing screenplays inspired by the classic films he and Alistair used to watch together, and who struggles to reconnect with the old man even though they’ve been living together again after ill-health knocked the wind out of the elderly adventurer.
In telling the tale, the author manages to wrap unselfconscious quirkiness up in some very fine writing indeed, without ever sacrificing either. A rare feat, in my reading experience, making it one of those – also rare – books from which I want to read aloud just for the joy of hearing precisely how the words have been strung together.
Ginder, who also teaches writing at New York University, where his (lucky) students are required, he says, to form connections between, for example, the essays of John Berger and George Michael videos, has all the necessary tools and talent with which to tap into the cultural zeitgeist of our time.
Not only does he write like a dream, he’s also currently “endeavouring to re-tell Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway through cat pictures”.
Why am I not surprised?
(Driver’s Education by Grant Ginder is published by Simon & Schuster.)
… A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere
by Lauren Leto
Reviewed by Stevie Godson
It first floated tantalisingly into my view on a list of titles sent to me by the publisher, Harper Perennial. It’s a list I occasionally receive and generally discard on the grounds that: a) I’d be one of too many applying for a relatively few review copies; and, b) most of my reviews these days are written for New York Journal of Books, whose understandably strict rules include not being in direct touch with publishers (which, of course, I wasn’t).
As a long-time book and word blogger, I’ve been receiving the Harper Perennial lists since way before my involvement with New York Journal of Books, so that had nothing to do with why they sent it to me.
And I don’t know the author, either. Another of those sensible rules of which I heartily approve as it eliminates any chance of a conflict of interest, intentional or inadvertent.
Given that Leto’s book has a title that surely appeals only to weirdos like me (though I hope, for her sales’ sake, that assumption’s wrong), the odds of me getting a review copy were pretty strong, I thought. Not only that, I’d be giving it pride of place on my Word Nerds blog, which the publishers would doubtless appreciate – that’s if I didn’t hate their precious baby, of course.
I applied, crossed my fingers, and waited.
Happily, it seems I’m suitably weird - or maybe I just got lucky. Whichever it was, I’m glad. Fellow blogger Leto, who apparently “dropped out of law school to start the popular humour blog Texts from Last Night,” certainly knows her way around a bookshelf.
Not only that, she’ll make sure you do, too, while having you laughing out loud along the way.
Chapter headings give a glimpse of the fun lying in wait within the book’s 288 pages.
Typical is The Bookshelf of the Vanities, in which our bubbly bibliophile mercilessly judges people by what’s on theirs.
After that, Ms Leto provides a torrent of useful delights, including Ten Rules for Bookstore Hookups, Survival of the Nerdiest, The Rules of Book Club, Stereotyping People by Favourite Author, and How to Fake It – literarily speaking, of course.
Talking of which – faking it, that is – I was slightly surprised that the front cover blurb was by James Frey, parts of whose Oprah-adulated “true-life” memoir, A Million Little Pieces, were apparently as authentic as Joan Collins’ eyelashes.
Oh, and lest I be accused of faking it, too, I probably shouldn’t omit to mention the chapter concerning the Book Critic’s Bag of Tricks, into which, I hope, I’ve never fallen.
My only (miniscule) concern is that despite its title, and Leto’s reputation and clearly comic style, the book ends on a sombre, though very moving, note about her late, book-loving grandmother. I understand why she’s included it – I would have, too. I just feel it should have been elsewhere within this fabulous book, leaving readers on a happy high.
(“Judging a Book by Its Lover: A Field Guide to the Hearts and Minds of Readers Everywhere” by Lauren Leto is published by Harper Perennial)Comments »
(… which may or may not be related to the Christmas comma!)
(Pic taken by Stevie Godson at Retail Park, Beacon Bay, in South Africa’s glorious Eastern Cape)Comments »
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books
by Stevie Godson
IT’S been said that writing something down can be cathartic. I can only fervently hope that’s true for Richard Russo. For while the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s memoir is being marketed as “hilarious”, as well as moving, Elsewhere is anything but.
Russo’s writing style might make it an easy read, but his subject matter is emotionally gruelling.
Overall, though perhaps unintentionally, Elsewhere: A Memoir is an indictment of a mother who demanded and received her long-suffering son’s attention whenever she wanted it, right up until her death and often at the expense of his marriage and family.
From the time Russo’s mother insisted on joining him when he went to college from Gloversville (“a place that’s easy to joke about unless you live there”), until she died, her yearning was always to be “elsewhere.” And her too-devoted-for-his-own-good son was always there to pack, ferry, and make it happen for her. He was even her regular grocery-shopping chauffeur. Because, as she constantly reminded him: “There was only one person in the whole world who really cared about her, who understood and could help her, and that was me.”
Unfortunately, what’s clear in this memoir—but what its author never quite seems to grasp—is that there was only one person in the world she cared about. Herself.
From early on, he wondered how much of a burden he was to his mother, who, he suspected, “if she hadn’t been saddled with me,” would much rather be out having fun.
Apart from foisting all of her neuroses onto her overly devoted son, she was, he says, forever misjudging “not just distance and direction but the sturdiness of the barriers erected between her and what she so desperately desired. I should know. I was one of them”.
How the author’s wife, Barbara – despite her own forebodings — put up with it all beats me.
At one time, early in their marriage, the couple were living in a cramped mobile home in a trailer park and still this selfish woman imposed herself on them.
“Each night there were three of us at the dinner table, but mostly my mother talked to me as if Barbara wasn’t there. It was almost as if she’d forgotten I was married . . . ,” he writes.
She hadn’t forgotten at all.
In case readers misunderstand, Russo assures us (himself?) that his mother didn’t dislike Barbara; in fact, he explains, she often thanked her for sharing her home.
“It was my wife’s existence she couldn’t account for, as if she were a hologram.”
As for the author: “Ricko-Mio,” his mother would tell him. “Always there. Always my rock.”
Far from being helpless, she seems to have been a mistress of manipulation, pulling the strings of her own parents when they were alive, controlling her son through her mind games.
Russo’s (absent) father was the only one who seemed to have her measure. She’s crazy, he told the author when he was 21. Initial anger turned to relief, he recalls, “and, finally, I felt guilty. That I’d come to the same heartless conclusion as my father was a terrible betrayal, surely.”
By then I wanted to slap the blinkered wimp.
“Over the years, as she wove herself more deeply into the fabric of our married lives, my wife also came to understand that I was aiding and abetting her demons. In fact, she warned me of this repeatedly, for all the good it did her.”
Even when he finally recognises himself as her principal enabler — far too late in his mother’s life and his, too, I’d say — it’s pretty clear he’d do it all again.
His memoir, Russo admits, is far more his mother’s story than his. Unfortunately, her overwhelming anxieties and demands, forced on to him during her life, seem to consume him still, even after her death.
Elsewhere: A Memoir by Richard Russo is published by Knopf
Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.
by Constance Hale
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
VERBS, reckons author Constance Hale, run deep in our DNA. And yes, she says, you should take her literally because “the human version of the FOXP2 gene gives us our capacity for speech and therefore for verbs”.
Well, okay, but by that reckoning surely every other part of speech must be embedded there, too.
There’s no doubt, though, that these so-called action words are what drives a piece of prose – and, indeed, any other kind of writing – and the enthusiastic manner in which Hale celebrates them is contagious and sometimes startling, as is the speed with which new verbs are added to the English language.
There are somewhere between 45,000 and 85,000 among the 315,000 to 600,000 words listed by “reputable” English dictionaries, reckons Hale, “… from abacinate (to blind by placing hot irons, or metal plates, in front of the eyes) to zoon (to move quickly, making a buzzing sound)”. And although in Hale’s words, “we can’t verbalise without verbs” - as her fascinating guide illustrates - it’s debatable whether a whole book on the subject is really warranted.
What Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch aims to provide is verbal dexterity, she says: “the art of making sentences that are as enticing, graceful, sexy, and smooth as the tango”.
I’m guessing she means as smooth as the tango should be – she’s obviously never seen me on the dance floor!
That aside, Hale, who is also the author of Wired Style and Sin and Syntax, certainly takes the vexation out of historic language lash-ups as she shows us how to hex, smash and smooch our way to sharper writing.
She does it well, too, jolting us out of any torpor we may have, tearing down stultifying rules and firing off examples in lively manner as she disentangles “smashed-together” ideas on language and style.
Metaphor, musicality, the very voice of a piece, all matter greatly to Hale, much to my delight, making Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch – by no means a have-to-have book – a worthwhile addition to any word-lover’s book shelf.
And besides, who wouldn’t love someone who has a mailing list called Miss Thistlebottom? NOT — especially for educators “all over the globe” — with monthly dispatches to help teachers in the classroom?
Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale is published by WW Norton & Company.
(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)Comments »