By early September in these mountains the markers of autumn are very much with us. The cool nights diminish the whirring of air-conditioners; the raucous August chorus of tree frogs and crickets softens its music; a few stray leaves on the lawn remind us to have the furnace inspected or the chimneys cleaned. For many of us, the fall brings a heightened sense of bustle and purpose, quickening our blood and rousing us to ambitions muted by summer’s more languorous pace.
It’s that time of year when yellow buses roll down country roads, when children disappear from the stores and streets between the hours of eight and three, when teenagers can be seen entering school buildings bent forward like soldiers beneath packs crammed full of books, notepads, computers and calculators, and various drinks and snack bars.
In her latest novel, Starting From Happy (ISBN 978-1-4391-02185, $24), Patricia Marx, author of Him Her Him Again The End of Him and a staff writer for the New Yorker, gives the reader an off-beat comedic look at relationships, work, marriage and children.
The story is simple enough. Wally Yez, a laboratory scientist, meets Imogene Gilfeather, a lingerie designer. Quickly, Wally becomes infatuated with Imogene, certain that she is the woman of his destiny. He breaks up with his long-time girlfriend and pursues Imogene, who is equally certain that she is happiest just as she is: devoted to her career, blessed by several friends, involved in an affair with a married man whose benign neglect pleases Imogene. Eventually, Imogene, charmed by Wally’s unrelenting pursuit, gives in to his romantic notions that the two of them should become a couple together.
In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Today the challenge posed by Kennedy might read: “Ask not what you can do for your country — ask what your country is doing to you.”
Some years ago, a local artist mounted a painting in a local art show in which he painted Christ with pink paws and Easter bunny ears. “This is going to upset some people around here,” the painter told me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, having heard of the statue of the Virgin Mary covered with cattle dung at a New York show and of Andres Serrano‘s “Piss Christ” – this piece of art entailed putting a crucifix in a jar of urine – most Americans would find a Jesus Easter bunny about as controversial as a piece of broccoli quiche. Had he wanted to ignite a real firestorm, he should have depicted the founder of Islam with a nine-year-old girl in his lap wearing a wedding dress.
What would you do if your teenaged daughter was assaulted, beaten and shot almost to the point of death, and raped? Would you hunt down the assailants? And what would you do if you were a physician and an ardent pro-life advocate and found that this same daughter was pregnant? What would you do if you were a Miami cop — a good one — and suddenly found yourself being ordered about by fools and politicos? And how do you go on defending a system that seems to condemn the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime?
Michael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-0-89870-815-8) has more strikes against it than Babe Ruth on a bad afternoon.
Here is a doorstop of a novel, weighing in at nearly three pounds, more than one thousand pages long. There are redundancies galore; there are clunky passages; there are coincidences, particularly one involving a Russian military operation, that stretch belief to a breaking point. The characters engage in philosophical and theological debates that will annoy the car chase and bang-bang readers. Often the dialogue is didactic and polemical. The main character, Alex Graham, hails from Canada — O’Brien himself is a Maple Leaf man — a country which, should they think of it at all, many Americans would describe as safe, comfortable and boring. Finally, Alex Graham is a believing Catholic, and much of the novel explores that faith, an exploration that will offend — and in some cases, enlighten — those who take their ideas of Catholicism from priestly scandals, the Spanish Inquisition and The DaVinci Code.
Suppose this was your household budget:
• Annual family income………………....$23,400
• Money family spends annually….....$35,900
• New debt added to credit cards……$12,500
• Outstanding credit card balance ..$154,000
• Total cuts to family budget………….......$385
Looks like the budget from hell, right? This household with its skyrocketing debt stands precariously on the brink of bad credit, bankruptcy, and ruin.
Now add 8 zeros to all of the above numbers, and you have the current U.S. federal budget (World Magazine, May 19, 2012).
Or shall we say the current financial situation of the United States. You see, we Americans haven’t seen a real budget, balanced or otherwise, in years. The Republican House under Paul Ryan recently proposed a plan that would balance the budget by 2040. The Senate shot down that plan, but offered nothing in its stead. In fact, the Democratic Senate hasn’t offered a real budget in four years. This spring President Obama sent his own recommended budget to the Congress, where in March the House defeated it 414-0. Last week the Senate followed suit by a vote of 99-0. Congress apparently found a few flaws in the president’s proposals.
Both Congress and the president have drawn up other plans for fixing the deficit. Some of our elected officials have called for raising taxes on the wealthy. This sounds like a good idea because the truly wealthy possess so much more money than the rest of us, and they probably don’t deserve it, and anyway, we need it more than they do. So goes the reasoning of some of our citizenry. But eventually we realize that the amount so raised amounts to only a pittance of the debt we owe and such an increase will result in a shift of capital overseas, leading to even less wealth and fewer jobs here at home. (If we are honest, we might also tell ourselves that some talented people have worked hard for their money and that we are thieves to steal it away).
Others call for making cuts to the budget. Some want to reduce miliatary spending and foreign aid. Why, after all, should the United States give $2 billion to Egypt again this year? Why can’t something be done about our wasteful military? Some want to cut or change social programs. Why do we require a Department of Education for the nation when every state in the union already has such a department?
Here the legislators who wish to cut programs face different obstacles than the tax advocates. They are met on one side by political opponents who decry their lack of compassion for the poor and the elderly, and on the other side by lobbyists who are all for cuts as long as they aren’t aimed at those who employ them. Try extending the age of eligibility for Social Security, and you’ll have the American Association of Retired Persons slicing you into small pieces. Propose reducing military benefits or closing overseas military bases — we have hundreds of them — and the lobbyists will take you apart.
Meanwhile, the rest of us watch, enraged at the failure of politicians to find a cure, cursing their knavery and greed. We blame them for our economic woes, for the loss of our AAA credit rating, for a federal government drunken on dollars and corrupted by power. We regard these leaders as fools, rogues, and thieves, and many of them indeed fit those descriptions.
Yet surely some of the fault lies with us. We vote these people into office; we demand they protect us from the natural ills and woes of life; we want what we want without regard to the cost. We don’t want to pay taxes and certainly don’t want to pay more taxes, yet we want food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, “free” medical care, clean air along with plenty of oil. In 2008, a radio commentator reading children’s letters to candidate-elect Obama best summed up our expectations with this line from a seven-year-old: “President Obama, please make it rain candy.” For decades we have enjoyed that rain of candy. Now the rot of that sugar is destroying us.
Some historians point to Ancient Rome as a warning for us, that crumbling empire with its bread and circuses for the poor, its failed price and wage controls, its unwieldy taxes. But we needn’t stare 1,500 years into the past to see what’s coming. We have only to look across the Atlantic at present-day Greece, Spain, and Italy, all of which are falling apart from the same construct we have erected here: burgeoning social programs, uncontrolled spending, and massive debt. We can look closer to home at California, which while being crushed by enormous debt staggers toward bankruptcy by enacting more government programs.
“Money talks, b***s**t walks,” so the saying goes. We can buy into the lies of some politicians, and we can lie to ourselves, but in the end the figures and the money don’t lie. There’s a bill coming due, and when it arrives, our arguments about taxes and government services won‘t matter. There won’t be enough of us left to tax, wealthy or otherwise, and there will be no more social programs.
It’s time for us to ask every politician, from our mayor to our president, from our senators in Raleigh to those in Washington, what they intend to cut from the budget and how they intend to make government more efficient. If they aren‘t up to the task, then it’s time to elect women and men with long knives, axes, and swing blades, courageous men and women who can chop away at the kudzu of ridiculous regulations, excessive spending, and out-of-control programs. As for the rest of us, we can either pitch tantrums like a three year old when these cuts are made, or we can suck it up and act like grown-ups.
In his Foreword to Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Best Words (ISBN 978-193333882-8, $14.94), Richard Lederer reminds us of Mark Twain’s much-quoted declaration: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
We live in an ocean of words. In addition to our everyday human speech, we listen to the radio, watch television, read books, play with Facebook, write emails and letters. Advertisements both heard and read are ubiquitous. Most of us throw out words with the casual disregard of a man emptying his pockets of loose change.
Yet our diction – our choice of words – often matters more than we realize. The right word can strengthen a friendship, console the sorrowful, inspire the discouraged, give pause to the smug and the self-satisfied. Some of Twain‘s “lightning“ words have even moved the hearts of millions and changed the course of our history: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “I have a dream,” “an evil empire.” The wrong word can break a business deal, a love affair, a marriage. Who has not regretted a word carelessly spoken, a reckless phrase emailed to an acquaintance, a heedless comment whose painful consequences come back to haunt us?
Our words matter.
Which brings us back to The Best Words. Robert Fiske has spent a good part of his life reminding all who would listen to him of the importance of writing and words. He is the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Disagreeable English and The Dimwit’s Dictionary, and the editor of the Vocabula Review, an online journal devoted to fine writing and the usage and peculiarities of the English language. He is a man who loves the play and scope of language.
In this most recent book Fiske collects more than 200 of what another reviewer calls “superlative words.” Chosen both from lists of favorite words sent in by Vocabula readers and by Fiske himself, these words truly are superlative because they are infrequently used yet eminently suitable for conversation and writing. Unlike some collections which offer sesquipedalian entertainment for its own sake – Peter Bowler’s wit in The Superior Person’s Book of Words series leaves readers laughing, but few of us will use words like mammiferous (having breasts) or lilaceous (having to do with slugs) – Fiske and his Vocabula crew have here collected a kit of serviceable tools. Employing his book, we can replace the well-worn enthusiasm with ebullient, sluggish with phlegmatic, ordinary with quotidian. Even the more exotic words found in these pages – hypergelast (one who laughs excessively), quincunx (an arrangement of five objects), coprolalia (the uncontrolled or obsessive use of obscene language) to name but three – seem selected because no other word will do in their place.
Some of Fiske’s entries may also serve as a first-line of defense against suspicion or intrusion. For instance, most of us recognize a misogynist as one who hates women, but it is splendid to learn its opposite, philogynist. This is a most useful word for a man at the beach in the company of a significant other. When she asks, “Must you look at every woman in a bikini?” he has only to reply, “It’s my phylogeny acting up again, dear. I’m not sure there’s a cure.”
The Best Words follows a simple design which benefits all readers. In newspaper-width columns, the reader comes first to the word, then a phonetic guide to its pronunciation, a definition or two, and examples of its usage by noted authors. Included in the back are six quizzes. This is a splendid book for students, particularly those soon to take an SAT, teachers, writers, and all lovers of the English language.
Many books deserve a second look, but few will provide the entertainment and even the wisdom of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Smith, who also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmations, here drops us into the English countryside of the 1930s, where we enter the lives of the Mortmain family: Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator and diarist, her beautiful older sister Rose, her step-mother, the exotic and loving Topaz, and her father, James Mortmain, a brilliant one-novel author suffering from more than a decade of writer’s block. All four scrape by in a falling-down castle leased to them.
Enter two young American men who have just inherited the castle and the nearby manor house. As the American become acquainted with English ways and with the Mortmains themselves, and as romance and love overtake all the characters, Cassandra records their adventures with high humor and intelligence. Cassandra is the perfect narrator here, innocent enough to still find amazement in the actions and words of others, literate enough to think of Shakespeare on a May afternoon, and with enough dry wit to give any reader laughter and pleasure. Through Cassandra Smith gives us a look into an England that may well be disappearing and into an English spirit that will, it should be hoped, endure forever.
If you know a reader among this year’s high school graduates, particularly a young woman, I Capture the Castle is one book whose wisdom and story should capture their attention.
Spring-cleaning remains a ritual in many households. We throw open windows, rid closets, shelves, and drawers of unwanted items — books, papers, video cassettes, sweaters that haven’t seen daylight in 10 years, Aunt Matilda’s time-blighted photographs of zinnias — wash everything from curtains to cars, and finally settle down with the perfume of ammonia and Windex gilding the air.
In my own case, spring-cleaning also includes clearing the left side of my desk of books awaiting review. Here a hillock of volumes, read with varying levels of enjoyment, have gathered dust these last few months, awaiting their turn in this column. Without further ado, I present to you three different books that may deserve your attention.
Jim Harrison’s The Great Leader (ISBN 978-0-8021-1970-4, $24) contains many of the trademarks of Harrison’s other novels: a style that pulls the reader through the story, a hero with many flaws balanced with good intentions, a concern with philosophy, religion, food, liquor, and sex. Detective Sanderson, Harrison’s hero, divorced, frequently drunk, recently retired from the Michigan state police, spends much of his retirement and the novel chasing down a creator of religious cults while at the same time reminiscing about his past. He follows this culprit, the Great Leader, from Michigan to Arizona and then to Nebraska, all the while recollecting his adolescence, his life with his wife, various sexual encounters, and his love of nature and the outdoors.
What Harrison does best here — and his other novels — is to write poetic paragraphs stuffed full of philosophy, poetic diction, and entertaining asides. A random examination of The Great Leader yields paragraphs like this one:
“He hit the radio off button when someone on NPR used the word turd iconic. He used to keep track of these obtuse Orwellian nuggets. A few years ago it was the relentless use of the word closure that raised his ire and then with Iraq the silly term embedded … Pundits reflected his idea that everyone in America gets to make themselves up whole cloth, and also the hideously mistaken idea that talking is thinking.”
Where The Great Leader, Sanderson, and Jim Harrison fall flat on their collective face is in their ideas of sex. Older men — and here I mean men over 55 — do indeed dream of the affections of women, especially younger women, but it is doubtful that younger women cast themselves as frivolously and as frequently at older men as women do at Sanderson. This retired detective has little to recommend him to the younger lovers; he is dull, stuck in the past, aged, lacking in looks and money. Yet women ranging from his teenage neighbor, Mona, to various waitresses all seem to take a shine to him. The novelist’s infatuation with this topic — younger women and their involvement with old guys like Sanderson — borders on the obsessive, so that even the most dilatory reader must wonder whether Harrison is sketching from life or indulging in his own maudlin fantasies.
In Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fanny Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook (ISBN 9781-4013-2322-6, $25.99), Chris Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated and host of America’s Test Kitchens and Cook’s Country, sets out to make a gourmet meal using recipes from what was once America’s most popular cookbook. The problems with such a re-creation are multiple — finding the right ingredients, using the same equipment, deciding whom to invite to the meal — but Kimball’s greatest difficulty lies in the fact that the recipes from Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cook Book too frequently turn out to be second rate, poor cousins to their French counterparts of that age and cousins several times removed from our own culinary specialties. Several times, forced to choose between following Farmer’s mundane recipes or his own good instincts and superior knowledge of food, Kimball finds himself playing variations on Farmer’s work and criticizing her cooking skills.
Far more interesting than the recipes here is Kimball’s investigation into the food and manners of late nineteenth century Boston. From him we learn the intricacies of cooking on a wood stove, the growth of various farmer’s markets in Boston, and the life of a cook in a Victorian household. We discover that the Victorians, unlike modern epicures, disliked the odor of cooking foods and so built their kitchens at the rear of the house; that Boston by 1896 was a shopper’s paradise for cooks, “a vastly better and more convenient place … than Boston today;” that jellies and gelatin dishes played a far greater part in meals of the time than today. Kimball’s historical sense and mastery of details provide an engaging account of Boston social life and entertainment.
For anyone interested in either cooking or the social history of nineteenth century America, Fannie’s Last Supper is a feast in its own right.
Though poetry has lost its shine in the age of twitter and tweet, verse remains the blood and heart of literature. Great verse retains the power to steel our nerves, to open our souls, to sing to us like Eliot’s mermaids. April was National Poetry Month, but it’s never too late to crack open that dusty Norton Anthology or to search out poems old and new on the internet.
On my desk is a copy of A Poem A Day, edited by Karen McCosker and Nicholas Albery. Most mornings I forget to read from it, but when I do remember to seek out that day’s poem, I am reminded once again of the vigor of the English language and the beauty of carefully selected words and forms. Many writers can walk, and some can run, but the great poets open their arms and invite us to dance.