Thursday, January 17, 2013

Candide, by Voltaire (1694-1778), translated by John Butt (1947)

All you need to know to appreciate this delicious one hundred and forty page satirical novella is that during Voltaire’s lifetime, the German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz, known as the last ‘universal genius’ (instrumental in the invention of the calculator, by the way) wrote that ‘this is the best of all possible worlds’. While Leibniz wasn’t thinking in terms of gradations of quality, such as good, better, and best (since he knew of no alternate universes with which to compare and contrast this one), this philosophy, certainly in its summarized form, struck many as a dismissive and flippant excuse for evil, a callous refutation of worldly sorrows and wickedness. In fairness, Leibniz based his claim on the notion that, given what he called the ‘sufficient reason’ or the belief that nothing happens without a reason, God, being omnipotent and omniscient, wouldn’t allow evil to exist if He didn’t see some need for it. Still, small comfort to those in pain.

Voltaire had dealt with his own share of suffering, having served time twice in the Bastille, and clubbed for offending a courtier. After the earthquakes of Lima (1746) and Lisbon (1755), Voltaire took quill to parchment to compose a wickedly funny satire to mock what he saw as lazy renditions of Leibniz’s assertion. Voltaire wasn’t an atheist; he was a deist. His novella doesn’t attempt to impugn God’s existence. Rather, think of Stephen Cobert’s shtick, the way he mocks Bill O’Reilly’s politics and personal panache by essentially creating exaggerations of those positions. While it’s true Cobert is no fan of O’Reilly’s politics, his comedy show is more about hyperbole and sarcasm than a critical examination of O’Reilly’s political philosophy.

Candide, named after its protagonist, is arguably Voltaire’s greatest work. It’s a breezy tale about a fictitious young man whose tutor is the token optimist, Pangloss – a representative of the ‘sufficient reason’ crowd who, amidst a slew of absurd catastrophes, maintains that all is for the best. Along with his dearest friends and his true love Cunégonde, our protagonist Candide encounters and suffers incalculable calamities, much of it written as outrageous parody, all the while siding with Pangloss by counting it all joy. While some of these events are loosely based on actual historical horrors – war, famine, torture – the circumstances, paired with the abundant serendipity throughout make the story so exceedingly ridiculous as to induce excessive laughter, the kind of laughter that forces one to stop reading and take a few deep breaths before resuming. Hard to believe how funny this is 250 years after its original publication.

Friday, January 11, 2013

More Rick Riordan

Southtown by Rick Riordan

As anyone who reads my blog knows, my requisite for reading anything is the writing quality. This trumps plot or genre. Which is why my favorite dead author is Nabokov, despite many of his novels being either perverse or plot free. Same reason I love Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie, P.G. Wodehouse, everything by J.D. Salinger, Brad Whittington, and the handful of novels I’ve read (so far) by Robertson Davies.

This is why I’m a big Rick Riordan fan. Even though crime fiction isn’t my favorite genre, I can’t keep away from his Tres Navarre crime fiction series. Riordan’s lean prose and well-planted similes are irresistible. That the pace breaks the sound barrier and makes your heart out pound the timpani section of the most vigorous percussion orchestra is, as they say, an added bonus. ‘They’ being the voices in my head. Riordan blends humor and tension so well you’ll find yourself biting your nails on one page and snorting coffee out your nostrils on the next. At least that’s what I was drinking at the time.

Southtown might be my favorite Navarre novel so far. Without giving too much away, the character Sam Barrera is so well crafted and memorable, so endearing and tragic, he alone is worth the price of admission. I had to email a writer friend whose memory could beat my memory arm wrestling to verify whether this novel was the first in the series where the narrative bounces from Navarre’s first person point of view (POV) in one scene or chapter to third person POV with a different character in the next. My friend assures me this began in Riordan’s fourth Navarre installment Devil Went Down to Austin. This bouncing is generally discouraged in How-To writing books, but Riordan handles it expertly. Reminds me of Steinbeck’s technique in Winter of our Discontent.

As good as Southtown is, Mission Road is even better. Some choice quotes:

Monday morning I got a paying client.
            Wednesday afternoon I killed him.
Friday evening I buried him.
The Tres Navarre Detective Agency is a full-service 
operation. Did I mention that?

Their eyes hovered over her like mosquitoes – always
there, taking bites when she wasn’t looking.

Somewhere down in my gut, a lead-
weighted fishing hook made a tiny splash.

They parted for her like a bead curtain.

Rebel Island is the next (and so far the last) novel in the series. I don’t see how it can top Mission Road, though I’m eager to let Riordan prove me wrong.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Woe is I, The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner (1996)

If you’re like me and love the English language, particularly the written word and its impact and power to persuade and beguile and move the reader, then you might enjoy certain facets of this book. I can’t find much to recommend it, though. The chapter titles – Plurals Before Swine, Comma Sutra, and Death Sentence – are better than the chapters themselves, which are too cursory for my tastes. But if you’re intimidated by the rules of sentence structure, if you associate English professors with the grammar Gestapo or ruler-wielding nuns eager to rap your knuckles when your tenses are wrong or your noun and verb don’t agree, the subtitle says it all: this book is for those frightened by word rules. O’Conner offers a Grammar Guidelines for Dummies kind of approach with mild humor and friendly advice and none of the intimidating jargon normally associated with the subject.

If, however, you’re a grammarphile – if you like to play name-that-gerund at parties, can conjugate verbs in your sleep, and enjoy uttering interjections just for the hell of it – then you’ll probably label this an entertaining romp through English grammar but not particularly helpful. Better to get The Elements Of Style, by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White, or the grammar Bible I still refer to (part of a series put out by Cliffs Notes Inc. geared toward students) called Writing: Grammar, Usage, and Style by Jean Eggenschwiler. Unlike O’Conner’s Woe is I, Eggenschwiler's book isn't the least bit amusing. But it’s exhaustive and highly reference worthy.

Funny thing about grammarians, while they recognize the need to adhere to standards, they acknowledge these standards change and even welcome this change, within reason. They know some words go from priceless to pretentious in a lifetime, that some phrases begin exciting and innovative and grow facile and clichéd in a few scant decades. We grammarphiles aren’t curmudgeons about language, clinging to dusty verbiage while denouncing new colloquialisms. We rejoice over a fresh turn of phrase, an innovative use of a word. But we condemn or resist (depending on our devotion to the rules) certain abuses or corruptions. In fact, ‘grammarphobes’ and ‘grammarphiles’ are prime examples of good uses of familiar words combined to form and express fresh ideas. But lines are still drawn.  

Regrettably, some of my favorite words – perhaps, Slinky, bidet, callow, Hula Hoop, fornicate – now linger only in novels and novelty shops. I have to remind myself that English is a dynamic and evolving language. I’m not old enough to remember when ‘mad’ meant ‘insane’ but I do remember when ‘cool’ denoted either temperature or a calm head and wasn’t yet an interjection. To witness the wearing down of cherished, stalwart words, to watch them (and hear them) lose their relevance and usage, is bittersweet, like seeing off your child as he reaches adulthood and leaves the home for college or marriage or whatever. Regardless the reason, it’s still hard to say goodbye.

I can hear the collective sigh of legions of grammarians as they begrudgingly capitulate to the influx of verbal curiosities, knowing today’s annoyances will become tomorrow’s entry into the official lexicon. I, too, still catch myself rolling my eyes when someone says he’s nauseous when he really means he’s nauseated. Or when someone uses the term less to describe individual things that make a group. I grew up in the south where cain’t and ain’t are commonplace and wool isn’t just a sheep’s coat. It’s a substitute for the interjection well as in “Wool, there were literally less people there than I expected.” No, there were fewer people there, and drinking at that party didn’t make you nauseous. It nauseated you. You were nauseated. To say you’re nauseous is to say you’re disgusting rather than disgusted or repulsive rather than repulsed. Someone should figuratively take the word ‘literally’ out back and shoot it between the eyes, by the way, and bury it six feet under some inconspicuous topsoil. There, it can RIP beside worn out clichés and possessives posing as contractions and vice versa.  

O’Conner acknowledges in her Introduction that grammar is an “ever evolving set of rules for using words in ways that we can all agree on” and that “the laws of grammar come and go”. Yet even she occasionally bemoans the misuse of words and decries the corrupting influence ignorance and indifference has on the English language. One might argue the grammarian’s rules are arbitrary. Maybe our restless language is the mustang that can’t be tamed, remaining beautiful only because it roams freely, requiring just enough law to preserve its habitat.  

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...