vocabulary lessons: The Fish in the Forest by Dale Stokes

If you’re interested: see other vocabulary lessons as well.


fish forestAs you know, I found the salmon’s story in The Fish in the Forest simply mesmerizing. I also learned a lot – and not just about salmon. Here are some vocabulary words I had to look up.

epiphytes attach to their host plants for support and as a means to reach more sunlight… but are traditionally classified as non-parasitic”: “There are epiphytic plants that grow on trunks and branches high in the forest canopy…”

relict, “a surviving species of an otherwise extinct group of organisms”: “The present salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest stem from relict populations that have been extant since the last ice age…” (I suspected a typo here for “relic” – this being a pre-publication proof edition, typos would not surprise. But no, I learned something new here. “Relict” is perfectly appropriate.)

trophically, “of or relating to nutrition”: “Even when not preying on salmon directly, humpbacks are linked to them trophically because they feed on fishes that compete with salmon for food.” Further explained a little later on within the book itself: “The troph in heterotroph and autotroph implies nourishment…” In other words, what we’re talking about here (in context) is organisms that are linked on the food chain, or the food web. They are trophically linked.(Another that looked like a possible typo; except that “tropically” would have made no sense in context!)

collocate, “to occur in conjunction with something”: “The other two races have overlapping ranges along the coast but seldom interact or collocate.”

semelparous, “reproducing or breeding only once in a lifetime” (or, to put it more bluntly, once they breed, they die): “Their life history of anadromy and semelparity transports millions of tons of salmon flesh into nutrient-poor freshwaters that then shape the entire Salmon Forest.”

gestalt, “the general quality or character of something”: “All living things possess a unique gestalt…”

I had previously come across the concept of anadromy (I don’t recall where) and looked it up (defined: “ascending rivers from the sea for breeding”); but finding it repeatedly in this book made me curious about the pronunciation of anadromous: “…the critical return to freshwater to spawn is called an anadromous life history…”

I like a good vocabulary lesson alongside a fine reading experience – don’t you? Or does reaching for the dictionary frustrate you?

vocabulary lessons: The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

If you’re so inclined, see other vocabulary lessons here.


silentAs I wrote yesterday, Janet Malcolm is nothing if not academic; and she expresses this in her vocabulary and allusions. I made no shortage of notes. Here are a few words and references that I took the time to explore further.

asperity: “…writing with the affectionate asperity of a sibling…”

Turandot: “presenting herself as a kind of Sphinx or Turandot before whom the various supplicants must appear…”

bathetic: “Plath, unable to eat or sleep, was running actual high fevers as well as figurative ones of jealous rage and bathetic self-pity,” and again, “…sinks deeper and deeper into bitter bathos…”

Cerberus: “Olwyn ran a small literary agency in addition to her work as Cerberus to the Plath estate.”

transferential misprision! “(In 1956) …relations between men and women were at a nadir of helpless transferential misprision.” She’s showing off now, isn’t she?

lability: “Plath’s recording of the calm stealing over her after she left Sassoon’s house, and of her sense of her entitlement to the pleasures of Paris, wonderfully evokes the lability of feeling for which youth is famous…”

Racine’s Phèdre: “Women are demon spirits in the poem. They’re Racine’s Phèdre.”

marmoreally: “…the letters we used to write one another in the 1950’s and 60’s on our manual Olivettis and Smith Coronas, so different from the marmoreally cool and smooth letters young people write one another today on their Macintoshes and IBMs.”

The Aspern Papers: “I felt like the possessor of a great prize – the prize that the narrator of The Aspern Papers goes to such extreme lengths to try to get.” (I loved learning about this one. I may have to read it and reconsider Henry James.)

oriental, in this usage: “…I’ve also wasted a great deal of time being positively oriental in tact…” (quoted from a letter written by Olwyn Hughes to Anne Stevenson) I remain puzzled by this one; I could find no definition of oriental that made the least sense in this context. My mother the linguist, when consulted, suggested that maybe it’s a reference to a stereotypical behavior of the population of people sometimes referred to as “Orientals.” (This is not considered polite or politically correct usage.) That sounds like the best theory I can find…

Leonard Bast: “Butscher has figured as a kind of Leonard Bast in the community’s imagination – and, I should add, in his own.” From Forster – naturally.

exiguous: “…but as the house and food were nourishing, the memories were exiguous.”

Cyrano: “Cohen apparently forgave her for her rejection of his actual person and accepted his Cyrano role.” All I can figure is Cyrano de Bergerac, though I don’t entirely get the reference. Anyone care to elucidate?

verdigris, from Plath’s poem, Death & Co.: “The nude / Verdigris of the condor.” (I have looked this up repeatedly but can never keep straight which color is verdigris.)

seraphic: “…her head raised with a kind of seraphic expression…” Like a seraphim, of course.

immanence: “…dust that through the years had acquired almost a kind of objecthood, a sort of immanence.”

Whew. Keep the dictionary handy. Anything new to you here?

vocabulary lessons: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard had me quite active with my note-taking for later looking up. I have included only the highlights here for you.

anchorite: “An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold.”

discalced: “[The effort to] gag the commentator, to hush the voice of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing… marks the literature of saints and monks of every order East and West, under every rule and no rule, discalced and shod.”

spate: “I live for… the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

oriflamme: “The flight [of a flock of starlings] extended like a fluttering banner, an unfurled oriflamme…”

sonant and surd: “The wind shrieks and hisses down the valley, sonant and surd…”

scry: “…I had better be scrying the signs.”

eidetic: “…we have feelings, a memory for information and an eidetic memory for the imagery of our own pasts.”

obelisk: “We run around under these obelisk-creatures, teetering on our soft, small feet.” (She’s referring to trees.) and, 20 pages later: “A tree stands… mute and rigid as an obelisk.”

pavane: “An even frailer, dimmer movement, a pavane, is being performed deep under me now.”

neutrinos: “I imagine neutrinos passing through [a bird's] feathers and into its heart and lungs…”

racemes: “Long racemes of white flowers hung from the locust trees.”

a two-for-one, etiolated and lambent: “The leaf was so thin and etiolated it was translucent, but at the same time it was lambent, minutely, with a kind of pale and sufficient light.”

eutrophic: “The duck pond is a small eutrophic pond on cleared land…”

phylactery: “…the microscope at my forehead is a kind of phylactery, a constant reminder of the facts of creation that I would just as soon forget.”

cofferdam: “…pouring wet plaster into the cofferdam…”

stet: “If the creature makes it, it gets a ‘stet’.”

shmoo: “Generally, whenever he was out of water he assumed the shape of a shmoo…” (referring to a muskrat).

enow: “The Lucas place is paradise enow.”

lorn: “A bobwhite who is still calling in summer is lorn…”


See other “vocabulary lessons” posts here.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 17-25; conclusions

(See my first two reviews: lectures 1-7 and lectures 8-16.)

First I’d like to share another example of something that I wished to debate with this professor. The discussion below contains spoilers regarding For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is probably my very favorite book ever ever (possibly competing with The Odyssey and The Jungle), so if you haven’t read it, you might skip this part of my review.


Spoiler begins

At about 32 minutes into lecture 19 (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Part IV), regarding the scene late in the novel when Robert Jordan’s leg is broken and Pablo is going to lead his small band onward without him:

The symmetry here is between Robert having a broken leg and Pablo having much head. He is the brainy one. This is the ultimate rewriting of the power dynamics in For Whom the Bell Tolls. We’ve been going along with the assumption that it’s the person with the knowledge and the technology, the person with the knowledge of the world, the person that speaks several languages, we’ve been going under the assumption that that person is going to be on top, that the future belongs to him. The ultimate irony of this novel is that in fact this is the person who’s going to lose out, who’s going to have no future at all.

While I see her point about the disruption of power between the educated, foreign-empowered Robert and the rather much maligned and dissipated Pablo, I couldn’t disagree more about the disruption of the reader’s expectations. I realize I can only speak for myself, but I think I can find some Hemingway to back up my impressions.

When I read this book for the first time (in a beach camp in the little town of Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico), I had a strong sense of foreboding about Robert’s fate, and indeed, the fate of Pablo, Pilar, and the rest. Robert’s daydreaming of his life together with Maria in other times and places – in Paris, in the United States, as the wife of a professor entertaining undergraduate students – has a tone of wistfulness, as if Robert suspects this will not come to pass. He likewise daydreams about suicide – his father’s, and the avoidance of his own – and is increasingly pessimistic about the fate of this band of guerrillas. The end of El Sordo has an air of doom about it, which reflects further than those who die on the hilltop; the odds are admittedly against a little guerrilla group in these mountains. When I read this book without knowledge of the ending, I felt sure that Robert and Maria wouldn’t make it out of these hills together and alive; I suspected Robert’s demise specifically, and worried for the rest of them as well. And while I know this is just one person’s reading, I think there’s evidence that Hemingway directed me toward these suspicions. So I’m not sure Dimock has grasped it when she says she’s turned all our expectations on their head. Hemingway has disrupted the power dynamic, yes, but intentionally and with foreshadowing; I’d argue that one of the messages of this novel lies in his statement on war and the value of military technologies, in the way that Dimock shows, but he didn’t surprise us with it so much as build us steadily towards this ending.


Spoiler ends

I am arguing with Dimock here not because I think she’s unintelligent or anything, but because I enjoy debating literature I love. I just wish I could be there and ask my questions and make my points, engage the prof and my classmates. In other words, I would like to be back in school again. What else is new.

I both enjoyed very much, and was very frustrated (see above) by Dimock’s study of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I think this is natural. Next we studied Tender is the Night, which I reacted to similarly but less strongly; that’s a book I’ve read, though not recently, and I feel less strongly about it than I do FWTBT; it might be my least favorite Fitzgerald (I thought The Last Tycoon, for example, was better), but ho hum. And then there was Light in August, the only Faulkner I’ve read, and if you read my two reviews of that, you know I’m settling in as not a Faulkner fan. So, the final question of this semester of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner: for me personally, did this class help me understand and enjoy Faulkner, or make me want to read more of him? And to that, a resounding “no.” I am discouraged by Dimock’s repeated confession that he is difficult, makes little or no sense, that she often does not understand what he’s up to. I was turned off by the other two works discussed in this course, and the final four lectures on Light in August shed precious little (wait for it…) light.

I now want to go back to school and study more literature; and I want to avoid William Faulkner from here on out. Those of you who enjoy him are welcome to your enjoyment and I’m happy for you. I’ll be over here.

As for Wai Chee Dimock’s course: I think she fails to articulate her thoughts sometimes; also, I disagree with some of them, but respectfully. I would certainly be happy to take courses from her if I were going back to school. As for this course via iTunes U, however, I give the combination of Dimock’s speaking style and the poor audio recording quality a C-, at best. However, I listened to all 25 lectures at ~50 minutes apiece. If you’re interested, they’re out there, and for that I’m grateful. We’ll see if I have any success with iTunes U in the future.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 8-16

Well, compared to my earlier review of lectures 1-7, I confess I’m a little less enthused with this second set of lectures. (By the way, for clarity’s sake, I downloaded all 25 lectures at once with no indicated break. These breaks for review purposes are random and my own.) I continue to find some audio issues – volume variations, breathiness, background noise – distracting and a little frustrating; I can better understand other users’ complaints as I go on and as this annoyance builds. And I have decided I do not want to read any more Faulkner. It’s not encouraging to have this professor repeatedly confirm that he is difficult; and what I’m learning about the two studied works I haven’t read (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying) is not motivating. I am perplexed by Dimock’s characterization of As I Lay Dying as “Faulkner’s version of To Have and Have Not” (this is at 15:00 or 14:55 of lecture 16, if you want to hear more). I confess listening to Dimock acknowledge Faulkner’s esoteric nature, combined with being thrilled to hear Hemingway discussed, is only serving to cement me further in my feelings about these two men. And that’s not really the purpose of academia, is it! I wish I could attend this class with classmates and participate in the study sections she refers to; I’d love to write papers as assigned and get feedback on them; maybe one day I’ll still go back to school and do these things, but for now, listening to these lectures is… still worthwhile, but sometimes frustrating. I hear things I don’t agree with, or need further explained, and there’s no platform for that. I could criticize and pick apart Dimock’s thoughts here, but it doesn’t feel entirely fair. I’d feel much better about doing it in the format intended: class discussion. Besides that, it’s difficult to articulate my arguments for you here, in front of this keyboard, after having listened to the lectures while driving my car and thus not taking adequate notes! These are the limitations of “study” under these terms as a busy professional. I’m still listening. But part of what I’m getting out of these lectures is just more regret that I’m not a full-time grad student!

I will choose one concept to argue here. It struck me hard enough that I made a note and went back to listen to this quick bit at home so I could share with you.

This is in lecture 16, covering For Whom the Bell Tolls (for the record, my favorite Hemingway novel). Dimock reads briefly from a conversation between Robert Jordan and Anselmo (whose name, inexplicably, she pronounces more like Ensalmo; it drives me nuts) in which Anselmo says of the gypsies,

To them it is not a sin to kill outside the tribe. They deny this but it is true.

Dimock comments.

Usually, for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period, right? So there’s just no qualifying after that… [but for the gypsies] outside your tribe you’re free to kill anyone. That’s an incredible charge to level against the gypsies.

She continues on to argue that this accusation, that gypsies lack some moral rectitude that the rest of us possess, is a statement that Anselmo is making about the gypsies’ inferiority; she goes on to discuss Robert Jordan’s apparent ignorance of Spanish culture & history based on a comment that he makes about the Moors. Well, I’m not so sure that Robert Jordan is all that ignorant, but that’s another argument. I think Dimock missed a key piece of irony in that statement about gypsies killing outside their tribe. What struck me about Dimock’s response was her dismissively clear-cut understanding of “our” rules about killing: “the injunction is again killing, period.” First of all, the groups that Anselmo and Robert Jordan belong to (the Abraham Lincoln brigade; guerrillas; Spanish republicans) certainly don’t have a universal injunction against killing people: they kill fascists, don’t they? In other words, depending on how you define one’s tribe, they also feel that it’s permissible or justifiable to kill outside the tribe. Or let’s take this a step further: nowhere does Anselmo, or Dimock, note that it’s okay or not okay to kill humans outside one’s tribe. No, she states that “for most of us, the injunction is against killing, period.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. People kill sentient beings by the billion: to eat them, to take their habitats, as collateral damage during our search for fossil fuels, on and on. To take a more modern approach, we as a society not only kill all nonhuman things as a matter of course and without a second thought; we also seem to accept under certain circumstances that it’s justifiable, at the very least, to kill nonwhites, or non-Americans, or non-Christians; in the post-9/11 United States, there was (is) a certain acceptance of our right to kill Muslims or brown people who live in certain countries! Now, Hemingway didn’t live to see 9/11, but this brand of ethnocentrism is not unique to my generation’s experience. I believe that Hemingway, unlike Dimock – and likely Robert Jordan too – saw and intended the irony in Anselmo’s statement about gypsies killing outside the tribe. It’s all a matter of how you define one’s tribe. Dimock herself pointed out in an earlier lecture that Hemingway’s work is simply dripping, saturated, with irony. I think she missed a fine example here.

Yale lectures on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner by Wai Chee Dimock: lectures 1-7

This is a series of 25 lectures – a semester course, presumably – available on iTunes U here. The description provided says…

This course examines major works by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, exploring their interconnections on three analytic scales: the macro history of the United States and the world; the formal and stylistic innovations of modernism; and the small details of sensory input and psychic life.

Some of the user comments/reviews on iTunes U accuse Professor Dimock of being difficult to understand; I’d like to speak to that first. These are not ideal audio recordings, it’s true. She’s a little faint, as if the mike was not pinned to her lapel but in the room somewhere (students coughing and rustling are audible); or maybe sometimes she has it too close to her mouth, and we get unnecessary breathiness. I had to crank my volume way up, and Dimock has some (natural, I think) variations of volume that had me making adjustments and occasionally jumping when she speaks up. And she does have an accent. And she does use “ums” and pauses; but again, I think most of us do. While she is not the most articulate, professional speaker I’ve ever encountered, I think she’s plenty fair for a college professor. (They don’t get to be professors by being professional speakers, kids, in case you didn’t know.) And the recording quality is partly to blame for the minor difficulties I had understanding these lectures. All that said, I found it entirely possible to turn up the volume, concentrate, and receive what Dimock had to say; and it was well worth it.

Now on to the content.

In the early episodes, I can’t say that Dimock presented any ideas that were wholly new to me. Here’s where I’ll take some credit for having read at least a little Faulkner, a medium-sized chunk of Fitzgerald, and most of Hemingway (repeatedly), and read similar proportions of biographical material on each, and studied literary criticism in the past. However, I haven’t tried to think in such academic interpretive terms in some time, and this warming up (if you will) of that part of my brain was useful and welcome. It felt really good to think in academic terms again.

I have to say that I couldn’t get on board with all of Dimock’s concepts. For example, her conflation of the “vagueness” of The Great Gatsby (that was, I believe, Maxwell Perkins’s word) with her “counterrealism” of same is problematic to me. I think you could be vague in your portrayal of realism, and I think you could be precise and use clear outlines in representing counterrealism; so I don’t think it works to substitute the one for the other. In addition, I’m 90% confident that in discussing Hemingway’s short story Indian Camp, she first asserts that childbirth is a manmade event (because it takes a man’s action to bring it on, of course) rather than a natural one; and then later comes around and asserts that it is as natural as rain (which I am much closer to agreeing with than the first assertion, by the way). I don’t always agree with her concepts, then, and I don’t always think that she is all that consistent or puts her arguments together all that well. However, all that aside, I’ve really enjoyed having these parts of my brain stretched out again, and I would very much enjoy being in this class to argue these points with her. So my disagreements and criticisms wouldn’t have me pulling out of this class, in other words, and I won’t stop listening now, either.

One big hope I had for these lectures was that they would help me to work my way through my difficulties with Faulkner. In that respect, they’ve been moderately successful. On the one hand, I am vindicated by Dimock’s saying that The Sound and the Fury is really difficult to understand! Now, I began that book at one point, years ago, and I don’t think I made it 15 pages; but already things are illuminated. So perhaps, as I suspected, Faulkner would become comprehensible to me if I had a good teacher looking over my shoulder and consulting page-by-page. I still don’t think I’m going to try The Sound and the Fury again anytime soon. But I look forward to hearing about my recent read, Light in August.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sections on Hemingway so far haven’t given me anything I didn’t know. I suspect I’m fairly well-informed, for an amateur, on that subject.

So in a nutshell, I’m feeling stimulated and am enjoying these lectures very much so far, and will be continuing through all 25.

vocabulary lessons: The World’s Strongest Librarian

worldsstrongestLeave it to an author as well-read as Josh Hanagarne to stump me several times over! I keep a piece of scratch paper as a bookmark, one sheet faithfully dedicated to each book, for keeping notes: page numbers for referral or quotation, words to look up, thoughts that belong in my review. If I have to look up more than 1-3 words in a book of standard length, that book often finds its way into a “vocabulary lessons” post. Here are the words that I learned from The World’s Strongest Librarian.

revenant: “one that returns after death or a long absence.” As used, a great way to poke fun at the ultra-serious character in question.

elided: “to suppress or alter (as a vowel or syllable) by elision” (a prime example of the crime of using the word in its own definition! shame on you, Merriam-Webster) or “to strike out (as a written word).” Not to be confused, I suppose, with redact, a term I was more familiar with and which did come up as a “related word.”

D and C: a most unpleasant-sounding surgery performed for, in this case, a very sad condition.

fontanelle: that soft spot on a baby’s head that you have to be careful of until the skull zips up properly. I am not a person well-versed in babies, in case you couldn’t tell. Used here in a metaphoric sense which I found quite effective, and topical.

Bonus: I went out the other night for beers with a girlfriend who also works in health care, and she dropped one on me that I’d never heard before. Because I’m a logophile, I had to go look it up right away! Lisa says that perseverate is word mostly used in health care; and the definition, to “repeat a response after the cessation of the original stimulus,” does fit with Lisa’s specialty in treating neurological conditions. There you go – learn something every day, even at the local pub. Thanks Lisa!

Sorry to say, folks, that The World’s Strongest Librarian will not be released for some time (May 2, last I saw). But in the meantime, you can check out Josh’s blog.

And if you’re interested – you can see a few more “vocabulary lessons” posts here.

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