vocabulary lessons: The Voices by F. R. Tallis

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

photo credit

cornice (photo credit)

Where Grizzly Years taught me technical words for the natural world, The Voices taught me a few architectural ones. (An old, spooky house figures significantly. But of course you’ll have to wait for the review.)

“There were marble fireplaces, carved banisters and exquisitely moulded cornices…” cornice: “1a: the molded and projecting horizontal member that crowns an architectural composition; b: a top course that crowns a wall; 2: a decorative band of metal or wood used to conceal curtain fixtures.”

corbel (photo credit)

corbel (photo credit)

“Christopher went over to the fireplace and examined the maculated red marble surround. Even the corbels had been carefully crafted.” maculated: “marked with spots” and corbel: “an architectural member that projects from within a wall and supports a weight; especially one that is stepped upward and outward from a vertical surface.”

“Laura raised her head and looked through the architrave.” architrave: “the lowest division of an entablature resting in classical architecture immediately on the capital of the column; or the molding around a rectangular opening (as a door).” So she looked… through the doorway?

“Every compliment Simon collected seemed to bespatter Christopher’s own achievements with ordure.” ordure: “excrement; or something that is morally degrading.” Mmmm, a fancy word for poo.

“Gilt mirrors, brocade curtains and benighted oil paintings, yards of intricately patterned carpet, chandeliers and classical figures on columns, deeper an deeper, the rooms went on and on.” benighted: “existing in a state of intellectual, moral, or social darkness.” So the oil paintings are… not very good?

“The trees became monochrome as an eldritch dusk intensified.” eldritch: “weird, eerie.” Indeed!

What have you learned in your reading recently?

vocabulary lessons: Grizzly Years by Doug Peacock

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

grizzlyUnsurprisingly, Peacock taught me a number of new words in this book, generally of the technical & outdoors variety.

“…grizzlies can walk lightly over a thin crust, distributing their weight evenly on their plantigrade feet…” plantigrade: “walking on the sole with the heel touching the ground.” Which makes sense, as Peacock later writes: “I squatted and traced the outline of the grizzly’s rear foot in the crusted mud. How humanlike it was.”

“Not a single tree decorated the lacustrine benches.” lacustrine: “of, relating to, formed in, living in, or growing in lakes.” A parallel to ‘riparian’, then?

“I dropped down to explore the little mountain, half evenly timbered, half steaming rhyolite and broken andesite.” rhyolite: “a very acid volcanic rock that is the lava form of granite”; and andesite: “an extrusive usually dark grayish rock consisting essentially of oligoclase or feldspar.”

“We passed two tiny azure tarns beginning to melt in the weak spring sunlight…” or “I wondered if anyone had ever visited those four lonely tarns.” tarn: “a small steep-banked mountain lake or pool.”

“High above, I saw the broad wings that had startled the bovid…” bovid: ” any of a family (Bovidae) of ruminants that have hollow unbranched permanently attached horns present in usually both sexes and that include antelopes, oxen, sheep, and goats.” I knew ‘bovine’, of course, but was thrown to see ‘bovid’ (here, referring to a mountain goat); I thought bovine meant cows, specifically. I guess this word is a little more inclusive.

“A spine of dolomite ran off the range of peaks and continued down the mountain as a bedrock ridge.” dolomite: “a mineral CaMg(CO3)2 consisting of a calcium magnesium carbonate found in crystals and in extensive beds as a compact limestone.”

“We set up our tent, locating it out of the wind on the carpet of Carex.” Carex: “a vast genus of almost 2,000 species[2] of grassy plants in the family Cyperaceae, commonly known as sedges.”

“On an island to the south, melanism has prevailed in a species of jackrabbit living among gray andesites and scabrous vegetation.” melanism: “an increased amount of black or nearly black pigmentation (as of skin, feathers, or hair) of an individual or kind of organism.”

“Grunion appear on the beaches of the northern Gulf from February to April after the big tides of the full moon.” grunion: “a silverside (Leuresthes tenuis) of the California coast notable for the regularity with which it comes inshore to spawn at nearly full moon.” Okay, but what is a silverside?? The “Concise Encyclopedia” entry, a little further down the same page, is more helpful: “Edible Pacific fish (Leuresthes tenuis) found along the western coast of the U.S. In the warm months, it lays its eggs in beach sand during a full or new moon when the tide cycle is at its peak. The young hatch and enter the ocean on the next spring tide, two weeks later. Grunion reach a length of about 8 in. (20 cm).”

What have you learned in your reading recently?

getting rich writing book reviews

Warning! Long post follows. Sorry.

I have found myself commenting several times lately on the richness of my hobby-and-part-time-job, of reading books and then writing about them. I thought it was time I put this into a coherent statement for you here.

I was always a steady reader, as a child, and through school. I always loved to read. (In one of those blogging memes that went around some time ago, a self-interview sort of thing, I was supposed to give my favorite book as a child. I couldn’t remember, so I asked my mom. Her response was something like, “are you kidding! There was a new one daily!”) As a new librarian, I took a readers advisory class that recommended keeping a book blog as one way of recording one’s reading for reference later on. And that’s how we got to pagesofjulia; and that in turn is how I was able to apply to write for Shelf Awareness, a year or two down the road.

So I’ve always been a reader. And I had some fine English classes (and other social sciences) that trained me to take notes while reading, and to look for themes, leitmotif, stylistic quirks, and the like. But only since becoming a book blogger and paid book reviewer have I really begun to hone the skills of close reading – not for a class assignment (I knew how to do that), but to record my personal reactions, or the qualities that a prospective reader would want to know about. (I also began reading with an eye as to how a book might be improved. But that’s a different topic. Perhaps.)

Another result of reading for the sake of writing about what I’ve read, has been the growing diversity of the books I pick up. My reading volume has increased, is ever increasing, and I need the variety to keep from getting bored. If I read nothing but thrillers, at the present rate, it would be difficult to say something new about each one. And I want to better serve my editor by contributing diverse material. But also, as my reading has expanded, so have my interests, which then expand my reading, and there we have the most delightful self-perpetuating cycle you could imagine.

In the past several years, I have read widely in fiction (lots of mysteries and thrillers, as ever, but a little romance, fantasy, sci fi, historical and literary fiction, classics, and some odd formats, outliers and oddities) and nonfiction (sports and nature, as ever, but also science, history, biography, essays, politics, journalism, and literary criticism). I have tended to read for what I can learn from the book, myself, but also with a wider readership in mind, so that I can write a sale-able review. And a magical thing has come of this wide reading diversity.

I have never learned so much, so richly, as in reading this way. I attended a very fine public high school with a highly regarded International Baccalaureate program, and then a college Honors program, from which I graduated summa cum laude. I have a master’s degree. But I’ve never experienced such an interdisciplinary curriculum as this: read eclectically. Take notes.

The area of my reading that has most surprised me is in science. I never considered myself as having a scientific mind, and I was generally lukewarm on science classes (with a notable exception for chemistry); but with such magnetic titles as The Drunken Botanist and A Garden of Marvels, and biographies of Rachel Carson and Hali Felt, not to mention Annie Dillard‘s breathtaking Pilgrim at Tinker Creek… well, I found it easy and even natural to grow in that direction. (As a flower toward the sun, if you’ll excuse the simile.)

And when I began reading more widely, and repeatedly reading in areas new to me – like science – I noticed another magical thing: I started recognizing concepts. I have written before on what I’m calling synchronicity, the seeming coincidence of discovering a newly learned fact or area of study again and again in a short time. The more I think about it, the more I think my friend Liz is right: it’s not that things actually come to me in threes, but rather that when I’ve recently learned something, I am more able to see it the next few times it crosses my desk (book, mind). These are opportunities to relearn a new concept or fact; and they are opportunities to cross-reference within other disciplines, to reinforce knowledge, to gain a fuller understanding of what a concept or a fact means in historical, cultural, political context.

One area in which I am not an expert is education (or educational theory or design), so I’ll try not to get too far off-track here. But I think we’re probably doing something wrong in our formal education system regarding interdisciplinary learning. I’ve never felt so richly instructed as I do by simply spending all the time I can find in reading, widely and with both eyes wide open. And while a steady diet of bodice-ripping romance novels or pulp might not do it, notice that I’m not recommending reading a bunch of scholarly works, or even all nonfiction. (And some pulp is always welcome, just as you can probably eat a few M&Ms alongside your healthy diet.)

Fiction has a great deal to offer: entertainment, yes, but also the opportunity to get inside someone else’s head, to understand their processes and motivations; or to travel to another time or experience another culture, and likewise to better understand the workings of that time or place or culture. And these are valuable lessons to learn for the important everyday work of being human: the ability to empathize, or to understand or even imagine the motivations of others, makes us better people. (There have been some studies on this. See for example the Guardian here and here.) Fiction is good: I’ve said this before.

To say that reading nonfiction is education is a much more familiar concept; you learn new facts from nonfiction, right? (We could actually argue over this point, but let’s not do it here and now.) But again, I think that reading lots – fiction or non – is far more than the sum of the parts, of having read all those individual books. The more you read, the more you learn, not only from what you’ve read, but from the combined and compounded effects of varied reading. I feel more intellectually stimulated now than I did in high school, college or graduate school. It’s not just that I read a lot of books; I read lots of different kinds of books. Some are silly or pulpy, but as I scan this list, I can’t pick out even one that didn’t teach me something. Some are weird (for example). But put them all together, and they make for a fine education.

Read eclectically. Take notes.

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.


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