vocabulary lessons: Many Circles by Albert Goldbarth

It has been a long time since I’ve done a vocabulary lessons post, but here we are. I had to share this one because Goldbarth made me look up more words than usual! Here they are in context: words new to me, words vaguely familiar but that I couldn’t quite place, and one I’ve looked up at least four times in six months but just can’t seem to learn.

“We say it like anyone else – in part because our death is bonded into us meiotically, from before there was marrow or myelin, and we know it, even as infants our scream is for more than the teat.”

In a list of junktique objects: “The thimbling netsukes.”

Of da Vinci, quoting in part another writer: “‘Qualities which seem mutually exclusive are combined in him’ most miscibly: ‘the world revealed itself in all its inexhaustiable riches.'”

“There, on the beach, and fitting [Rachel Carson’s] morning’s diligence to the shape of the chambered nautilus, the Spirula, the knobbed whelk, the moon snail making its gelid way, the lightning whelk, the tulip shell, the pink conch, the horse conch, the embryo of the nudibranch, the umbilicus-shell of the Sundial of Taiwan.”

“I sing of the ‘spirals at the Maltese temple of Tarxien’ and ‘those on a stele from one of the Shaft Graces as Mycenaue, c. 1650 B.C.'”

“The green spring wound in the cotyledons.”

“I sing for his phylacteries.”

“A bud vase sprouts a jonquil.”

“Our sleek weed-whackers take us just so far, and not a single deviant, thunder-roughed, heirophantic molecule over the line.”

“Desiderio Kansal remembered climbing the pyramid steps to the temple of Kulkulcan and, by his candleflicker, witnessing Augustus in a hieratic mutter in front of an earthen vessel, ‘the kind the ancient ones used in burning incense before their gods.'”

“Even the desktop humidor is expansive, it could coddle a couple of preemies, and its lid is ivory and cloisonné fretted into a Byzantine pattern.” (I know for certain I looked this up twice just in the course of reading Useful Phrases for Immigrants. The other source I can’t recall.)

“In a world in which the smoking of even cigarettes by the distaff sex was rigorously taboo (and, under New York’s ‘Sullivan Ordinance,’ illegal) Amy Lowell was famous for publicly and profusely puffing away on her trademark Manila cigars.”

“…his eyes switch from a lovely bronze-and-polished-rosewood orrery on his desk, to the study door.”

“The question deliquesces away at the edges of thought, leaving only a residue that frustrates us.”

A fitting place to end, that question deliquescing! And if that doesn’t give you a taste of Goldbarth’s often exhausting style, I don’t know what does! These lines, of course, were often a little obtuse or complicated (and not just in their vocabulary); he’s not nearly so bad as this seems out of context. He’s wonderful, but not easy.

What have you read recently that’s challenged you?

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?

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.

notes on Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

young men and fireI decided to do a whole separate post (because my review was… long) sharing my notes as I read this book. As I’ve said before, I like to use a scrap of blank paper as a bookmark because I can takes notes on it. Often these are words I’m unfamiliar with, with page numbers, so I can look them up and reread them in their context; quotations with page numbers; or notes of concepts I want to include in a review. Some books fill a quarter-page piece of scrap paper with notes; some have 2-3 notes; a fair minority of the time, I can get all the way through a book with no notes at all and write a review from memory.

Young Men and Fire filled 3 quarter-page scraps of paper and part of a 4th, and I was writing very small. So I wanted to share these notes here. I’ve expanded them slightly to explain to you what I was noting; but still they are basically marginalia. [My page numbers refer to the 1992 hardback from the University of Chicago Press that I got from my local library.] I also left off a few that turned out to be less interesting avenues of pursuit, or that turned out to be personal.

  • author photo: this V.C. Wald 1981 portrait of Maclean in a boat, looking down, is evocative for me and I love it. (see bottom of post)
  • Ehrlich & Dillard blurbs: on the back of the book (among others). Gretel Ehrlich is one of those I had never heard of til I had, and now I see her everywhere. Dillard is one I’ve heard lots about, and it’s finally time for me to read her.
  • like The Perfect Storm: science, weather, geography – actually like it in subject too
  • takes his reader in hand to guide her on this together-journey
  • “left a world that is still burned out.” 86
  • “a mystery of the universe is how it has managed to survive with so much volunteer help.” 112 (having worked with volunteers, and been a volunteer myself, I found this quite apt and funny.)
  • great comments on human nature 114-15. “…most people think they can be of help, and some even seem born to rescue others, as poets think they are.”
  • stations of the cross (a concept that I had to look up: I am unapologetic about being an atheist, but regret a little how uneducated I am in the religions that I don’t believe in)
  • Custer: turns out to be a subject of sort of secondary obsession for Maclean. apparently The Norman Maclean Reader includes his unpublished notes on Custer that were headed for being their own book. I am looking into this.
  • poem 201: I had to look up a poem that was quoted without attribution; it turned out to be “In Flanders Fields” by Colonel John McCrae.
  • “I added a final truism for myself, ‘True poems are hard to find.'” 202
  • “Beer doesn’t seem to do much to remove dehydration, but it makes it easier to admit error.” … “We were too tired to sit down in the shade, if there was any, so we put the plastic bag with the rest of the beer between us on the hot hood of the engine. We figured, since beer couldn’t take away dehydration, we might as well drink it warm.” 209. What I can say, I guess I collect literary quotations about beer.
  • sewing machines 214. The scene described is one in which the smokejumpers play a game of volleyball, watched by visitors from The General Public, who are surprised the smokejumpers are “not as big as the Minnesota Vikings,” and after the game is over, “to the ever-increasing surprise of the visitors, would sit in front of sewing machines and peacefully mend their parachutes. They were very skillful with their sewing machines and damn well better have been, since their lives hung on their parachutes.” This one is for my mother, who not only collects sewing machines but also uses them. She also collects instances of the intersection of manliness and sewing machines – not as rare as you might think, it turns out. (She still has not gotten Husband onto one.)
  • this story in Fire Season? and Jumping Fire? note to self to go and check on the Mann Gulch’s appearance(s) in the two books; I’m sure it must be there…
  • story 214-15: a brief anecdote I appreciated, told by Hal Samsel
  • “…a storyteller should never look at a day as lost if he has learned something about how to tell stories, especially about how to make them shorter.” (which is a lesson Maclean learns from Hal, above.) 215
  • Ancient Age 216: a brand of bourbon that I confess I had to look up (I like Knob Creek myself, if you’re taking notes)
  • I begin to see clearly that I favor those authors who booze. Hemingway, Abbey, Burke, and Maclean, I’m looking at you.
  • math 229-30 and on… another note for my mother, who is a math person (geometry particularly) and might appreciate this discussion of math, its challenges, and its value, not to mention the math itself, complete with charts and graphs, that helps explain the Mann Gulch fire
  • Black Larry: the real-life character in Fire Season who recommended I read this book. make a note to send him a note.
  • silviculture 247: from the US Forest Service: “Silviculture is the art and science of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health and quality of forests and woodlands to meet the diverse needs and values of landowners and society on a sustainable basis.” Maclean uses it in a way that suggests an earlier meaning (at least to him), of the science of controlling forests to meet the needs of loggers, which is not really the same thing as the above definition.
  • anemometer 248: An instrument for measuring the speed of the wind, or of any current of gas.
  • Phil Connors – management – Rothermel – 256: another note to check Fire Season for reference to a man named Rothermel who helped rework the Forest Service’s policies on managing fires rather than just always fighting them. again, I’m sure it’s in there.
  • (back to The Perfect Storm) as I remember it, Junger never addresses much his own strengths or weaknesses with the technical aspect of his research, that is, the science. Maclean does; he pokes fun at his limits with math. This brings in his own personality & amuses me. Also Junger never becomes a character until his final comments(?), whereas Maclean is a major character, necessarily, throughout.
  • “All of us have the privilege to choose what we wish to visualize as the edge of reality. Either tier of crosses allows us to picture the dead as dying with their boots on. On some of the bodies all but the boots were burned off. If you have lived a life that has thrown you in contact many times with nature, you have already discovered that sometimes you can deal with nature only by allowing it to push back what until now you and others thought were its edges.” 277
  • elements – title: I discussed this in my book review, how Maclean adds “young men” to our list of the elements, normally four: earth, air, fire, and water. thus the title of the book.

As you can see, this book inspired many ruminations in me, some still unfinished.

Many thanks to Veronica Wald for sharing this on her blog! It’s worth clicking the link above for the story of the iconic photo.
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