3 December 07

Thought for the Day

“What is the cause of historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills transferred onto one person. On what condition are the wills of the masses transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.”

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Posted by at 09:05 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment

2 December 07

Hot Stove League

Friday evening we ran into Chris at the co-op. Talk naturally turned to baseball, what’s the off-season about to bring (Bonds to the A’s???), the Hot Stove League now turning warm. None of us quite knew where that term came from, and we agreed the topic would make a good blog post. Chris then went on to teasing Pica about her new-found interest in samovars and smoky tea, and I decided to research the term, it making me think of players being traded around like sauté pans on a hot stove…

The term dates back quite a long time. The earliest reference online I could find was from a New York Times article from October 12, 1912 on the fourth game of the World Series between the New York Giants and the Boston Red Sox. The first paragraph reads:

Boston grabbed back its advantage in the world’s series yesterday on terrific smashing of Jeff Tesreau’s speed and moist offerings during the early innings, almost lost it when “Joe” Wood faltered under the strain, then cinched it by pounding Ames for a run in the ninth that made it 3 to 1 and broke New York’s last hope. Two to one in the ninth might not have been so bad, but 3 to 1, Wood settling again after three innings of the rickets and darkness gathering all conspired to make the Giants’ hopeless, and they lost without dishonor and might have won, providing a lot more hard luck alibis for the Hot Stove League this Winter.

The citation implies that the term by this date was in common use. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang explains that the term is originally from baseball and defines it as “sports enthusiasts who continue to discuss their sport during the off-season”.

Paul Dickson’s book The Dickson Baseball Dictionary has a much longer account of the term, defining it as a “term for the gab, gossip, and debate that takes place when baseball is not being played”. The term gained popularity with the publication of a 1955 book by Lee Allen entitled “The Hot Stove League”, he believing that the phrase dated from the turn of the century. However, folk etymologist Peter Tamony found a usage of the term in 1886, describing the off-season in horse racing: “The sleighing has gone, and most of the trotting is done around the hot stove at present.”

Posted by at 10:32 PM in Baseball | Link | Comment [1]

28 November 07

Wanting a Samovar

I’ve finished the first three volumes of the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. Rarely do I read a book this slowly, so rarely do I have the chance to realize that it’s a luxury, a pleasure all the more rich for how drawn out it is. (The last book I read of comparable length was Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which I confess I gobbled in less than a week.)

The samovar: an artifact around which people gather(ed), sometimes in great numbers, and often at great length, to drink tea. Sounds like heaven to me. I’m curious about the different types; about the way the tea was infused with the aroma of burning coals (I always thought Russian gunpowder tea was smoked to fit the Russian taste, which it is, but there’s a reason for that—it probably evokes ancestral memories of huddling companionably, perhaps on a long train journey); about how the tea concentrate (which Wikipedia tells me is called zavarka), to which the hot samovar water is added, is made. This doesn’t really seem to be the place to find this all out, because I find no indication that they actually have any samovars that are working (there seem to be an ocean of tiny teapots instead) but I may drop in next time I’m in the Castro anyway, because anywhere that takes tea this seriously (as opposed to a very poor second cousin to coffee, the West Coast norm) is worth investigating.

Slowing down, savoring. Trying to learn how to do this.

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29 October 07

Pondering Adaptations.

Thanks to Richard’s recommendation I have just finished reading Philip Pullman’s exquisite trilogy His Dark Materials. I am skeptical though about the upcoming film of the first book The Golden Compass due out in December. There are too many possible ways the movie can go wrong. At the very least, it has quite a tightrope to walk: how do you make a movie that will appeal to mainstream theistic America when a major theme of the trilogy is condemnation of organized religion. The answer seems to be to water down the philosophy and throw in lots of CGI.

Several years ago there was a stage adaptation of the trilogy performed at the National Theatre in London in two different runs. I will never get the chance to compare the versions but I suspect that I would find the theatrical version much more satisfying than the upcoming film. Theatre leaves a lot more to the imagination, after all.

Posted by at 11:46 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [1]

17 October 07

War and Peace: A New Translation

I’m making slow but delicious progress on War and Peace. A book this long and this good is not to be gobbled, and my reading so far has been limited to before bedtime, already disrupted these days because of post-season baseball (the less said about THAT, the better). Daylight is less and less but when there is any I’m digging and digging in the garden, racing to cage my raised beds against burrowing rodents (and contemplating above-ground cages too against bunnies, ground squirrels, and birds) so I can get my winter vegetables in before it gets too cold (though as Numenius’ brother, who lives in Indiana, said on Sunday night, “cold” is a relative term…). Anyway, as anyone who’s ever dug in a garden knows, there is always at least four times as much dirt as you think, no matter how big (or how small) the hole. It’s slow. And I don’t want to hurt my back, so it’s even slower.

But slow digging gives you ample time to think, and I’ve been thinking a lot about translation lately. I got the Maude and Maude translation of War and Peace out of the library a couple of weeks ago and it’s certainly very readable, comfortable, quaintly archaic with kindly, if slightly pedantic, footnotes (it was published in the early 1940s and features Clifton Fadiman’s comparison of Napoleon’s folly with Hitler’s in a fascinating and prescient foreword). I was then alerted to a translation, published just this week, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a translating dynamo couple living in Paris. I bought it yesterday.

A quick dig through a decent library catalog unearths well over 15 English translations (many long out of print) of this book. Why so many? Having worked for a publisher I can picture, and hear in my head, the wrangling that must have gone on in editorial meetings as the Advocate dismissed all previous versions, arguing that this translation would be the best, most complete, most contemporary, most relevant, most true to the original, most poetic, most imbued with the spirit of Tolstoy. It’s a hugely expensive undertaking, and the folks at Knopf must really be expecting people to run out and buy the new translation (list price $39, obviously heavily subsidized by the Borzoi imprint) even if they have an older one (or, if they are Language Hat, several) on their shelf. A gamble. Banking, perhaps, on the stardom of the translators?

Looking, so far, as though it was worth it. Reading Richard Pevear’s account of how they work on a translation as a partnership makes me shudder at the sheer effort involved (she, a native speaker of Russian, does the first pass, closely following the Russian; he then works through it, referring to the Russian throughout, making sure it reads as “English”; they then work together through his version, refining and perfecting it.) (I love her insistence on a phrase Tolstoy used in the Russian describing horses galloping over a bridge, “transparent sounds,” which has consistently been translated as a “thud” or “clang” of hoofs, both of which have perfectly adequate Russian equivalents; Pevear says “transparent sounds” is “pure Tolstoy” and notes how if there hadn’t been two of them working on it it would have gotten overlooked.)

Translation is always a labor of love. I don’t care how much these two got paid for this one: it can never, ever have been enough to compensate them for the three years of their lives that went into it. I haven’t read much so far (dithering between starting at the beginning or continuing on to Austerlitz and beyond and returning to the beginning when I’ve finished the whole novel) but it’s going to get read one way or the other.

The Reading Room at the New York Times is working through the new translation, led by Sam Tenenhouse. If you’ve ever wondered whether to read this book, the time might be now… or reread it, in its new English incarnation, the American edition at least set in Tshichold’s Sabon and printed on luscious smooth paper, ragged fore-edges, embossed gold foil neo-Victorian dust jacket, a comfortable but sumptuous brick on your lap for weeks…

Postcript: Ecco has also just published a new translation, by Andrew Bromfield, War and Peace: Original Version. It is essentially Tolstoy’s first draft and much shorter than what he ended up with after three years of revisions. Viking published a version last year by Anthony Briggs. Wow. That editorial meeting discussion must have been really interesting…

Posted by at 04:25 AM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [2]

2 October 07

Reading "Unread" Books

These are the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users (as of yesterday). Bold what you have read, italicize what you started but couldn’t finish, and strike through what you couldn’t stand. (Via Steve Rubio’s online life)

What have I learned? That my knowledge of the grand Russian 19th century novel is poor; that I’ve never given Dickens much of a chance, and I’ve never given any later English Victorian novelists much of one either; that I’ve deliberately never given Ayn Rand any kind of chance at all, and I’m sure that’s not going to change; that I’ve never been able to stand Hardy (I really, really tried, read a lot of it, just get bogged down); that I really ought to try the Iliad and the Aeneid since I liked the Odyssey so much; that I ought to finally go through the Canterbury Tales since a copy’s sitting on my bedside table. Also, that I have a psychological or cultural aversion to starting a book and not finishing it even if I’m not really enjoying it. (I finished Don Quixote because I had to for college; I read Moby Dick in a public garden in Santa Barbara in 1996 and loved it but would have hated it in school; I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance before I had any business doing so but I kept going, not sure why, since I’m sure I didn’t get most of it; that “seminal” books of the American high school experience have mostly escaped me. I’d love to hear if folks think I should have a go at any of the unmarked books on here… Oh, I think Jared Diamond should be among them. And I usually read anything by Margaret Atwood, not sure how I missed the Blind Assassin. And I’m absolutely unsure about how I missed Northanger Abbey…)

I finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell yesterday. Hilarious that it’s the first entry.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and punishment
One hundred years of solitude
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
Life of Pi : a novel
The name of the rose
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
Pride and prejudice
Jane Eyre
A tale of two cities
The brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and peace
Vanity fair
The time traveler’s wife
The Iliad
The Blind Assassin
The kite runner
Mrs. Dalloway
Great expectations
American gods
A heartbreaking work of staggering genius
Atlas shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury tales (64)
The historian : a novel
A portrait of the artist as a young man
Love in the time of cholera
Brave new world
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s pendulum
The Count of Monte Cristo
A clockwork orange
Anansi boys
The once and future king
The grapes of wrath
The poisonwood Bible : a novel
Angels & demons
The inferno
The satanic verses
Sense and sensibility
The picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
To the lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s travels
Les misérables
The corrections
The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time
The prince
The sound and the fury
Angela’s ashes : a memoir
The god of small things
A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present
A confederacy of dunces
A short history of nearly everything
The unbearable lightness of being
The scarlet letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
The mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud atlas
The confusion
Northanger abbey
The catcher in the rye
On the road
The hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance : an inquiry into values
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s rainbow
The Hobbit
In cold blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
White teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The three musketeers

Posted by at 10:12 AM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [10]

29 September 07


Numenius returned from his geospatial conference full of tales about the Open Source work being done by a group of geeks from Valencia and showed me the website for the Generalitat’s (regional government’s) geographic information system, which is very impressive and which is available in Valenciano (or Valencià) , Spanish (Castilian), Basque, Gallego, Catalan, English, Italian, French, German, and Portuguese.

Valenciano isn’t a language; it’s a dialect of Catalan. It’s spoken widely on the eastern/southeast coast of Spain but never was a written language (there is no literature in Valenciano, just Catalan; the de-facto official novelist of the Valencian region, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, wrote in Castilian). The people of the region have more in common culturally with their Murcia neighbors to the south and their La Mancha neighbors to the west than with the clever, proud, progressive Catalans to the north. There’s a certain amount of mutual distrust and disdain. (Not unlike that felt by both the French and the Dutch for the Belgians, for instance, with the prickliness that ensues on the part of the Belgians.)

My sister was married for a while to a Valenciano and lived in Valencia, spending time at weekends and holidays in his village in Alicante. Joaquín’s grandmother spoke Spanish with difficulty but was chatty in Valencià. At the time of the creation of regional autonomies post-Franco, when they married, I remember one member of the enormous lunch party (this is paella country, and no paella is ever cooked that serves fewer than 18 people, because it’s a lot of work and you have to make it count), bemoaning the forced introduction of Valenciano into the school curriculum, because now the schoolkids were going to have to waste their time on the (implied worthless) Catalan authors at the expense of Cervantes, Góngora, Garcilaso de la Vega, Calderón, and the rest. He was grumpy in a particularly jovial Spanish way that involves a lot of shouting and gesticulating over lunch which is amicable and ultimately tolerant. It has certainly stuck with me…

I like it that this language is now in official use by Open Source geekery. It feels fresh, subversive, and very cool. Almost as subversive and cool as the persistence of the medieval (or possibly even Roman) Tribunal de las Aguas, the court held outside the Cathedral on Thursday at noon every week since, that decides the fate of irrigation in the region and punishes those that take more than their alloted share, a court that is presided over by judges dressed in black.

Posted by at 06:04 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment

5 September 07


Neil Gaiman has got me very much in a fantasy-reading mode, having recently finished his books American Gods, Stardust, and Neverwhere. So I’ve been compiling a reading list, and raids on the local libraries and bookstores are imminent. Some of the works on the list include:

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys, the Sandman series. The Sandman books may take a while to get a hold of from the public library.

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Guy Gavriel Kay: A Song for Arbonne. I’ve never read any Kay; this one seems like an ideal one given its setting based on medieval Provence.

China Miéville: Perdido Street Station. Urban fantasy a little in the vein of Neverwhere.

Naomi Novik: Throne of Jade. Think Patrick O’Brian with dragons. I just finished reading her first novel in the series, His Majesty’s Dragon, which was quite fun.

Tim Powers: Declare, The Anubis Gates.

Terry Pratchett: Reaper Man, Making Money. I don’t know how I missed reading Reaper Man. Making Money is about to be published in a couple of weeks.

Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast books. Classics, never read them.

Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials series. With the movie version of the first book in the trilogy coming out in December I’d better get a head start. Intriguingly, it is seen by some critics as being an anti-Narnia series.

This should keep me busy for a week or two.

If there’s a focus to this list it’s mythic fiction, and I probably couldn’t go too far wrong with the Endicott Studio folks’ recommendations, for instance this list here.

Posted by at 02:22 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [5]

3 July 07

Jane Austen with Fangs

On a friend’s recommendation I got a couple of novels out of the library by Ivy Compton-Burnett. I had vaguely heard of her, thought she was vaguely Victorian in the same generally vague way that Edith Wharton might be (I’d say this with more authority if I’d ever read Edith Wharton, which is my loss, I’m sure).

I’ve finished one of the novels — The Mighty and their Fall — and started a second, and I’ve just never read anything like this.

The characters speak (and there is no description, or narrative, at all: these could easily be one-act plays) what they feel, all the time. It’s mostly not edifying. (Especially when children speak, unedited despite the best efforts of governesses — they are monsters.) Raw, sparse, cruel, ironic, and ultimately sort of hopeless. The house — a decaying Victorian estate — is a character in the Edwardian background, a menacing presence that somehow affects the plights of the family members busily ripping one another apart, watched by one or two servants. (I think I now know where the idea for Gosford Park may have originated.)

Compton-Burnett has been described, I’ve discovered, as post-Impressionist, and as a torchbearer for the Nouveaux Romanciers. It seems ghastly to read this stuff at all, and if I were less honest than her characters I might mumble about the chronicling of the busting open of the British class system. But in fact it’s riveting, this kind of voyeurism. I’m mesmerized. If I’m honest.

What is so astonishing, though, is the way the two worlds collide: the brutality of honesty, definitely post-World-War-One, juxtaposed with the veneer of pre-war respectability of diction. It seems so seamless. This is how it comes across as so very modern. It almost makes me want to some try and imagine the households of my great-grandparents, overlaying the stuffy syntax with what little I know to have been the quasi-sordid truths about their financial and personal dealings. It has me thinking deeply about what their world must really have been like, rather than what I can see in photographs. What must have been spoken about at luncheons, and what must have been avoided, the big silence as eloquent as any effusion…

Posted by at 09:36 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [1]

28 April 07


Susan writes about the tu/usted familiar/formal usage of the second person pronoun in the village where she and her sweetie spend half the year in Mexico. I’m interested in this because the usage seems fluid, local, and changing constantly.

When I returned to Spain after many years away, about four years ago, I was stunned by how complete strangers now used the “tu” form to each other. (I looked like a gringa or, to use the Old World form, a giri, and it wasn’t until I opened my mouth that they, once they got over their stupefaction, danced in multiple ways around the tu/usted maypole.) But usually one person sets the rules: either by establishing “nos tuteamos, ¿vale?” or simply by assuming that a “tu” will not be considered rude. (I did notice that nobody said “tu” to my mother while we were there for a wedding last year unless they had known her VERY WELL when she lived there. Perhaps there’s a certain age above which it’s never considered okay beyond the family.)

I had a sad occasion to call Madrid on Wednesday to order flowers — the mother of the groom died suddenly on Tuesday night. (Auntie Margaret, I hope there’s lots of good hot tea milk not cream, and toast and marmite, wherever you are now.) The local florist, Carlos, was from Ecuador. (This is definitely a new face of Madrid: the influx of Latin Americans, willing to do all the work that Spaniards etc. etc.) We discussed colors and the layout (the US usage “arrangement” is translated to “arreglo” in Ecuador but in Spain the term is “centro,” so once we got through all that we communicated quite well. I certainly used “usted” but I suspect that makes me a bit quaint. Carlos showed no sign of discomfort with it, though. I think the key here is to be attentive to the comfort level of the person you’re talking with…

Susan says that in contrast to the morass of Spanish usage, she understands the French usage of tu and toi and vous, but again I think it might be more nuanced. For instance, my boss in an insurance company in Paris in the early 80s was from a minor Belgian aristocratic family. She called her father “vous” on the phone and would never, ever dream of calling God “tu” — so when I attended her sister’s wedding in the Loire it was a chaotic, hilarious mishmash. The 12th century church was full of people who a) rarely went to mass, and didn’t know the vernacular prayers at all, having learned them in Latin pre-Vatican II; b) were aristocrats, and used the “vous” form loudly and proudly; c) were commoners who mumbled along with the “tu” voiced by the priest. But in the street, even in the early 80s, people of my age would never call me “vous” — it would accord me a status I hadn’t earned and didn’t expect.

I expect I’d be surprised, again, if I were to alight in Paris today, as Leslee is doing: but in this as in many things I suspect there are clear distinctions of region, urban/rural, class, and colonized versus colonizer. Of course it’s very hard to form any clear sense of how this is evolving on brief visits… Care to weigh in at all, Nicole? Jonathan? Beth, with a French Canadian perspective?

Posted by at 07:41 PM in Books and Language | Link | Comment [6]

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