[I've been
« March, 2004 »
Sudden & Awful: American Epitaphs and the Finger of God

I found this delightful little book on the Vermont shelf at my local library which is otherwise stuffed full of mysteries and other lite fare that don’t interest me much. It’s a non-scientific collection of tombstone epitaphs from the US, covering roughly 1750-1900. The authors were inspired to write this book when they noticed how often the phrase “sudden and awful” used to appear describing frontier deaths, and how rarely it appears now, despite death likely not being any less awful, or sudden. They split the epitaphs up into categories like “died in transit” "drowning" “in the name of justice” and after brief chapter categories, mostly let the tombstones speak for themselves. There are short bits of commentary where they explain that one of the reasons the murderer’s name no longer appears on gravestones is because of a series of early lawsuits, and how current mass media makes the sensationalizing of deaths via their grave’s inscriptions no longer quite as necessary.

Sudden and awful was the sight
To see the horses take a fright
Thrown from the carriage to the ground
Breathing her last when she was found.

The Lovely Bones

This book is so poignantly sad, it’s hard to read. The twelve year old narrator gets raped and killed in the book’s opening chapter and goes to heaven. Heaven’s okay, she tells us, but it takes getting used to. The remainder of the book is spent with her keeping an eye on her loved ones back home -- seeing how Mom and Dad deal with their grief, watching her younger sister grow up, seeing whatever happened to the first and only boy she ever kissed, following her murderer around. The story lacks any new age edges that would make it schmaltzy, and while the narrator remains attached to her family, she sees her connection to them lessen over the ten or so years during which this story takes place. If you’re at all sentimental -- as I am -- you’ll cry when her dog joins her in heaven, or when she gets to briefly appear before her first crush in an awkward and confusing moment.

Sebold’s vision of heaven -- which we don’t see much of, but the glimpses are memorable -- is a place where you have to know why you want something before you can have it. The narrator’s heaven looks a lot like a high school because that is the place that she believed that she would be popular and happy. The novel in many ways is about letting go. The narrator learns to let go of her family, the family learns to let go of her memory, many different people in the story learn to let go of whatever it is that’s been in their way.

A Man Without Words

I found this book on some book sale shelf at NY Public Library and went for it immediately. Freaks of language interest me and I’ve read a good selection of the “feral children” books that have come out in the last decade or so. I am also a linguistics major and was taught, like many in my classes, that there were very few cases known of people being raised without language. If these people existed, they were often so abused [raised by horrible parents who kept them in closets] that their language learning could not be studied scientifically because there would be so many mitigating factors. Additionally there is a large body of scholarship that suggests that there is a crucial language-learning window for children that is open until children are about five eyars of age, after which they will never be able to have full facility with any language at all. Schaller’s story of a deaf student of hers who was raised without learning English or ASL anecdotally discusses a person she meets without language. Schaller is not a linguist or a scientist, just a concerned ASL translator who noticed a student in an “English for ASL” class who seemed to not be getting it. She befriends him and gradually tries, Annie Sullivan-like, to break through his lack of language and teach him the concept of words as referents and language as a consensual understanding of concepts and words.

Schaller has additional difficulties because her student is anxious to learn English, as well as ASL and is also living in a Spanish-speaking home. The jumble of trials and failures to get the idea across of these multiple languages to a student whose ideas of communication were limited to gestures and pictures is an arduous task. Schaller succeeds to some degree, then leaves to take a job across the country with her then-fiancee [if I recall correctly] and does not meet up with her student until almost a decade later where she happily finds him to be employed, communicative and, best of all, helping teach other people without language how to talk to one another. This story intrigued me, especially with its brief introduction written by Oliver Sacks, and I am curious to know how it was received in the linguistic community since Schaller speaks less than approvingly of her dismissal by at least one academic professor who dismissed her and her work with her student because she was not working on a degree in the field. Her central idea -- that there are many people in the deaf community being raised without language all the time -- is one that is new to me and I wonder how it will resonate within the linguistic field.

Notes from a Defeatist

I’ve read Palestine by Sacco before and been familiar with him for a long time because of an illustrated short he wrote that outlines the demise of the public library in comical and all-too-true fashion. This collection is a little of this and a little of that. Some political stuff, some slice-of-life stuff and some older stuff that defies placement. I like Sacco more when he is talking about himself and things that matter to him than when he is pointing out the foibles of others. This collection is somewhat spotty, a bit text-heavy for me, and sometimes somewhat opaque [who is this band he is travelling with? why is he there?] but it’s a good collection of his work, both good and bad.

I Never Liked You

I remember not liking this little comic very much at all when I read it serialized in Yummy Fur. I like it more now. The drawings are a bit on the scratchy side, but the plot comes through if you have all of the stories to read side by side. This collection’s topic seems to be Brown’s experiences with girls from when he was too young to care much about them until he was older and cared quite a lot about them. In particular, there is one girl who likes him very much, and another girl who he likes very much. He juggles these relationships the way any high school boy might, badly. At the same time, his mother sickens and dies and he grows into what some might call a handsome young man. Brown portrays himself as a disaffected adolescent, so you don’t get as much of a feel for him as a person the way you do with Thompson in Blankets. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to purchase this book, but I am glad I read it.

Blankets: An Illustrated Novel

Man! 580+ pages of graphic novel outlining Thompson’s childhood and first love in a Christian family that borders on abusive and oppressive. Thomson endures sharing a bed with his little brother, inattention from his parents, molester babysitters, and being the butt of everyone’s jokes for being the poor kid at school. He grows into a quiet young man who goes to church camp every Summer, where one year right befgore he graduates, he meets Raina, soon to become his first love and first heartbreak.

Thompson’s autobiographical accounts of these events are sweet and not at all stickily sentimental. He reveals his own failings and worries at the same time as he emerges victorious in at least some of his life’s battles. The account of his young romance is so vivid that it will immediately toss you back into a reverie of your own first loves and losses. The book also deals with other issues like faith, or lack of it, and family, or lack of it. Throughout, the illustrations are rich and compelling while at the same time playing a backseat to the thoughtfully developed plot. One of my favorite reads this year, well worth sticking around for all 500+ pages.

Deception Point

Another Dan Brown novel, better than Digital Fortress, maybe not as good as the other two. The one-day adventure this time takes place in the Arctic where a mystery item is found under the ice at about the same time as a contentious presidential election is happening back in the US. Lots of fun action, interesting science, just under the surface relationship tension and a wild submarine/glacier rescue. A fun romp, beats the heck out of Tom Clancy, though it also has more in common with his books than the later Brown novels.

Blow Fly

I have read almost oll of these books. They go down easily, they have recognizable characters and they used to, more than now, have some interesting forensic information. This may be the last one of hers that I read. Put more bluntly, this may be the time that Cornwell has “jumped the shark.” The book revives a chatacter that everyone thought was dead which involves a lot of retroactive explaining that invalidates many of the previous knowledge you had about the characters or plot points. Suck.

The re-explanation of the plot then becomes the focal point of the novel instead of Scarpetta who is a character I generally like. Her niece Lucy also is on the scene quite a bit, as a much less likable person, laden with gear and hardbody sensibilities. People might enjoy this book if they were curious about a “darker” side to any of the characters, but the book displays a sort of hopelessness that I didn’t personally enjoy.