Wednesday, March 31, 2010


The Story of French

This was an interesting exploration of the development of French through a historical and linguistic lens, a very interesting anecdote-filled explanation of how French influenced other languages (mainly English), and a not-so-interesting set of essays on French's continued effect on the world. The authors know how to bundle their history well, so European history in the context of the development of French from early Frankish, Latin, and other local dialects was cool to know. King Francois beat some Italians in battle in the middle ages and brought back some Italian cooks (along with a family member) and French cooking got its start.

The most interesting part to an American reader is their take on the influence French had on English and North American history. Apparently the French explorers were very ambitious in the early 1600s - Champlain sent a guy named Etienne Brule to go live with the Algonquins to learn their language for a summer. He came back as a bush man, dressed as a native, and served as a translator for a bit. He also explored a lot - he was the first European to see Niagara Falls. He adopted the ways of Native Americans, which the Europeans disapproved. Tragically, he was murdered by his adopted tribe, who then ate him - no one recorded the reason.

Other "did you know"s: sled dog racers "Mush" is from a mongrelized "Marchez!" ("Walk!" or "Go!"); "tennis" is from early French's "tenetz" ("take this"); Cajuns are Northern Louisianans who fled or were deported from Acadia - Northern Canada - when the British tried to crush the French speakers of Canada in the 1700s; Dixie is called Dixie because the ten dollar bill used in Louisiana was printed in French - and the French word for "ten" is "dix."

Unfortunately the book went on a little long for my interests and I skimmed the last couple chapters. Unless you're very interested in the Quebecois nationalism movement or specific utilizations of modern French, the last third of the book can drag. I did find it funny that although the French Academy tries so hard to preserve an idealized form of French so stridently, everyday French speakers are simplifying the language by eliminating the use of the passe simple and ensuring that all new French verbs follow the -er form and not the more convoluted -ir or -re forms. Normal people want things to be easy, not complicatedly pristine or beautiful. Even the French.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French

Stephen Clarke moved to Paris more than a decade ago from London, wrote a couple novels about France, and then decided to write a declarative book about how to understand the French: Talk to the Snail. This is a fine idea, and the book contains many fine ideas. Even some passable jokes and amusing observations. He was able to get a few positive French reviews, and does not appear to have been deported - so his largely mocking roast of French culture and social habits didn't cut too deeply or inaccurately. He even said some nice things, quite sincerely.

All that said, I struggled mightily to like this book. One of the main theories I have for why this was so difficult for me is that he's kind of a jerk, and allows this fact to surface in his writing.

One of the better examples is in his last chapter (or "commandment" - the book is organized into 11 commandments used to understand the French), where he talks about how to deal with falling in love with French people. He talks about the different kinds of French lovers, introducing his three main archetypes with:
"Some French men are considerate, good listeners, stylish, funny, and always available to take a woman out for a great evening. As in so many other countries, they are gay. Or they are straight and on their best behavior because they haven't yet got the girl into bed."
Ha ha! Men who try to be considerate to others and not oafish boors must be gay, everywhere! And this is implied to be a bad thing! Ha! Ha! If this were the only instance of this sort of implication, I'd brush it off as a joke, but this seems to really mark his personality, and unfortunately it colors the rest of the book.

He also litters the book with lots of unfunny jokes. Not just the "no pun intended" when there was not actually a pun made. When he talks about the French habit of smoking wherever, whenever they like, I expected some good humor and observations. He does this here and there, and it's mildly pleasant (while at the same time worrying for someone planning a trip to France who hates cigarettes). But then he tries this:
"One Californian occasionally tries the UN-sanction approach. 'You're not going to smoke any more!' he tells baffled French smokers, who wonder what he is going to do about it. Invade their table, maybe? This frontal attack never works. At best it causes a colonial war."
Ha ha! Colonial war! Wait, what? How did we get to Algeria, or perhaps India or Vietnam? Are colonial wars like French natives ignoring tourists? I can't see the next laborious "punny" setup in the next paragraph because you're too far in the weeds.

On the whole, I enjoyed the general intent of the book - a loving, playful, embittered roast of the French. I learned a bit, laughed at times, and gained more of an understanding about a culture (from, obviously, one person's perspective). But all of that was almost undone by the author's pervasive, jerky personality thrusting itself through the prose.

The main reason it got three stars instead of two is his educational discussion of French swearing. My favorite is "Tu me fais chier" which means "You're boring me to death here (literally, you are making me shit)." I just love that - there's no equivalent in English in the least. In French, if someone is boring you, they are making you shit. Thank you, Stephen Clarke, for I never would have known this without having read your silly book.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


I Am Legend (And Other Stories)

Richard Matheson wrote a book called I Am Legend a few decades ago, and then last year they apparently made a Will Smith movie out of it with the same initial premise, but a very divergent story (if I'm to believe the trailers and Wikipedia). Matheson's tight book about Robert Neville, the last man on earth taken over by vampires, is an enjoyable horror novel that verges on sci-fi and stays well away from fantasy. These vampires are much more like current cinema zombies and much less like the Twilight/True Blood fanged model types. I thought there was enough new and interesting material, especially for a book written that long ago, that it kept me interested and fulfilled the hype that caused me to read the book in the first place. I particularly liked how Neville, the main character, is a scientific man, and approaches trying to figure out what's wrong with these people that so resemble vampires from nightmare. He starts to experiment, tries theories, and eventually reaches a very natural conclusion. Matheson takes the story to a different place that Hollywood appears to have been afraid to go. I'm glad I gave it a shot.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I wish Carl Sagan was my live-in step-uncle who could take me outside and explain the wonder of the night sky, tell stories about forgotten scientists, and explain to me how to live my life. What a great guy! I loved reading Contact, and I also read either Cosmos or Pale Blue Dot (it was in middle school so I honestly can't remember), but The Demon-Haunted World was the kind of book I'd been wanting to read at this point in my life.

The synopsis is that he explains the wonder, utility, necessity, and awesomeness of science. The book is dense, and I would have taken out some of the middle chapters where he compassionately, carefully, and thoughtfully debunks paranormal theories from faith healing to alien abduction. But who am I to tell him how to write a book? My copy is now so dog-eared I'll be going back to it for the rest of my life.

I'll be absorbing this one for a while, so I'll leave this review with just some thoughts in scattershot bulletpoints:

-Science is both utterly human and difficult for us to absorb. When hunter-gatherers first learned how to track prey, they had to learn many physical laws in practical terms. Older tracks became more eroded due to wind, heavier animals had deeper tracks due to weight, injured prey moved differently than healthy prey. They must have tried theories and either proved or disproved them, and this became knowledge, which was passed on through generations. The same with gathering plants - how much trial and error before our ancestors settled on the foods we tend to enjoy? And not to mention agriculture. Science, skeptical thought, curiosity is what makes us human.

-Subsequent cultural pressures to explain the unknown through faith or paranormal causes pull us away from where our minds naturally want to go. So those who castigate science as a malevolent force, or immoral tool have only to look at witch hunts and other dogmatic explorations for truth to see that it's not science, but those who would abuse it, that we need to fear. For instance, did you know that a man named Trofim Lysenko managed to convince Stalin that genetics was a philosophically incorrect field and should be banned from the USSR? He chose to believe in acquired characteristics - not that evolutionary forces caused adaptation, but that if you worked out a lot your offspring would be strong too. His theories lacked experimental controls, his conclusions flew in the face of a large body of contradictory data, and when smart Soviet scientists disagreed with him, he managed to have them deported. His recommendations messed up the Soviet agriculture system so much, for instance in waiting for an extra crop of wheat, that farmers actually produced less than the otherwise would have. Soviet geneticists were set back decades. Amazing!

-People writing science curricula should read everything he's ever written. His anecdotes, lessons, stories, and essays made me want to go back and study physics, chemistry, and math.

I can't say enough about this book. I'll leave things, for now, with a typical quote from the book:
"As I've tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes - an openess to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track."
For the fun anecdotes and warm jokes and fascinating arguments, you'll have to pick it up for yourself.


Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

I can't really say much about Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickeled and Dimed. It's been around for ten years. Most people I know have read it. I thought I had read it until I realized I never actually consumed the words, just talked to enough people about it that it seemed I had. I had an idea of what the book would be, and it essentially manifested itself to be the theoretical book in my head.

She tries an academic exercise to try to live paycheck-to-paycheck in some spurts of dead-end jobs, and experiences some of the hardships of the working poor. She fully explains her self-evident safety valves that keep her sane and safe, and she's able to deal pretty honestly with herself. At first she seems even more whiny than I would be, complaining about silly things that wouldn't faze me. But by the end of the book she's really in the element, not bothered by some pretty soul-crushing circumstances.

What I thought was interesting is that she manages to articulate so much of the problems in a comprehensive way - not just lack of money, but lack of safe and dependable housing, food, safety, goals, family, etc etc. My hat's off to her for spotlighting issues that people truly choose not to think about whenever they get the chance. If this book doesn't make you give a smile to the person checking your groceries or stocking the shelves next time you're shopping, I don't know what will.