07/21/14 7:00am
07/21/2014 7:00 AM
Credit: Ashley Pinciaro

Credit: Ashley Pinciaro

I recently found two columns about books, the first amusing, the other a little troubling. The troubling one was about “trigger warnings,” notes of caution affixed to college reading lists or courses. The premise is that people who have been subjected to certain traumatic experiences should get a formal heads-up that a given book contains themes, chapters, paragraphs — perhaps only words — that revolve around one or more of life’s more unspeakable events. Such writing might cause upsetment, or worse, in someone who’s gone through such terrors.  (more…)

04/20/14 6:30am
04/20/2014 6:30 AM

books

It was a dark and stormy night. I dragged myself home from an endless stakeout, popped a Dos Equis and sprawled on the couch. Watched a documentary on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” two historic bank robbers who didn’t look much like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. They were hunted down by Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, whose motto was “We Never Sleep” and whose posters contained a simple drawing of a staring human eye. The film’s narrator said, “This is where the term ‘private eye’ came from.”  (more…)

08/10/12 11:00pm
08/10/2012 11:00 PM

Food and literature both sustain us and it is a wonderful thing when they do it together. The book ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel has been the occasion for much delicious collaboration this summer. I first read the book when it was published in 1989 and I remember liking it well enough, but it seemed somewhat slight and girlish compared to the giant works by other Latin American magic realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes.

It was the first novel by a 25-year-old woman who had been working as a kindergarten teacher in her native Mexico. The novel became a huge success there and then was translated and published abroad and was an international best-seller. It was based on her own family stories and was organized into 12 chapters for the 12 months of the year, each chapter preceded by a recipe. Actually, the whole title is “Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies.”

Reading it a second time this summer, and talking about it with the book discussion group, revised my original, somewhat dismissive, opinion. It is quite wonderful on its own terms and doesn’t deserve to stand in the shadow of its macho contemporaries.

The book was made into a film by the Mexican director Alfonso Arau, which was screened at Floyd Memorial Library as part of our summer Fantastic Food Film Fest. Members of the library’s book discussion group, who read the novel in July, were urged to come see the movie and participate in a post-film potluck supper and discussion. One of the participants had been at the New York premiere of the film 20 years ago and had been invited to the after-party at a Mexican restaurant, where the menu was created using the book’s recipes. In the book and film, eating these foods, made with much emotion by the protagonist Tita, causes huge spiritual and bodily upheavals in the people who eat them. Apparently, neither after the New York premiere nor after the Greenport screening was anybody seen running naked through golden fields and jumping up on a galloping horse ridden by a handsome Zapatista revolutionary — but you never know.

The author, Ms. Esquivel, was married for a while to the director, Mr. Arau, and has continued to write books, none of them as successful as her maiden effort. Many of them have not been translated into English. One of them that was translated and published here in 2006, ‘Malinche,’ is more of a historical novel about the woman who was translator for and mistress of the conquistador Cortés, with less magic realism and more polemical politicizing. I found it much less appealing than her first book. Often, a writer’s career that starts off with great success may falter a bit with a second book — the sophomore slump — but pick up again as the writer’s talent matures and deepens. In Ms. Esquivel’s case, maybe her first book will always be her best, but she has put her talents to other use, becoming a successful and respected political leader in her home district in Mexico City.

Sharing responses and opinions about literature can be done face to face sitting around a dinner table, in a discussion group or in a classroom. I learned about a new way to do it from my daughter, a school librarian. She helped the AP English class in Southold use an online “platform” to tweet and blog their responses to each other and their teachers. They still meet face to face in the classroom, but instead of little sticky notes or index cards and underlines, the students have an entire archive of relevant posts by themselves and their peers to cite, discuss and study.

Another family member, my sister, a classics scholar turned lawyer and a voracious reader of novels, used an interesting neologism the other night when we were sitting around the dinner table talking about books. She talked about “audibly reading” a book series, which means she was “reading” the books, “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy, by listening with earbuds and an iPod to the text being read out loud by an actor. Other people at the dinner table then chimed in with discussions about their preferred or less preferred readers, everybody agreeing that Jim Dale did a bang-up job on the Harry Potter series. Yet again I was made to feel a bit of a dinosaur. My ears feel invaded if I put earbuds in them and I still prefer to hold the paper object and read with my eyes, but I accept that I am limiting myself and that it is an idiosyncratic preference, not a moral imperative. One thing about audible reading is that it allows for multitasking. You can exercise or clean house while audibly reading, not that I ever actually want to exercise or clean house.

Audible reading also allows one to imagine classrooms of the future where all first-graders might not be pressured to advance at the same speed in the skills we now associate with being literate. Some could be audibly reading while others are reading reading, but all of them could be parsing out meaning from words and stories, sharing their ideas and dreams and nourishing themselves. Buen provecho!

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.

06/08/12 2:41pm
06/08/2012 2:41 PM

Remember learning the vowels, A, E, I, O and U, with the teacher inevitably adding “ … and sometimes Y and W”? Well, I’ve come up with 16 impressive and useful words that use a Y as the vowel but none, zero, that use a W. As a matter of fact, there are a dozen other insignificant three-letter words that use the Y — fly, dry, gym, gyp, etc. — but they’re too ordinary, not nearly as impressive as, say, lynx, cyst and myrrh. I tried for a sentence using them all, and got as far as “The rhythms of the pygmy’s hymns floated into the crypt as the gypsy slyly …” and got no further. Maybe a decent start for some spooky vampire thriller, but I stalled out at “slyly,” leaving nymph and tryst and stymie waiting in the wyngs. A word that uses W as its vowel still eludes me. If anyone knows one, would you shyly email it? I will wryly acknowledge you.

English has long been acknowledged as a strange language, with rough, bough, dough and cough usually used as examples. (Why do they never mention hiccough?) What catches my eye, though, are words that change to an opposite meaning when one letter is added. Like laughter. During a slaughter there’s never much laughter. Or when will it stop raining and start draining? And why is there such futility with our utility? A simple letter switch describes my wife and me moving from united to untied when discussing candied broccoli.

Yogi Berra is renowned for contradictory sentences like “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more” and, regarding Yankee Stadium’s left field sun problems, “It gets late early out there.” But our everyday language needs no help from Yogi. The omnipresent “Watch Your Head” demands an improbable feat of agility, as does the dark and frightening “Louise suddenly found herself lost.” Good trick. And picture this: “We soon realized the professor was speaking tongue in cheek when he said he was trying to keep a stiff upper lip. He was actually beside himself with excitement.”

I wonder why anyone would consider taking a nonstop flight (to the Twilight Zone?) or why something that falls between the cracks doesn’t land smack on the board. Or, just curious, who is it that’s standing in a one-night stand?

Are we having fun yet? What’s the longest word that contains only one vowel? Strengths. What word uses every vowel once and in order? Facetious. (We really should add facetiously, but not facetiouslw). And eleven plus two and twelve plus one not only both equal 13, but use the exact same letters to say so. Also, isn’t this the worst spell of wheather you’ve ever seen? And here’s an every-letter sentence that’s better than the famous “quick brown fox”: Pack my gift box with five dozen liquor jars.

A few oxymorons: old news, pretty ugly, same difference, loose tights, student teacher, mandatory option. Then a couple of familiar acronyms from forgotten sources: self contained underwater breathing apparatus, zone improvement plan codes and DAM, Mothers Against Dyslexia (not really), and I’m through. Thru. Throu. Done.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

05/06/12 9:00pm
05/06/2012 9:00 PM

We have an old copy of ‘Petersen’s Field Guide to the Birds.’ We’ve spotted most of the usual suspects, and also have seen some unusual ones. An American kestrel surprised us on Main Bayview in Southold one day — high up in the wires scanning the fields for lunch. An indigo bunting landed on our deck, a kingfisher perched on a dock pole and a snow goose and its two Canada sidekicks worked our lawn, the three waddling around looking like escapees from “The Biggest Loser.” The best sighting, though, came on a bright, bitter-cold morning: a full-blown male pheasant scrounging birdseed beneath our feeder, standing atop three feet of snow that had fallen that night. Birds are splendid affairs, sort of God’s tree ornaments, a quick burst of eye-catching nature.

There are many fine books about nature: ‘Walden Pond,’ Aldo Leopold’s ‘Sand County Almanac,’ Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us,’ to name a vintage few. Such writers not only give us glimpses of nature’s wonders but do so in language so vivid that we practically see what they’re looking at. A new such author has attracted attention, Carl Safina. ‘The View from Lazy Point’ is written beautifully, but the neat thing is that he’s writing about a neighbor, Lazy Point being a small stub of land on the west shore of Napeague Harbor, facing either the bay or the ocean, depending on your viewpoint.

Safina explores the woods and the ponds, hikes the beaches, sees, remembers and reports. He has strong opinions on what’s happening to our world. Here he is on chickadees in late January: “Their roaming flocks, formed for winter safety, will disband as the birds reassert property claims in the pines. They feel the world changing, and they change their tune. Can we do less? ‘A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world,’ ” said Marcel Proust.” Like the writers before him, Safina sees the sad lack of concern the world clings to as innovation, progress and money remain the goals. Mother Nature? Well, she’s nice, too.

There’s a famous book that tells of a time when nature betrayed us. In the 1930s the rain quit the Midwest and the wind and dust took over. Steinbeck told the story: The people had to leave, their livelihoods blown away, their homes worthless, their future hopeless. They went West and in doing so changed the face of the country. The West Coast, with its rich soil, bountiful ocean and huge forests, absorbed them, revised itself and flourished with them. The Midwest, of course, recovered. Nature hadn’t betrayed us; it shoved us into the future, and seems to be shoving again. I’m a positive guy, but what’s with all the tornados? What happened to the icebergs? Where did all the codfish go? Why are the bees and the bats dying? Seventy degrees in March?

If nature is speaking, we need to listen, put personal NIMBYs and attitudes aside and — dare I say it? — change. Let’s separate our trash, take back our empties and conserve our fuels, for openers. Let’s support new ideas and find other ways to respond to the wake-up call.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.