Tag Archives: literature

“My Mercedes Is Not For Sale”

A quick summary: a memoir wherein the author, Jeroen Van Bergeijk, drives a Mercedes into West Africa to have a bit of an adventure as well as to turn a profit selling it to an African car dealer, or deserving cabbie, or whoever ends up actually producing the cash in the end.

It may be that in translation, pulled off by one John Antonides, the tight, clever character of the writing was utterly lost. But whatever the reason, a chant of the writer’s commandment to SHOW DON’T TELL grew in volume in my head as I progressed through the book.

Also, I think there is some kind of guideline about not treating your reader like a blockhead. If every time I read an analogy, and three sentences later the only thing I can think is, “DUDE! I get it…” then something needed to be edited, methinks. Let me soften this by saying, I was never actually insulted by the overexplaining; it is not pompous, just annoying.

That said, where else are you going to be able to read about an automobile trek across the Sahara? I’m sure there are other places, but there are enough things in the plus column to warrant joining Van Bergeijk’s trek:

1. It’s a pretty quick read, assuming you don’t have little kids interrupting you for food every couple of minutes.

2. The narrator is successfully presented as somebody you’d actually want to hang out with (even if he is a bit circuitously long winded).

3. He pulls in a lot of references to other relevant texts and some historical facts to illustrate the events and his observations, so you feel like you’re exploring the continent from several angles.

4. It takes a fairly balanced look at Africa – I’ve been studying the continent’s history and art for a few years, so I’m attuned to some of the common pitfalls as far as assumptions and prejudices go. The narrator manages to present his feelings (which tend toward compassion) but makes sure to include enough alternate testimony that you feel you’re getting a sufficiently broad crosscut of various points of view.

In conclusion: it’s worth a go, if the African continent holds any fascination for you.

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Renaming

My first lesson gleaned from studying Mark Morford‘s columns in the San Francisco Chronicle is how concisely he adds meaning by simply renaming things.

For example, in his column entitled “When History Spanks,” he talks about the Republican campaign team and refers to them once as “vile, cold-blooded tacticians” and then as “these Rove-trained dung-flingers.” Apart from the humorous element, renaming is also a tidy way to cram a lot of opinion into a quick statement. I can see a more clumsy writer saying instead, “The campaign team members, who were trained by Karl Rove to fling dung,…” Doesn’t pack the same punch.

To rename is to cleanly insert ideas and impressions without pausing to go down an explanatory side street.

Naming is a very powerful act. Think of how profoundly important it is to choose the name of a child or to be the first to discover a new species or star and have the honor of establishing its moniker. Imagine the god-like power of the people who “found” certain islands, rivers, mountains, and even though their own name may be forgotten, generations of people have referred to that particular chunk of earth by the title they designated.

To rename is to reclaim this power and use it to your own ends.

Gertrude Stein had this to say about nouns, which represent the basic act of naming: “Things once they are named the name does not go on doing anything so why write in the nouns.” Why, indeed, continue in one’s essay to refer to something or someone by a noun that has become an empty shell, like an anonymous finger pointing. Instead, assume the divine right of a writer to express the world as you see it, which includes the essential job of creating a fresh, revealing name to replace the old lifeless one.

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Book Review: “The Last Straw”

Hold your applause ’til after the show please, but I, who require a minimum of three months to get through so much as a magazine article, read an entire book this morning!

Okay, it is a kid’s book.  But it does have 217 pages in it!

Fine, most of those pages consist of cartoony drawings.  Nevertheless, it is indisputably a book, and I without a doubt did begin and finish it along with my morning cup of java.  (I have witnesses.)

Making its appearance on the book scene on January 13th, 2009, The Last Straw is the third volume in Jeff Kinney’s series Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  My son discovered the first one when he was about 10, I think, and after he read it everyone in the house passed it around and had a good laugh.  

I get a kick out of the realism; it is fashioned to be an actual kid’s diary, with a font resembling handwritten words on lined paper and cartoon illustrations, drawn at the level of a child’s ability (although still in general better than I could do!), on every page.

The main character is endearing and hilarious in all his vulnerability, crazy assumptions, slapstick mistakes and naive undertakings.  He faces the challenges of childhood with the kind of sloth, paranoia and heartrending hopefulness that we can all relate to.

I highly recommend any of this series of books for you to give as a gift to any funny-bone endowed youngster with an upcoming birthday, or perhaps a late Christmas gift!  Or just because you happened to be at the store buying a world map for your youngest daughter and you noticed that the new book had just come out a couple of days ago.  

But make sure you let the child on the receiving end of your purchase know that you are first in line to read it after them, because that line will get pretty long pretty fast.  

Read it for no other reason than that it WILL make you laugh out loud, and you WILL be able to brag that you finished an entire book in under an hour.  (As long as no one asks the title, you will be hailed as the new superstar of the literate set.)

You may now commence thunderous applause.

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“What is the What”

Since I have almost zero time free to read, when I do read something it had better be good!

The book I just finished fit the bill.  What is the What by Dave Eggers is part autobiography and part fiction, recounting the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who survived the civil war that destroyed so much of his homeland.

I find the mixture of truth and fiction intriguing, but as Mr. Deng explains in the preface, “It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce What is the What a novel.”  But he goes on to assure readers, “The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.”

It is also interesting that Mr. Eggers helped him write it, and is the only author listed on the cover.  One might ask, whose story is it, really?

Having studied in college the genre of testimonio, a category of writing that includes texts which tell the true story of individuals who have survived oppression and hardship, I am sure that theorists would go nuts over the truth/fiction blend going on in this book.

For me, I find it worth reading for the history as well as for the perspective of a person who has lived in both the US and Africa and can inform us of the contrast.

It is a story that never stops for a moment.  It will take you out of wherever you are and move you through a world that few of us, thankfully, will experience otherwise.  

It was worth reading just for the moment when my husband was watching a rerun of a goofy sitcom while I had my nose in the book, and I could hear the characters on the TV joking about their party-gone-sour while in the book young Achak is riding in the back of a military truck with a load of dead bodies… I had to stop reading.  Just to let it all digest, that we are all on this planet together but our realities are separated by light years.  Just to feel that moment when our realities existed, paradoxically, in the same space, when they came together in my conscious mind.

If you get a chance, join Mr. Deng’s reality for a moment.  How can we resist someone who wants so badly for us to hear his story?  As he says in the book, talking to us, the readers, about his storytelling, “…I speak to you because I cannot help it.  It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there.  I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us.  How blessed are we to have each other?  I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words.”

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Translation: The Ultimate Word Puzzle

I’ve started a new project that I’m liable never to finish, similar to most of the brilliant ideas I get.  I recently finished reading a book called “L’Oiseau de France” by Jean Jaussein, and I’ve now set about to translate it.  It is set in WWII and tells the story of a French soldier held prisoner by the Nazis.  

Surprisingly, it has a comic edge to it, not in subject matter but just in the way he tries to lighten up his description of the characters and the sometimes humorous things they do as they try to deal with their situation.

The writing style reminds me of Hemingway in its simultaneous depth and simplicity, which I always admire.

I am intrigued by the idea of trying to translate the slang of the period.  I wonder, should I use British or American soldier lingo from this era?  There is something distinctly false about substituting another culture’s slang for the original, since slang is such a personal form of communication that is quite rooted in a specific time and place.  But it would give the anglophone reader an atmosphere of WWII.

My main dilemma, as I work my way through page 3 of the original text, is that I still am not sure if there is already a translation published.  Not that anyone would publish mine, (not that I will even finish it!), but it would make it more fun to think that publication is a possibility.  I’ve looked online and come up with nothing.  About a week ago I emailed the publisher to inquire about the existence of an English version.  So far no response.

So until I find an answer, I will pretend that I am the only one, and I will gleefully struggle over every word, concentrating my mind not only on the true meaning of the work but also on the nuance of each phrase, the intention in each line of dialogue, never neglecting the suggestive importance of even a single definite article.

I am always aware that I hold in my hands someone else’s art, something they too must have struggled over and wanted to get just right.  And then when they’ve got it as close to perfect as it can get, someone wrecks it all by putting it through a mental wringer and squeezing it into a new-sounding shape that supposedly represents what they meant to say if only they’d been speaking that other language.  

How rude!

But I love it.  I love to teach people to understand another language so they can read it for themselves, but failing that, I love to bring a really great text a little bit closer to a lot more people.  And I love that this involves a brute force wrestling match with meaning itself.

Unless you too are a language aficionado (translation: nerd), you have not an inkling of the giddy, delicious fun of which I speak!

Trust me, dude, it’s awesome.

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Think Big

Occasionally my fantasies include teaching a high school English course.  (Is there any greater admission of nerdhood?)

I imagine how I would present the all-important lessons designed to develop a rich vocabulary, vital not only because an enhancement of one’s lexicon is generally recognized as a key to increasing intelligence, but also because I totally dig words.

Having a wider range of vocabulary seems to be especially vital in our modern world where language as dictated by pop culture becomes formulaic.  “I’m lovin’ it!”  LOL   BTW,  “Don’t just buy stuff- do stuff.”  

However, despite its power, vocab seems to be almost universally hated and resisted by students.

Perhaps a handout would convince them:

Reasons to apply yourself to the study of vocabulary:

  1. To impress your girl-/boyfriend’s parents
  2. To impress a potential employer
  3. To be able to understand people who are smarter than you, or think they are, who are trying to manipulate you in person, in writing, or in a speech
  4. To think deeper thoughts

Though I know the students would categorically refuse to be persuaded by any amount of reasoning, I myself find the last reason to be the most compelling.

Peter Gabriel expressed the idea on his album, “So.”

“The place where I come from is a small town/they think so small/they use small words/-but not me/I’m smarter than that/I worked it out/I’ve been stretching my mouth/to let those big words come right out”

No offense to small towns. I’ve spent some good years in a few small towns.  But you have to admit the perspective tends to be on the narrow side.  Though I believe the song has a sarcastic, almost satirical edge, still there is a grain of truth — when you use exclusively small words, you tend to think small, that is, shallow thoughts.  There is no nuance to the representation of your ideas, if indeed they are ideas and not just thoughtlessly repeated cliché.  IDK  “Live well.”  WTF

In his novel “1984” George Orwell told of Big Brother who sought to abolish “Oldspeak,” which is English as we speak it.  “It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought… should be literally unthinkable… Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”

Students who refuse to learn “big words” are unwittingly participating in this narrowing of thought; with fewer shapes to use, when we fit the pieces of life’s puzzle together, we can only create the same old tired designs.

Thus we must encourage the enthusiastic scholarship that seeks to master the utilization of a cornucopia of expressive terminology, that our most intimate mental machinations may emerge fully illuminated.

Or else, we all may as well speak in trademarked slogans with our brains turned off.

OMG.  Just do it.

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