I Cannot Wait Till Lunchtime

English as She Is Spoke by José Da Fonseca & Pedro Carolino, edited by Paul Collins. McSweeney’s Books, 1855.

Sarah: In 1855, two Portuguese guys decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook, the drawback being that neither of them spoke English and neither had access to any Portuguese-English dictionaries. So they used a Portuguese-French dictionary and and French-English dictionary to create their phrasebook.
Gene: (laughs)
S: And they published it. This is a reprint of that book, which immediately became an early comedy hit. Because it is hilarious.
G: Unintentionally hilarious?
S: Unintentionally hilarious. You do have to remember… well, like when you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and you think “Well, this isn’t that spooky,” but it was the first one. Sometimes if it limps a little, you have to remember it was the original. And this was before machine translation, so they were doing this by hand. It’s artisinal translation.
G: Are we at the point where we’re calling translations artisinal? That’s kind of sad. Continue reading “I Cannot Wait Till Lunchtime”

Neither On the American Continent nor States: Discuss

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches From the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA by Doug Mack. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. 9780393247602.

While sorting laundry quarters to see which should go in his wife’s state quarters collection, Mack noticed an extra five off to the side for the US territories: the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. He realized he knew almost nothing about these parts of the US, despite being both a travel writer and having a degree in American studies. He set out to visit them. He imagined white picket fences, baseball, and banana trees: a tropical all-America. Instead, he found the world’s largest K-Mart, a park filled with erotic statues, a machine-gun shooting range for Japanese tourists, and huge tropical national parks.

Mack is a great guide — he’s funny, well-informed, curious, and has enough Minnesotan friendliness that he ends up being taken in and shown around by people he’s just met. His firsthand observations are interspersed with history and politics. These places became part of America during its “Imperial Moment,” an odd span of time when the US had aspirations to become an empire. There were a series of Supreme Court cases that established that the Constitution does not necessarily follow the flag. There are strange side-effects of not living within a state, like not having votes in the Electoral College (assuming the locals are allowed to vote in US elections, which in Samoa they aren’t). The details of their truly bizarre legal and political landscapes are jaw-dropping: not just the shockingly un-American laws (early Naval governors of Guam forbade speaking the native Chamorro language in public), but the laundry list of ways the territories are treated poorly or just plain forgotten that causes high rates of poverty and crime, and provides little to address these problems. I hope this book starts discussions about how we treat these parts of our country.

I kept telling people about things I learned as I was reading: the territories have the higher rates of joining the armed services than any state, the US Virgin Islands has the highest murder rate in the US, American Samoa prohibits non-Samoans from owning land (thus there are no resort hotels) while Guam allows non-Guamanians to lease land for 50 years, and the shade of blue on the Puerto Rican flag you fly indicates how you feel about independence vs statehood (a topic at every gathering). The story of how the US “colonized” one of the Mariana Islands by having Hawaiian high school boys stay there, fishing and gathering food, in shifts for four months at a time is unforgettable.  This book reminded me of the wonderful, engaging histories by Sarah Vowell. I hope Mack will be just as prolific.

The Big Book of Surgery

The Sacred Heart: An Atlas of the Body Seen Through Invasive Surgery by Max Aguilera-Hellweg. Bulfinch Press, 1997. 9780821223772. 128pp.

Gene: This is a Wow, but it’s also potentially an Ick. What I love about sharing books with you is that I’m digging into books that I’ve kept for a long time and asking myself why I’ve kept them, and if they’re worth hanging on to. This book freaks me out.
Sarah: Ugh!
G: It’s photographs of surgery. I’ve looked at it so many times, but so quickly, that I didn’t realize before the other day that a lot of the pictures are of the same surgery. I never read the essay before (I did a little this time) because the photos take over my brain and then I have to stop looking at it. Continue reading “The Big Book of Surgery”

Marathon Men

The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon by Meghan McCarthy. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016. 9781481406390.

I know some people don’t like the big round eyes and simple faces on McCarthy’s painted character illustrations, but I love them: they make historical figures cute and charming. In her book on the first Olympic Marathon in the US, I found out there’s something even more adorable: the bushy mustache on Cuban runner Felix Carvajal, who showed up to the race in his street clothes and made stops along the route to practice English with bystanders. He. Is. So. Cute. Someone please start making Hello Kitty-like merchandise about historical figures. I want a Felix Carvajal pencil case.

A historic marathon might seem like a stretch for an exciting picture book, but the race was nuts. The route had to be totally redone a few days before it started, after rain washed out some roads. Huge clouds of dust kicked up by cars and bicycles choked the runners. There were only two water stops, and the water made competitors sick. A runner was chased off course by a dog. A car carrying a doctor for the runners plunged down a 30 foot embankment. Add to that the then-current practice of downing strychnine mixed with egg white instead of drinking water  (check out this Sawbones episode for more on this crazy but true performance enhancer) and you have some drama. The additional information at the end is great — it’s clear McCarthy did some amazing primary-source research.

If I Can Make It Then, I Can Make It Anywhen

Make: ReMaking History, Volume 1, Early Makers by William Gurstelle. Maker Media, 2016. 9781680450606.

(a book review in one act)

Man: Honey, why is there a pile of iron pipe on the front lawn?
Woman: Oh, little Dougie is learning about history! And science!
Man, looking worriedly out the window:  History of what, plumbing?
Woman: No, metalworking! He’s re-creating an Oliver, a type of mechanical hammer used by medieval blacksmiths! The book of projects he got is full of wonderful ideas based on ancient, medieval, and pre-modern technological breakthroughs: a working water-screw! a Tantalus cup! a circumferentor! We spent all day at the hardware store.
Man: He’s… not going to work red hot metal in the yard, is he?
Woman, laughing: Oh, of course not! It’s just a replica. I’m not sure what he’s going to hit with it.
Man: I’m just going to go find the cat.
(off stage)
Sound effect: A hammer striking iron.
Sound effect: Meeeeeooooowwww!

Two Puns Enter, One Pun Leaves

Away With Words: An Irreverent Tour Through the World of Pun Competitions by Joe Berkowitz. Harper Perennial, 2017. 9780062495600.

awaywithI picked this book up with the question, “There are pun competitions?” Yes, there are, and enough that Berkowitz doesn’t have to stretch too much to find them.

He starts out at the hip, monthly Brooklyn Punderdome to try out performing in a competition. Hearing laughs at and cheers for the kind of wordplay that usually only earns him the stinkeye gets him addicted, even though he doesn’t win. This starts him on the road to the big annual competition in Austin, the O. Henry Pun Off. How do you get better at competitive punning? By taking an improv class to be less afraid of crashing and burning, among other things. He interviews scientists who study the mechanisms of jokes and puns. (They compare punning with a brain disorder.) He talks to the writers at Bob’s Burgers and Veep who incorporate puns into every television episode. Berkowitz investigates the high-pressure headline punning at the New York Post and visits the set of the pun-based game show @midnight. Along the way he interviews a host of pun champions.

As fun as following these threads was (and Berkowitz is funny even outside the punning), the best part was watching him find his people and become appreciated by a tribe that shares his unironic interest in wordplay.

Spivspeak

A Dictionary of the Underworld, British and American, Being the Vocabularies of Crooks, Criminals, Racketeers, Beggars and Tramps, Convicts, The Commercial Underworld, The Drug Traffic, The White Slave Traffic, Spivs by Eric Partridge. Bonanza Books, 1961.

underworld Sarah: My parents are downsizing, so every once in a while they’ll say, “If there’s anything you want, make sure you ask for it.” So I said, “I want A Dictionary of the Underworld.”
G: I’ve got to do the creepy thing. (Sniffs book.) It doesn’t actually smell, but it looks like it would smell.
S: It’s old enough that it should.
G: How old is it?
S: First published in 1949, reprinted with new addenda 1961. Continue reading “Spivspeak”