Tag Archives: new york review of books

Bobbing in Finnegans Wake

The Resident
Michael Hofmann

We have the White Louse. His name is Donal Dump.
He is the Resident, and he heads the Dump
maladministration, squillionaires and a
sprain-surgeon, a Cabinet of all the talons. They
call him a racial spigot. He sees it as he calls
it, which makes him spigot. He squitters Twitter on
the shitter, and we titter after. He only squeaks
for us. He is our mouth-squeeze. He has a
background in constriction. Bill the Wall! Bill
the Wall! He owes the Dump Hotel, wright here in
DeCease. He is a self-dealing man who once in his
youth wore out the uniform. Then bone spurts
struck, and he invalidated to the venereal front. A
ployboy and a much-married man and father to the
fair Larissa-without-portfolio who he’d love to give
one to. Or even several. A stately plump buck who
takes the time to vent before the chopper with his
luxury hair and tie blowing bravely in all
erections. Fake nudes! Fake nudes! To me he is a
crevice to the orifice. The economy is re-relegated
like you wouldn’t believe. Unvironment too.
Offense Dept. going bangbusters. Eye ran. Blat!
Mixed Tans. Blat! Gerry mans. Blat! He achoos
new tariff-farts every day, whining easy-peasy dread
wars, slapping stanchions on Shiner and our other
alloys. (All except Rusher, on account of Poo-in.)
He is surely flushing in the dawn of a brand-new
Yellow Rage. Grate again! Grate again! GAGA!
GAGA! We are a Nation of Lawns. (He flogs golf off
a tetchy handiclap.) We have the suppuration of
pars. There is the Supreme Bought, also the
Senilate and the House of Unrepresentatives (tho
cuntly in Demographic hands). We stand by the
corruptibility of our unstitutions, and the wisdom
of the Foundering Fathers.


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The map IS the territory


Road map of Rhode Island

This past August, I was driving up, with my spouse, to Block Island for an extended weekend.  One has to take a ferry; one of the boat terminals is at Point Judith, R.I.  As usual, we were relying on our car’s GPS navigation system.  But luckily, I remembered to also bring that old standby, our road atlas.  Even though the GPS basically got us there fine (you’ll see later why I say “basically”), the Connecticut and Rhode Island maps in the atlas supplied all the “context”.  As we proceeded, I could see on the map what we were passing, arousing either memories of the old, or curiosity about the new.

To perform the rather egotistical act of quoting myself:  “A navigation system gets you where you want to go.  But it doesn’t tell you where you are.”

Recently, in the book world, I ran across a parallel to this.  I retrieved from my shelf a volume I had dipped into, maybe back in the 1980’s when it came out:

James D. McCawley - The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters

Written by a professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, the Eater’s Guide is a tutorial on the subset of the written Chinese language one has to know, in order to read the menu in a Chinese restaurant.  (It is common knowledge that the English part of a Chinese menu typically does not present the full range of culinary offerings.)

McCawley begins by explaining that most Chinese characters are not pictorial, but rather composed of two parts: the RADICAL which shows the general area of the character’s meaning, and the PHONETIC which rhymes with the word the character represents.  Much of the book is composed of a glossary, which ingeniously does not rely on scholarly knowledge, but is usable by the beginner.  The pages below, for example, show some of the phonetic half-characters that could go with the four-stroke radical meaning “tree”:

Eater's Guide glossary - sample page

In the last several weeks, I’ve been studying this book rather seriously (finding it a good companion to subway trips).  I have been diligent about doing McCawley’s exercises, which ensure that one has not just an abstract notion, but actual skill in tracking down words in his glossary:

Eater's Guide - some exercises

This was indeed work, but it brought the reward not just of useful ability, but also of  general learning.  Plus some delightful discoveries.  In finding the character that means “home”, I was suddenly presented with the Chinese name of one of my favorite dishes (though at least in my Queens, NYC neighborhood it appears in a vegetarian incarnation):

Eater's Guide - Home Style Bean Curd

And, I thought it was fun to discover that “chop suey” originates in a Chinese character that means “miscellaneous”:

Eater's Guide - chop suey ("odds and ends")

OK … the scene shifts to a subway trip when I was NOT perusing McCawley’s book, but talking to a friend about it.  Not greatly to my surprise, she noted that “there is an app for that”.  I’m not sure if this is the one she meant, but here is one called Waygo:

WAYGO app - point phone at Chinese text to translate

This seems to me, to be the GPS of the Chinese-menu world.  To be fair, I have not tried Waygo yet.  If it turns out that it does not just give facile translations, but delves into the linguistic intricacies that are so interesting to me, I will eat my words (so to speak) and update this blog entry accordingly.  But my strong suspicion is that you will get a result that is quick — and (darn it!) probably very practical — but one without any of the alluring context and background.

Now, I’d like to extend this discussion into a much broader arena.  I’m linking below to a recent article in the New York Review of Books.  It’s a review of a 2017 book called Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy.

Born to Be Free _ by BM Friedman

The authors (Philippe van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght) advocate a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans.  (Note that this is not a “minimum wage”, but income that you would get whether you held a job or not.)  Why?  Because the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics will dictate that many workers will need only minimal skills to do their jobs.  (An example already widely current: since taxi drivers use — here we are again — GPS, they don’t need to know anything about a city’s geography.)  All these now-unskilled workers will not be able to command a liveable income from their job alone.  As Benjamin M. Friedman puts it in his review:

Only convinced futurists envision FedEx and UPS vans racing around the nation’s cities anytime soon with no human inside. But in the future, what will the human on board be doing? Most likely, not driving the van but running packages up to people’s doorsteps and then pushing a picture icon on a touch screen to confirm that deliveries have been completed — not so different from what the cashier at a McDonald’s now does. For just this reason, the wages those no-longer-drivers receive also won’t be much different from McDonald’s wages.

If I may come full circle here, and return to my trip to Block Island …

Detailed map: Point Judith, Rhode Island

We had to get to Point Judith.  We were coming up on Route 1, and our GPS, as I recall,  left us in some doubt as to where to turn off toward the coast.  With my map in hand, it was easy to see that we should not head towards Jerusalem (necessitating a swim across the inlet), but rather go a bit “too far” and double back, on Route 108, towards Galilee.  (We are  very Biblical here, no?)  The map freed us from  our GPS blinders, and gave us (literally) that “extra dimension”.  We got to our Block Island ferry in time!


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A Maximum Minimalist

My usual reading tends to concentrate in two areas: the classics, and detective novels. Since both these genres go back many decades (not to say centuries), a corollary of this is that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. There are exceptions, however. The New York Review of Books is my favorite journal; as such, I give special attention to writers, and books, that are discussed there. Recently in that publication, Joyce Carol Oates wrote an article about works by the American writer Mary Miller (born 1977). [1] Two of these books are short-story collections. The third is The Last Days of California (2014). So far, it is Miller’s only novel. Oates’ review of this novel was not totally glowing, but there was something about this book — perhaps the quotations from it? — that caught my eye.

The story takes place over only four days. It’s about a family on a road trip from their home in Montgomery, Alabama to California. The father believes the end of the world is coming soon, and is trying to “save” as many people as he can, buttonholing strangers and passing out leaflets along the way. His reasons for going to California are not too clear, but he seems to be on some kind of pilgrimage. Jess, the narrator, is 15 years old. Her mother, and 17-year old sister Elise, are also on the trip with her.

The Oates review attaches the label of “minimalism” to the book. Even though I like the writings of at least one “minimalist” — Raymond Carver [2] — there is something barren-sounding about that designation. I’m glad it did not put me off from reading this novel, which certainly came across as very rich to me.

True to its “minimalist” badge, there are many seemingly unimportant events described in the book (as you can imagine from the time span of only a few days). (Even these events strangely held my interest, however.) But as well, both Jess and Elise undergo some quite momentous experiences. (Being averse to spoilers myself, I will refrain from elaboration on this.)

It seems paradoxical, but even though I have very little idea of what a teenage girl’s inner life is like, Jess comes across as completely genuine. Perhaps a considerable part of this lies in the contradictions exhibited in her behavior, feelings, and beliefs. (Being a teenager, poised between youth and adulthood.) One could start with her obsession with her (alleged) excess poundage, while blithely munching on junk food! For a couple of further examples, let me turn to some passages from the novel.

The first selection shows how perverse Jess can be, engaging in behavior which she knows very well will result in bad things:

My favorite [Stephen King book] was Duma Key. I also liked It and The Tommyknockers. The books frightened me but it didn’t make me not want to read them. This seemed to imply something defective in my character. It was like the other things I did to make my life harder—eating too much when I knew I’d get a stomachache, drinking water when I had to pee and there was nowhere to use the bathroom.

The next passage — with its jolting turnabout in the middle — seems to encapsulate the wide emotional swings that an adolescent could have. Note that at both ends of this spectrum, no communication with the parents will result!

I picked up my milkshake and turned to the window. At some point, my feelings for my parents had changed. I mostly felt nothing and couldn’t think of anything to say to them, but it [sic] was periodically broken by a brief, crushing feeling, a love so intense that there was nothing to do but reject it altogether.

Next, Jess relates an encounter with a boy at one of the motels where the family stopped. Another jolt for me, as the passage goes from an alleged world-weariness, to the pure desire expressed in the last sentence:

“Hey, girl,” Gabe said, “you want another?”

“Keep ’em coming,” I said, though my beer was still half-full. I liked how he called me girl, as if there were too many girls to remember, as if the names of girls would take up too much space in his head. If he liked me, maybe I could become pretty girl or even my girl. But for this to happen, we’d have to fast-forward past all of this getting-to-know-you business. We’d have to pretend we already knew each other. People were so similar once you got to know them.

I watched him out of the corner of my eye, his body in constant motion, an ankle bouncing on a knee, his hand lifting a can to his mouth. I wanted to feel his body move over mine.

Jess feels she is in the shade of her older sister Elise, who is slender and turns heads wherever she goes. But I defy you to read Jess’ unsparing revelations, and not root for this ugly duckling who is perhaps not so ugly after all.

In sum: My encounter with this achingly beautiful novel has encouraged me to delve more into contemporary literature!

[1] Joyce Carol Oates, “Postcards from the Edge”, New York Review of Books, April 20, 2017.  You can read it here:  NYRB review

[2]  See my review:  The Short Story … featuring Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”


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A Lecture on Johnson & Boswell, by Jose Luis Borges

A Lecture on Johnson & Boswell, by Jose Luis Borges


For the first time in English: Borges’ 1966 lecture on Dr J & his sidekick

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July 29, 2013 · 2:13 pm