Tag Archives: language

525. Highland Laddie Gone

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

Of all the books on my best list, this is the weirdest, hands down. It sings, but its song belongs on a Ray Stevens album. Highland Laddie Gone by Sharyn McCrumb is the funniest book in history, or an incomprehensible mess, depending on how well you understand the backstory.

Which brings me to my backstory. I am not a Scot, but my wife is. Her mother, a Swede, became more Scottish than the Scots in pursuit of her husband’s culture. I learned to love bagpipe music and appreciate tartans from her. I also got into the habit of going to the local Scottish Games every year, where I found this book in a Scottish book stall.

The Scottish Games are an odd mixture of athletic events, genuine Scottish history, and romantic historical claptrap, with the last being the strongest element. I love them, but I am not fooled about how silly the whole concept is. I like the games like some people like Benny Hill.

The Highland Games are about as realistic as a bunch of modern Virginia women shucking their skinny jeans for hoop skirts and sitting around sipping mint juleps while their husbands reenact the Civil War — and that happens in this book, too.

There is also a Scottish marine biologist who has come over for the summer on a grant to study the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, only to find out that the man paying the bills really wants him to study Chessie. If you don’t know, Chessie is the Chesapeake Bay equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.

Our heroine, Elizabeth MacPherson is attending the Glencoe Games, one of the bigger venues. She is naive, slightly overweight, and in love with glamor but can’t quite pull it off. She solves mysteries, although the reader is left wondering how, and she has a wicked tongue for countering catty remarks.

The more I describe Highland Laddie Gone, the more I can’t believe it is one of my favorites. But it is jammed full of the humor of juxtaposition, both linguistic and cultural. There are at least five one-liners per page. Example:

When Elizabeth falls for the visiting biologist’s Scottish accent, she tells him, “I love your rrr’s.”

Taken aback, he replies, “Yes, your arse is rather nice, as well.”

Elizabeth knows the fake Scottishness of the games, but little about historical Scotland, and absolutely nothing about modern Scotland. Cameron, the visiting biologist, has never seen a Game and finds them incomprehensible; he has no interest in history, and all he want to talk about are modern Scottish sports teams. He and Elizabeth spend the entire book talking past each other, with hilarious results.

Then Lachlan, the dealer in fake genealogies and associated trinkets, is killed with a skian dubh, a ceremonial dagger. The call goes out, and the local sheriff is just over the hill at a Civil War reenactment. He tells his troops to stop being dead until he gets back, and heads toward the Game at a gallop in the full dress of a Southern cavalry officer. He sees the death weapon and says, “This will be easy. How many of these things can there be?” The attendees have to tell him that every one of the thousand kilted pseudo-Scotsmen has a skian dubh in his sock.

Elizabeth decides to solve the mystery, and all her friends push her this way and that, hoping she will find the clues they are directing her toward. Eventually, she does find the killer, but she never has a clue of what has actually been going on.

The  joy of this book is all in the one-liners. I’ve given you a few; there are hundreds more in HLG, but you might miss many of them if you don’t know the Games or the Reenactments.

If this sounds like fun, but you are only into science fiction, you might try Bimbos of the Death Sun or Zombies of the Gene Pool in which McCrumb takes on science fiction conventions.

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523. Monkeying Around

This is about accuracy in discourse, and therefore applicable to writers, but it won’t seem so at first. Stick with me a few paragraphs and you’ll see.

The last week of August, there was a primary in Florida. In the aftermath, Ron DeSantis said the voters would “monkey this up” if they voted for his black opponent, and was slammed for making a racist comment.

Really?

I remember the Monkees, back in the Precambrian. Their theme song contained the words

Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
People say we monkey around.

I knew they were a fake band, but I never realized they were racists.

Knee-jerk liberals (that’s me, by the way) can look pretty silly when we overreach. Even people I respect were calling the monkey reference a racist dog whistle, and maybe it is. But let’s apply a little logic, in the form of Occam’s Razor.

What is the simplest and most likely explanation for the statement? There is no old saying “monkey this up” but there is an old saying “monkey around” and it is a simple extension to make that “monkey around and screw this up”. Millions of people have said that over the years, with no racial intent. My guess is that DeSantis was thinking “f—- this up”, and cleaned it up for television.

But I could be wrong. I don’t know the man and what I do know doesn’t impress me. “Monkey this up” may in fact be racist code, with built in plausible denial. If so, it worked beautifully. By assuming the worst, the liberal press has given the man massive publicity, and come off looking like fools.

As writers, on the other hand, we are in the business of not being misunderstood. See, I told you I would bring this around to writing.

Recently, I was revising an old novel. A young man and woman were about to move into a physical relationship, which was not not a love match. She was more excited than he was, because she lived in a small village, and he was the first male of her own age she had seen in a long time. He was planning to travel on in the spring, alone. He would tell her that in another line or two. This is what I wrote, years ago:

When he loosened the strings of her robe, she did not protest.

When I wrote that, the image in the mind of a reader would have exactly matched what I meant to say. There would have been no thought that he was forcing himself on her, or that she was reluctant in any way. In point of fact, if you had read a few sentences before and after, she was steaming.

That was then. Now, in the age of #Me Too, the phrase did not protest might be read differently than I intended when I wrote it. So I changed the line to read:

When he began to loosen the strings of her robe, she moved to hurry the process.

That is a pretty subtle change. To my mind, the two lines mean exactly the same thing, but they might not mean the same thing to a modern reader.

Readers read what we say, not what we meant to say. Communication isn’t entirely in our hands — readers do misread from time to time — but we have to do our best not to monkey things up. And no, that was not a racist dog whistle. That’s just me kicking the liberal press one more time for falling into a trap.

(Some) politicians (may) be in the business of doublespeak. They may bask in the comfort of plausible denial. Writers are not in that business. Our job is to say what we really mean, so skillfully that the reader is not confused about our intentions.

That is actually a fairly hard job.

515. Immortal Hunger

Magic requires an agile mind and a good memory.

Immortal Hunger
by Syd Logsdon

Abbit perault desegené . . .

An old man tried to speak the words
That his fading mind could not compel;
Began again, and once again,
Could not complete the vital spell.

Outside his walls a storm was coming
Snow had just begun to fall,
Within his chest there beat the ragged,
Slowing pulse of death’s own song.

Abbit perault divalté  . . . Damn!

The formula locked in his skull,
He could not force them free —
Those words that he had labored long
To etch in stones of memory.

Four thousand years ago he spoke them,
At Marduk’s feet in Babylon.
The old God said that death was conquered,
But warned him, never wait too long.

A hundred years ago he spoke them,
With shortened breath he sang their song,
And rose to live another century —
Remember, never wait too long.

A man grows tired, a brain grows weary
Childhood memories fade away.
Three hundred wives, so many children;
Still clinging at end of day.

Not satisfied, not done with dreaming,
Not ready for his final lay,
Desire unquenched, immortal hunger
Not to simply slip away.

But hunger isn’t all he needs
If memory fades with every breath.
Abbit . . . my God what was that spell?
The one that puts an end to death.

510. Books About Books

The Great American Read sent me scurrying to my personal library to review some books about books. That is an odd sub-genre, but not a small one.

From my library (i.e., room-filling book pile) I pulled out The Novel 100 by Daniel Burt, The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written by Martin Seymour-Smith and Twenty-five Books That Shaped America by Thomas C. Foster. I have certainly read many others over the years, picked up while wandering through libraries. I own these three because they were on remainder lists, which made them cheap enough to buy.

I also have A Great Idea at the Time by Alex Beam, which deserves a whole ‘nother post, later. (See the aside below before you write me about my bad grammar.)

Why do we read these books on books? For the lists and for the opinions. Everyone who writes one of these books is highly opinionated. They have to be, since there are no real criteria for making these choices. It’s all very subjective. One person’s Great is another person’s Crap.

It might be interesting to read a few dozen of these lists and see what books, if any, end up on all of them. Moby Dick, might qualify; everyone admires it from afar, although few read it. Still, I wouldn’t bet money on any title ending up on every list.

The best of these authors admit that their picks are personal, and could have gone a different way on a different day. They defend their choices with humor, which is always welcome. A good book-on-books is fun to read. Even when the prejudice is potentially offensive, we get to laugh at academics looking like red-necks without realizing it. And, no, I’m not going to admit which one of the above I’m talking about.

The criteria for inclusion are also different from book to book. The Novel 100 is based on pure quality, and on continuing to be recognized as fashions change. Daniel Burt begins with 1. Don Quixote and carries though 100. Gone With the Wind. Then he adds an appendix called the second hundred. The reader gets a two-fer.

Seymour-Smith skips great books which were not influential on other writers or the culture in general, and includes books which were influential, even if they were inherently bad. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is an example of the latter. Seymour-Smith’s list runs from 1 The I Ching through 100 Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Mercifully, he does not provide a second hundred.

Foster writes with a light tone, sometimes slipping too far into flippancy, and only gives us twenty-eight books. His twenty-five include a two-fer of short books of poetry and a trilogy of novels. He also provides a list of fifteen runners-up.

If I wanted to collate the books in these three collections, throwing out the duplicates, the number would probably be close to 300. Am I going to read them all? Not in this lifetime, but I can read these reviews and come away with at least an idea of what I am missing. I can also garner a much smaller list of ones I actually might read some day.

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Aside. If you are a writer, you must ponder the weird cock-ups where grammar meets usage. Take the phrase I used humorously, a whole ‘nother post.

Another post makes sense. If you add the modifier whole, the phrase falls apart. In another whole post , whole seems to modify post when it is meant to modify another. That is, it seems to say an additional post instead of a very different post.

It is similar to German, which has two words for another. Noch eine Bier means “Bring me an additional beer”, but ein andera Bier means “Bring me a different beer, I don’t like this one.”

You might try to break another into an other so you can squeeze in the additional modifier closer to its referent. But that doesn’t work either. You end up with—

An whole other post. That puts an instead of a in front of a consonant. So you try—

A whole other post. But that doesn’t work either, because you have lost the “n“, which leaves your reader muttering under his breath, “A other post? That’s not right!”

So you end up splitting another in a different place, ending up with a nother. Put that back into the phrase, and you get a whole ‘nother post which sounds right, even though it’s wrong.

Ain’t English fun?

This brings up Writers Rule # 1, to wit: If that which is grammatically correct looks bad, use a different sentence altogether.

You might also call it the “There are things up with which I will not put!” rule.

509. Kidnapped and Catriona (2)

Catriona, aka David Balfour, continues the story begun in Kidnapped. I prefer the former title, probably because it was the title of the library copy I first read. I have headed this with a David Balfour cover, because all the Catriona covers I found were artistically inferior. By either name, this is quite a different kind of book. The balance between action and moral dilemma has shifted hard to the right.

Kidnapped had too much meat to be properly called a boy’s book, but it fell into that category among booksellers largely because it didn’t have sex or even romance. In Catriona, there still isn’t any sex — it was published in the Victorian era, after all — but it does have romance. Catriona is David’s love interest from early in the novel, and he wins her at the end. But the path of that romance is so slow, self-consciously moral, and tedious that it wouldn’t work as a modern girl’s book either. (Assuming anyone would dare to use that phrase any more.)

I recommend both novel and sequel to adults who are willing to take a journey, not only to another land, but also to another time. It’s easier to follow the lowland Scots dialect than it is to understand why David is so backward in his pursuit of Catriona. Once you get past that, you will be closer to understanding the era.

The book is in two parts. In the first, David is trying to get his friend Alan to safety overseas, and trying to get a chance to testify that James of the Glen cannot have committed the Appin murder. The latter turns out to be no easy task. The level of bias and corruption is astounding, on both sides of the political spectrum. (Sound familiar?) Shenanigans abound; David is kidnapped, again, this time by his friends and held captive on Bass Rock to keep him from the trial. He manages to get there anyway, after the trial is over, but before the verdict is announced. He falls in with those who are James friends, and finds them as blind to justice and reason as the ones who want James dead. David says:

And it was forced home upon my mind how this, that had the externals of a sober process of law, was in its essence a clan battle between savage clans.

There were no quotations in the last post, but Catriona is a garden of quotations, so brace yourself as David tells you what happened in his own words.

. . . in course of time, on November 8th, and in the midst of a prodigious storm of wind and rain, poor James of the Glens was duly hanged at Lettermore by Balachulish.

So there was the final upshot of my politics! Innocent men have perished before James, and are like to keep on perishing (in spite of all our wisdom) till the end of time. And till the end of time, young folk (who are not yet used with the duplicity of life and men) will struggle as I did, and make heroical resolves, and take long risks; and the course of events will push them upon the one side and go on like a marching army.   . . . (James) had been hanged by fraud and violence, and the world wagged along, and there was not a pennyweight of difference; and the villains of that horrid plot were decent, kind, respectable fathers of families, who went to kirk and took the sacrament!

What follows immediately thereafter is perhaps my favorite quotation from all of literature.

But I had had my view of that detestable business they call politics–I had seen it from behind, when it is all bones and blackness; and I was cured for life of any temptations to take part in it again.

David may have accomplished nothing, but he has given a moving example of decency in his attempt.

The last third of the book is a romance, mixed with more intrigue. Alan appears again, David ends up as the temporary guardian of Catriona, which makes him morally bound to say nothing about his feelings for her, since she is in his power. It is all very touching, frustrating, and Victorian. I would not blame a modern reader for wishing David would just say, “Hey, Babe, we’ve got a problem here, let’s talk about it.” But of course, he can’t. Living through his misery with him is the price we pay for diving deep into a historic culture, told through the words of a man who lived it.

Spoiler alert: all comes well in the end.

In his dedication to David Balfour/Catriona, written in Samoa, RLS revealed his affection for both books and added:

And I have come so far; and the sights and thoughts of my youth pursue me; and I see like a vision the youth of my father, and of his father, and the whole stream of lives flowing down there, far in the north, with the sound of laughter and tears, to cast me out in the end, as by a sudden freshet, on those ultimate islands. And I admire and bow my head before the romance of destiny.

Kidnapped might be mistaken for a boy’s book; RLS suggested it himself. Catriona, or Kidnapped/Catriona seen as a single story, is an adult look at a very different world.

508. Kidnapped and Catriona (1)

This is a double homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and to David Balfour or Catriona, the alternate titles of its sequel. It is a follow-on to 504. Homage to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Kidnapped was published 132 years ago, so there are bound to be some problems with language and culture. If it were being read by adults familiar with how historical novels function, there would be no issue, but Kidnapped is seen as a boy’s book.

It isn’t. Kidnapped is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age novel in which the main character faces moral choices. Kidnapped and Treasue Island are often lumped together, but they are quite separate species. Consequently, Kidnapped does not get the respect it deserves.

David Balfour is off to seek his fortune, shortly after his father’s death. He is going to see a rich Uncle Ebenezer, without knowing that he has a claim on his uncle’s fortune. At his uncle’s connivance, he is kidnapped onto the brig Covenant and shipped off to the America’s as a slave.

Complications ensue. David falls in with Alan Breck, the Covenant is wrecked off the west coast of Scotland, and David and Alan find their way back to Edinburgh. Along the way, they witness the murder of Colin Roy Campbell, a matter of great political importance in the days shortly after the Jacobite uprising.

Alan Breck Stewart, which is the full name of David’s companion, was based on the real historical character who was implicated for the murder (also real), tried in absentia, and sentenced to death. The sentence was never carried out and the real Alan disappeared from history, leaving a trail of local stories about what happened to him.

RLS took the Appin murder, as the incident was called, as the backbone of his story, not only in Kidnapped, but also in its sequel.

There is plenty of adventure, danger, and intrigue to carry the novel to its conclusion, but its quality lies in the view David gets of both sides of the recent war, and the moral decisions he constantly faces. David is a lowlander, a conservative, and a supporter of King George II; his companion Alan is in rebellion, on the run, and collecting rents which will go to support his King, Charles Edward Stuart. Patriotism would have David turn Alan in; their friendship, and the fact that each has saved the other’s life during their journey, will not allow him to do so. David knows that Alan is innocent of the murder, but he can’t testify to this without revealing that Alan is a traitor in the eyes of the British and already condemned, while throwing away his own future for consorting with King George’s enemies.

At the end of Kidnapped, David overcomes his uncle, then shows him mercy, gains his proper inheritance, and is in the process of helping Alan escape to France. As many critics have pointed out, the novel ends short of completion, with Alan still waiting for passage and James of the Glens was still in jail awaiting trial for a murder he did not commit. RLS himself admits this and hoped to make things right if Kidnapped were successful. I would give it to you in his words, but I haven’t been able to find the quotation. It comes of reading too many books in a lifetime, and not being organized enough to write down every quote I like.

Kidnapped was successful, and he did write a sequel, called Catriona in Britain and David Balfour in the US. The sequel never got the acclaim of Kidnapped. I find that unacceptable, so stay tuned for a look at Catriona on Thursday.

Kidnapped is not on the list for The Great American Read, as I discussed a week ago.

The fans of Kidnapping — they are legion — have arranged a walking trail in Scotland that follows David’s path from the shipwreck to Edinburgh. You can find information here. I’ve added it to my bucket list.

507. Sita as Symbol

Be warned: this post is about symbols, double entendre, hidden meanings, fecundity, and has a few references to the religions of India.

Over in Serial today, Marquart is engaged in a symbolic exchange. He gives three gifts, and a young man and his wife give a pledge of lifelong loyalty. When the ceremony is over . . .

. . . the boy, who as son of a serf had been nobody, gained status and lost freedom. And the girl, who had been of the village, lost freedom and gained a husband.

That insert is the first sentence in tomorrow’s post. Things don’t always come out even when you serialize something that was written as a whole.

All this is nothing new to fiction, or life. It closely resembles a young man becoming a squire, or a successful warrior being knighted. There is an exchange — fealty for security in the master’s service — and there is both a gain and a loss as someone passes from one status to another.

The thing that makes Marquart’s exchange a bit different is that the young actors in the drama are lowly. You might call them peasants or serfs, which are technically not the same thing, but which share being low on the scale of status.

I go low all the time. I grew up on a farm, wading through cow manure. At school I used a slide rule (google it) but at home I used a shovel. I feel comfortable with lowly folks; with working folks. Even though Tidac is a god, he doesn’t know it and ends up being raised . . . Oops, I nearly let a spoiler slip there!

The girl receives an iron pot, and Marquart says:

May your hearth be always warm, and the pot and your belly always full.

The audience laughs. Marquart could have said that differently — more coarsely — but that would have been offensive. As it is, “the girl blushed and the villagers giggled”. Unmarried, in a culture like this one, the girl was a danger and was in danger. Once married, pregnancy becomes appropriate, and even desired. The “full belly” refers to hunger satisfied and pregnancy.

Marquart says the right words at the right time. The moment is ritualized, and ritual makes the unsayable, sayable.

The iron post was given to the wife from the hands of a female servant. No man touches it.

The plow shear is given to the man. The girl touches the package, but the man opens it. More symbolism. Later, when the man receives the axe, she does not touch it at all.

After giving the plow shear, Marquart says:

Urel, plow deep and often, so that your seed may be sewn, and your harvest may be bountiful.

“The villagers and serf alike howled with laughter.” Double entendre rears its lovely head. Yes, Marquart is telling the serf to be a farmer, but he is also commending him to the marriage bed. And everyone present knows it.

If he had said the same thing baldly, everyone would have been offended at his lack of tact. They would also have missed a chance to be in on this great joke that they all got to share.

It resembles the rules of cussing. Every time I hear someone casually saying f**k, I think, “What a waste.” A good cuss word has to be saved for the appropriate occasion, and delivered with perfect timing. Throwing it around like an ordinary word wastes it. If you say f**k every time you bump your knee, what is left to say when you drop an anvil on your foot?

Double entendre is fun. Sometimes kids don’t get that. They think their elders are afraid to use plain language, but it’s all a game. If you don’t follow the rules, the game is no fun.

By the way, I didn’t think up that bit with the plow shear. In some South Asian languages, the word for the act of plowing is the same word used for the act of intercourse. A professor in one of my anthropology classes told us that, but then he added, “Just because the word is the same, doesn’t mean that when a farmer says, ‘I’m going out to plow my field,’ he is really saying ‘I’m going out to commit ritual intercourse with the earth’. He just means that he is going out to plow.”

I don’t think my prof was being entirely honest. I think he was wanting to keep a class full of post-adolescents under control. In fact, that farmer would be saying both, simultaneously, and enjoying the double entendre.

One last note. In the Ramayana, the god Ram’s wife is the goddess Sita, and the word sita also means furrow.