Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

We spent Thanksgiving Day with Arny and Tracy in Lancaster, a wonderful historical town. The best-known activities in Lancaster County are touring the Amish farm areas and shopping at the long-established discount malls. Friday morning, we opted instead for a walk in the historic district around town to see the many one to two-hundrend year old houses. These buildings are beautifully maintained and in many cases decorated for the Thanksgiving season.

After the walk we met Miriam, Alice, Evelyn, and Tom and attended a puppet show at the nearby Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Mae's Food Blog

I have now moved all the posts on food from this blog to a single-purpose food blog:

Mae's Food Blog

Monday, November 13, 2006

Language and Linguists

For the last few months I have been following a blog called Language Log. It's written by several linguists. The content is very interesting, and the writers have a good sense of humor. Now I have become so interested that I'm taking their advice on books to read. Fortunately, the libraries that I use have many of their suggestions.

First I read:
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language
The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language by Geoffrey K. Pullum (he's one of the irreverent Language Log writers). In this book I finally learned the objection to the claim that Eskimos have X words for snow. The questionable thing about this is not whether Eskimos do or don't have a lot of words for snow -- after all, the article points out, even we English speakers have snow, sleet, blizzard, avalanche, flurry, etc. In fact, most languages have a lot of words for things their speakers need/want to talk about.

The author points out that there are many Eskimo languages; it's not trivial to "count" how many words there are for whatever; and so most of the statements are made in total ignorance and lack of any real interest in Eskimos. Or as the author says: "The tragedy is not that so many people got the facts wildly wrong; it is that in the mentally lazy and anti-intellectual world we live in today, hardly anyone cares enough to think about trying to determine what the facts are." (p. 171)

Second I read:
Language Myths edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. This book is a collection of essays by experts on things that many people wrongly or pretty wrongly believe to be true of language. Some of the essays pointed out things I knew; others were quite new to me.

The third book is:
Word Origins...and how we know them
Word Origins...and how we know them by Anatoly Liberman, which describes how word historians work, where they get their ideas, and to some extent, how to tell when someone claims to trace a word's origin but is really only blowing smoke.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Margaret Atwood: The Penelopiad

I have just read The Penelopiad. In it Margaret Atwood amusingly retells the story of Odysseus's faithful wife in her own words. The time is now. The location is Hades, the fields of asphodel. After millenia as a shade, Penelope is still jealous of gorgeous, selfish, vain Helen. She's still angry for a lifetime of mistreatment and increasingly irritated at mythological misinformation about herself. We hear all about the dishonest nature of wily Odysseus, how she often saw through his tricks, and how much less savory he was in "reality" than in Homer's version. As a shade, she knows all about Homer's version and all the subsequent versions.

Penelope doesn't like her life in Hades much; however, she resists rebirth. In contrast, since his death Odysseus has been "a French general, he's been a Mongolian invader, he's been a tycoon in America, he's been a headhunter in Borneo. He's been a film star, an inventor, an advertising man." (p. 189-90)

My favorite quote from poor Penelope: "More recently, some of us have been able to infiltrate the new ethereal-wave system that now encircles the globe, and to travel around that way, looking out at the world through the flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines. Perhaps that's how the gods were able to come and go as quickly as they did back then -- they must have had something like that at their disposal." (p. 19)

It's a good fun read -- far less challenging than many books by Atwood.

As I read I began to think how many authors have loved to retell old stories in new ways and forms: classic stories from mythology, Arthurian legend, Shakespeare, etc. Some retellings are straightforward; others, like West Side Story, reuse the essential plot in modern dress. The best, like Atwood's tale, refocus from the point of view of a minor or underdeveloped character. The goal may be irony, politics, or curiosity.

My mind exploded with examples:
  • Virgil wrote the Aeneid to create a Roman founder myth based in the Trojan war.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court provided Mark Twain with ironic distance from the follies of his own era.
  • Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea to recreate the first Mrs. Rochester. (She's not the only one to write a story based on this unloved madwoman.)
  • Anita Diamant's best seller The Red Tent tried a historic-anthropological take on women in early biblical times through the character of Dinah.
  • Wicked, first a novel, later a hit musical, devised a new adults-only personality for the Wicked Witch of Oz. (Author Gregory Maguire has subsequently redone several other children's stories in the same vein.)
  • An older Broadway success is The Skin of Our Teeth -- Thornton Wilder mines the Bible. Cute and universal. Now material for high school drama clubs.
  • In a heavier spirit, Par Lagerkvist created an identity for the crucified thief of Golgotha in Barabbas. (I think this blip has left the radar screen.)
  • Aldous Huxley offered a distopian version of The Tempest in Brave New World.
  • And I can't forget Hollywood's homage to Emma, the movie Clueless.

After winning a lawsuit about copyright, Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone -- same story, slave's point of view, Gone With the Wind -- dropped out of sight like a stone. I've never read either book. But I've read/seen all the others on this list. And I know there are lots more, such as at least two more recent retells borrowing characters from Jane Austen novels.

The lawsuit proved that this kind of book isn't a crime. Is it a genre? I don't know.