by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

The Reference Shelf

Posted 28 August 2008 in by Catriona

I have a weakness—one that I persistently indulge—for reference books.

And I’m not even talking about the sort of reference books that everyone should have on their shelves: the OED, Strunk and White, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, or The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

I’m not even talking about the ones specific to my discipline or my occupation: MLA Handbook, Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, or The Little, Brown Handbook.

No: I’m talking about the odd ones. The . . . slightly embarrassing ones, like Who’s Who in Enid Blyton. The ones that I don’t look at every day, or every week.

And then, looking at my shelves at work and again at home, I thought, “Sod it. These books are awesome. Every one of them has taught me something. It may not be something terribly essential and chances are that I won’t remember it tomorrow, but it’s still been imparted.”

So this is in honour of my favourites among the not-quite-essential reference books that I love.

Ghastly Beyond Belief: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of Quotations by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman.

I’m going to love any book that warns me to “sterilize [myself] with fear.” But the most valuable thing this book taught me? That Tony Stark, at some point in his continuity, uttered the line “I’ll meet you at the Frug-a-go-go when I’ve finished with the cyclotron, baby.”

Smooth, Tony.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones.

Diana Wynne Jones just rocks. That’s all there is to it, really. But The Magicians of Caprona and Archer’s Goon are one thing, and a tourist’s brochure to fantasy fiction is another.

Sample entry: “Small Man can be a very funny or a very tiresome TOUR COMPANION, depending on how this kind of thing grabs you. He gambles (see GAMING), he drinks too much and he always runs away. Since the Rules allow him to make JOKES, he will excuse his behaviour in a variety of comical ways. Physically he is stunted and not at all handsome, although he usually dresses flamboyantly. He tends to wear hats with feathers in. You will discover he is very vain. But, if you can avoid smacking him, you will come to tolerate if not love him” (174-75).

1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence by A Member of the Whip Club (Frances [sic] Grose, according to the introduction).

This one speaks for itself, surely.

No? Might be just me, then. It certainly helps when you’re reading Georgette Heyer novels, that’s for sure.

This, I think, is my favourite entry.

Dommerer: A beggar pretending that his tongue has been cut out by the Algerines, or cruel and blood-thirsty Turks, or else that he was born deaf and dumb.

It’s just so curiously specific, isn’t it? The proviso stuck on the end—“or, he might not have much of an imagination. You know, whatevs”—seems a bit of a let down.

Book of Intriguing Words, Paul Hellweg.

I’m just going to list the weirdest of the new words that his book taught me while I was flipping through it this afternoon.

Daphnomancy: divination by means of a laurel tree.
Ailuromancy: divination by the way a cat jumps.
Cinqasept: a short visit to one’s lover (literally from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.)

(But surely the last would also apply to a period between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.? )

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce.

Now this one is a vital addition to the shelf, really, but I had to include it in the list just so I could give some sample definitions.

Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.

Guillotine, n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.

Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun by Willard R. Espy

But, seriously: who doesn’t need a dictionary of eponyms? I had no idea, before browsing through this, that “tawdry” was an eponym (taking its name from a corruption of St Audrey, in reference to the inexpensive lace collars sold on her holy day) or that badminton took its name from the Gloucestershire seat of the Duke of Beaufort (where it was first played after being imported from India).

An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton.

Now, I don’t know how many of these collective nouns are tongue in cheek and how many are derived from genuine sources. I believe that the collective noun for hounds is “a mute” (from the Old French meute, for either “pack” or “kennel”) and that a legitimate, if rare, alternative is “a sleuth of hounds” (from the Old Norse slóth, meaning “track”).

That seems plausible.

But this following list seems both as though it’s entirely fabricated and as though the words should be in more common use:

An angst of dissertations.
A vicious circle of fallacies.
A tabula rasa of empiricists.
A conjugation of grammarians.

When I find gems like these, is it any wonder that I keep buying reference books?

And that isn’t even revealing the existence of my Dictionary of Pirates or Encyclopaedia of Plague and Pestilence.

Victorian Fantasy with Mad Scientists: What Could Be Bad?

Posted 20 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been uninspired lately, or tired, or still fighting off this cold that I seem to have passed on to everyone else, or secretly eaten up with remorse that I didn’t kill more kobolds at last week’s D&D session, or something.

I don’t know quote what, as the list above indicates. But I haven’t been my usual effervescent self (oh, yes: I am humble. I’m famous for it). I haven’t thought of anything interesting enough to blog about and I haven’t been reading as much, either.

That, though, I blame on the avalanche of marking that’s descended.

But I have been re-reading, recently. Re-reading is something of a divisive issue in this household: Nick doesn’t do it, much, whereas I don’t see any reason to deny myself the pleasure of, for example, Pride and Prejudice just because I happen to have read it before. (Re-watching television and movies is an even more divisive issue and, since those are common activities, I’ve had to resign myself to a period of inactivity before Nick will agree to re-watch something.) But re-reading I can do on my own.

And, sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for a new book, no matter how good at looks, or how fond you are of the author, or how long you’ve been waiting for it to be published.

Sometimes, you want familiarity. You want characters whom you’ve met before, situations that are familiar, nuances that you missed the first or second time around.

Or, at least, I do.

So lately I’ve been re-reading the Girl Genius series of graphic novels. The seventh trade came in from Amazon last week—many, many weeks after we originally ordered it—and the complex plot of the last couple had largely escaped me in the months since volume six came out. A refresher course seemed appropriate.

Girl Genius comes from Studio Foglio, although it doesn’t look as though their website’s been updated for a while. I’m not terribly familiar with Phil and Kaja Foglio’s other work, though I gather their other well-known series is XXXenophile, described on the Wikipedia page as whimsical alien erotica—and, no, I’m not linking to the Wikipedia page. You can search for it if you like, but bear in mind that the cover they offer is not suitable for work. It’s not tentacle porn (thank heavens!) but it’s not suitable for work. Or for young children.

Girl Genius, on the other hand, has its own website, given its existence as a web comic. I’ve not read the web version, because I find sequential web comics a little annoying, and prefer to wait for the trades.

So far, I’ve read the first seven trades, and don’t like to contemplate how long I have to wait for the eighth volume.

What I really enjoy about it, though, is the fact that the mad scientists, the “Sparks,” are completely and utterly insane. They can’t help it: it’s just the way Sparks work. At one point, the townspeople are uncertain whether or not to accept a new Spark—said to be the heir to a famous, long-lost dynasty—and are convinced not by her ability to create extraordinary machines, but by her tendency to blow things up and then shout, “I meant to do that!”

And Agatha Heterodyne herself, the Girl Genius of the title—well, okay: she spends a lot of time running around in her bloomers and is about as pneumatic as you’d expect of the heroine of vaguely Victorian melodrama. But she’s also tough—physically, emotionally, and intellectually—and talented in a number of fields that female characters still don’t often explore, especially not the science-fiction and fantasy narratives: she’s a scientist, a mechanic, an inventor, even a resurrectionist when she needs to be.

I’d written earlier in this post that it was rather odd that I enjoyed this series so much when steampunk isn’t really my cup of tea.

But I went back and deleted it when I remembered that the books are sub-titled “Gaslamp Fantasies”: according to the Wikipedia page, Kaja Foglio coined the term as more appropriate to the work than the usual “steampunk.” And it’s true that the Sparks are concerned with far more machinery, though the “clanks” are fabulous: the wicked Heterodynes of old, about whom we have only received tantalising snippets, also created the Jagerkin, fanatically loyal but vicious monsters with heavy Romanian accents and an obsession with hats, and there are also the constructs, Frankenstein’s-monster-style humanoids, some convincingly human and some nightmarish.

There are also miniature mammoths.

I don’t know why, but they seem to be sold as a tasty treat. On a stick.

And a cat created to be Emperor of All Cats, so that he could mobilise his people as silent spies and saboteurs: it works brilliantly, apparently, until they fall asleep or see something move.

But, honestly, you saw my point once I mentioned the miniature mammoths, didn’t you? Or maybe the bloomers?

But there’s so much more to this series, which ensures I couldn’t not read it.

Like the fact that the Heterodyne boys have become the stuff of legends in the eighteen years since they disappeared, so the world is full of dime novels inconsistently recounting their adventures and travelling Heterodyne shows that specialise in melodramas ranging from the violent to the raunchy, depending on the audience. In fact, the whole series plays with the mutability of narrative, including short pieces at the end of the trades that range from Agatha’s adventures as a full-blown Heterodyne—before she herself is even aware of her heritage—to the James Bondian adventures of Trelawney Thorpe, Spark of the Realm, to the fan-fiction of a young girl supposedly telling Heterodyne stories to her brothers but unable to resist putting herself into the narratives.

There are shades here of the great celebration of imagination that is Alan Moore’s third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen trade.

Really, I can’t resist anything that has at its heart a passion for melodrama and the mutability of imaginative story-telling.

And when you throw in vaguely Victorian robots, imaginary European cities, sentient castles, and fanged monsters who insist that any plan that involves killing anyone who sees you killing people and then losing your hat is a bad plan?

Well, I don’t know how anyone could resist.

Disturbing Etymologies

Posted 17 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, recently. At one point, a Klatchian prince is given an honorary degree from Unseen University, a Doctorum Adamus cum Flabello Dulci, which he translates as “Doctor of Sweet Fanny Adams,” a slightly more obscure form of jingoism than that of the people shouting “towelhead” at him in the streets or assuming he’s going to attempt to buy their wives.

But last time I read this, it made me realise that I didn’t know the origin of the term “sweet Fanny Adams.” I knew that when people say “sweet F.A.” these days, they don’t usually mean Fanny Adams, but I didn’t know where the phrase had originated.

So I looked it up, in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, of course, and found one of the most disturbing etymologies I’ve ever come across.

In 1867, a young girl called Fanny Adams was assaulted, murdered, and dismembered in a hop garden in Hampshire. Someone was tried and hanged for the murder, a twenty-one-year-old solicitor’s clerk.

So far, fairly nasty. But then the Royal Navy adopted the term “sweet Fanny Adams” as a synonym for tinned mutton, with what Brewer’s describes as “grim humour.” (Do you think so, Brewer’s? I’m partial to black comedies myself, but that’s a little grim even for me.) It came to mean something worthless and then to mean “nothing at all.”

It’s worth repeating: that’s one of the most disturbing etymologies I’ve ever come across, including Elliot Engel’s argument about the origins of the phrase “break a leg.”

Brewer’s does note, though, that “F.A.” is now frequently assumed to expand into the kind of phrase that you wouldn’t use in front of your mother. But while the “four-letter words” aren’t often used in what is still known as polite society—fascinatingly, Brewer’s notes under “Four-letter Words” that the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t admit the two most objectionable of these words into their pages until 1972—they’re still preferable to the actual origins of “sweet Fanny Adams.”

Humiliation, Round Three: The Nominations

Posted 7 August 2008 in by Catriona

And the nominations are in for round three of Humiliation.

I have never read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
Nick has never read Neuromancer by William Gibson.
Tim has never read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.
Leigh has never read Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
Wendy has never read The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
John has never read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
Matt has never read Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.

Let me know which ones you’ve read in the comments thread below.

I’ll calculate the final scores once we’ve all voted.

Humiliation, Round Three

Posted 5 August 2008 in by Catriona

By semi-popular demand!

(We were at a BBQ on the weekend, and Moby Dick came up in conversation, as we were all watching the sausages cook. A friend said, “Ooh, Moby Dick“ but I felt compelled to point out that, really, no one had read Moby Dick. Plus, didn’t Heathers name Moby Dick as a plausible catalyst for teen suicide?)

Nomination are open for Humiliation: Round Three, the round otherwise known as I’m Determined To Win One Of These, Even If It Means Humiliating Myself—After All, It’s My Blog.

A recap of the rules:

In the comment thread, nominate a book that you haven’t read but that you can reasonably assume everyone else has read.

Remember, you can only win by humiliating yourself by exposing a gap in your cultural knowledge. An obscure book won’t get anywhere.

As with last time, I’ll open a new thread after nominations close for us to vote on what we have and haven’t read.

Nominations will close—so we can keep the playlist comprehensible—on Thursday the 7th of August at 5.30 p.m.

Categories

Blogroll

Recent comments

Monthly Archive

2012
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
2011
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
August
October
November
December
2010
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
October
December
2009
January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December
2008
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December