Archive for October, 2012

Certifiable and Creepy



I’ve been good with new, 2-week books this year. I’ve diligently put them on hold as soon as they showed up on the local library’s database and waited patiently for them to become available. Or, I borrowed and read them even when I had eight other books due in five days. This October I really hit the jackpot, when two of the books I was really excited to read became available. I expected the first book, Where’d you go, Bernadette?to be clever, playful and funny. I found the  Maria Semple’s (the author) narrative style to be unique and interesting, at least until Bernadette disappears. I liked it more than I thought I would.

Which is not what I can say for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. After waiting for a couple of months with bated breath, while I won’t say I was disappointed, I found it a bit meh.

The principal characters are definitely deranged, although that hasn’t stopped me from liking a book in the past. I did not enjoy how uneasy the story, especially the ending, made me feel. I am not sure it qualifies as a serious psychological thriller, much less as noir, in the way that I am the Cheese or Silence of the Lambs do. As I was reading the book, I had a feeling that the author was challenging me to hazard a guess as to what would happen next (which was easy, too easy), and that she expected the reader to confidently come up with the wrong answer, at which point she would jump in and say ‘Ah-a!’. But this game didn’t work out very well, and the plot is only moderately clever and somewhat predictable.

I’ll still say I liked the book, and might even recommend it to some as a good book to read on the train.




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When you hear about a linguist writing a book on a distasteful word, you might think it’s going to be a certain kind of book. Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-word (2012) is as much about crude language, as it about the concept, or the modern phenomenon it stands for, and the values it expresses. Nunberg has been coy about using the word on the cover of his book (he is a lot more forward in the text), and I am going to take his lead and not use the word in question (we all know what it is).

Nunberg says, that far from being a vague vulgarity, the A-word has a very precise meaning, albeit one that has shifted in past few decades. The word first gained popularity during World War II, GI-speak for pompous superiors, and later became part of working-class vernacular to represent its contempt for middle-class pretentiousness. In the late 60s and throughout the 70s, the word was appropriated by the feminists to represent a man, a self-involved man who expertly exploited women. Today, it is…

a basic category of our everyday existence, our reflexive remonstrance for people who behave thoughtlessly or arrogantly on the job, in personal relationships, or just circulating in public.

The common denominator in its various shades of meanings is the notion of self-importance, a deluded sense of entitlement, and obtuseness. Such a person is by definition inconsiderate and insensitive. You might encounter him (or her) in the parking lot, while in line waiting for coffee (or a restroom cubicle), or in that thoughtless birder who steps in front of your binoculars to get his (or her) view. You might vocalize your feelings, sometimes by using sanitized versions of the A-word, or not. You might never have used the word yourself. But, as Nunberg puts it, “it’s one thing to refuse to let a word pass by your lips and another to exclude the concept it stands for from your mental life”. We know the concept, alright.

And what a useful concept it is.

“It sometimes seems as if every corner of our public discourse is riddled with people depicting one another as a******* and treating them accordingly, whether or not they actually use the word.”

So you’re either one of them or not. And if we ever encounter one, it is often the word of choice used to call them out. Ironic, that the very word we use to censure inconsiderate behavior is an indecent word with a vulgar meaning. Hardly considerate and well-mannered. Society imposes on each of us certain obligations to extend basic courtesy to most others. Does society give us the right to respond discourteously to people who disregard these obligations? Do we…

“have a right to treat a****** as a******* because the a******* have it coming”?

With shifts in lifestyle, unwritten social rules about using profanities, obscenities and vulgarities (in adult company) change every few years, as do the words themselves. Reading Nunberg has certainly conditioned me to be more aware of their usage – recently, while watching Foyle’s War, I was just a little bit shaken when DCS Foyle uttered the word ‘Goddamn’. To be clear, he was repeating another character in his characteristic deadpan manner. But, I wondered, were there any social sanctions imposed on users of profanities in the 1940s? Did ‘Goddamn’ figure in popular vocabulary? ‘Damn’ certainly wasn’t acceptable just a few years earlier.Officially, that is. Nunberg reports that David Selznick paid a $5,000 fine to include that memorable closing line in Gone with the Wind (1939), “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”.

Nunberg is a fine writer, and I enjoyed this book more than I expected to. Ascent of the A-word has a lot of political and cultural references, some from half a century ago, and while I won’t pretend that I got every single one of them, I’ll say that I found this book on insults rather educational.

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