Duck Duck Book

57 – a recommendation
11.3.2008, 7:34 pm
Filed under: literature, misc.

Since you’re reading this, I’m fairly sure you’re interested in books and information — and more particularly, that you appreciate recommendations about what to read next or thoughts about why a book, an article, or a film is interesting, how it connects to the rest of the world of literature, what it promises, and whether these promises are delivered on. You must, or why would you be reading Duck Duck Book? And so. I am pleased to recommend that you visit another couple of places where you can get suggestions about what to read and why: Multnomah County Library’s two new blogs, News Notes and An Embarrassment of Riches.

(Before I get one step further I must disclaim: as you know I work at Multnomah County Library as a reference librarian. So I’m biased in favor of these two blogs. And further, I am one of the authors of News Notes, which makes me even more biased in its favor. Now that I have confessed, I will go on to describe the joys of reading about reading in these particular spots, and you may judge the size of the grain of salt you need to take with my enthusiasm.)

News Notes recommends books and other diversions inspired by current news stories — sometimes providing an avenue for background research or suggesting reading that can help you put the news in context — and sometimes offering more of a stream-of-consciousness beginning with a bit of news, and moving on to whatever comes next in the mind of a librarian.

An Embarrassment of Riches is something of a free-for-all — it opens a little window into the minds of dozens of library staff people who share intelligent observations about a broad range of literature. As its authors say, An Embarrassment of Riches alerts readers to “the best of what the library has to offer.”

Take a look at both; my guess is that you’ll find some surprises.


50 – ode less travelled
01.1.2008, 6:21 pm
Filed under: literature

The ode less travelled : unlocking the poet within / Stephen Fry.
New York : Gotham Books, 2006.
[MCL call number: 808.1 F947o 2006; eight copies, no holds]

I have never been a fan of poetry.  I consider this to be a major personal flaw, but it is one that has been difficult for me to overcome.  When I say that I dislike poetry, what I mean is that I don’t enjoy reading it.  I do enjoy poetry as a performance art; or at least I do when it is above the usual level of coffee shop open mic readings.  But I’ve experimented a little bit, and even when I try reading the exact same poems I have enjoyed in performance, I usually find them impenetrable, or even stultifying. 

This is not because I am indifferent to the beauty of language.  Actually, I find great pleasure in reading a well-formed phrase, sentence, argument, or speech; and I am often quite irritated with awkwardly or impatiently written language.  I am interested in words, their meanings, their use, and their quirks.  I like the feel of speaking, or even thinking, certain words and phrases.  And, perhaps most significantly, I am unhappy when I am not spending at least a bit of each day writing, or thinking about what I will write, or reading something I am planning to write about.  But still, I do not like poetry.  Not only do I dislike reading it, but I suspect that the majority of published poetry is actually crap and not worth anyone’s time.  I say “I suspect” because as I believe I have made clear, I don’t read much poetry and so I am hardly eligible to judge the whole corpus of poetic publishing.

However, I recently came across Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, and saw that it might be a useful tool to help to get over my prejudices regarding poetry.  In his foreword, Fry does not promise to show his readers how to enjoy reading poetry; in fact, he specifically states that his purpose is not to teach poetry appreciation, but instead to instruct in the craft of poetry writing.  But even though it was so clearly not written with my need in mind, I read the book with an earnest desire to take Fry’s tuition.  I paid attention to his basic rule to read every poem out loud (or at least mouth the words to myself), I read his introductions to the various forms, I patiently navigated the many examples of great and terrible poetry he uses to illustrate the history of verse, and I dutifully wrote lines and couplets and eventually whole little stanzas, paying attention to stress and even weaving in rhymes. 

And, while it is true that I managed to make some compositional effort of my own (a selection of my awkward attempts is below) the balance of what I took from the experience of reading the book is heavily weighted towards a greater understanding of the poetic arts, rather than any significant increase in my own technical mastery of them.  Fry did not make a poet of me, but his instructive journey through the major English language poetic forms, their history, and their use, did give me the tools I need to make a more earnest effort to enjoy reading a bit of poetry, should the need arise in the future.

So, I recommend The Ode Less Travelled to readers like me who have trouble with the challenges of reading poetry, or of appreciating it in a satisfying way.  The book will also be useful for budding poets who are seeking an introduction to meter, rhyme, and form, or even as a kind of encyclopedia of the history and structure of English poetry.  But also it is beautifully written, full of engaging illustrative examples, and very funny while still being quite serious.

 * * *

My poetic genius allowed me, with the additional benefit of Fry’s helpful instruction, to come up with such gems as:

Books are for use, librarians all say. 


The laundry flaps on the line in the yard.
I hear the wind rustling through the trees. 

and better still:

Detective Chief Inspector Foyle
wishes he could do more
to help the effort of the war.
It seems he does not know
the good he does each day and night
for Hastings and England
by continuing just to be
as he has always been.

46 – life turns man up and down
06.11.2007, 8:01 am
Filed under: literature

Life turns man up and down : high life, useful advice, and mad English : African market literature / selected and introduced by Kurt Thometz.
New York : Pantheon Books, c2001.
[MCL call number: 820.8 L722 2001; two copies, no holds]

If you had access to a time machine and were able to visit the great market town of Onitsha, Nigeria sometime between the Second World War and the late 1960s, you would have seen for sale a wide array of locally written and produced pamphlets and short books: instructional texts and self-help guides, romances, historical accounts of important events, and cautionary tales.  These pamphlets were written and published locally, and the entertainment and information they provide is tailored to a community of readers in a society where widespread literacy was a new phenomenon. Kurt Thometz has collected 18 pamphlets (three are complete; the remainder are excerpts) together for readers who do not have access either to a time machine or the rare library of African market literature. 

The collection is readable for many reasons — as a document of history, for instruction in morals and good conduct, as an exercise in understanding Nigerian culture, or simply as entertainment.  The pamphlets are perhaps most notable for the rich and striking descriptive language they employ — some of this beauty of language has no doubt to do with the fact that Nigerian English is its own creature, with vocabulary, syntax, rhythms, and literary conventions distinct from those of other forms of English.  But it also seems likely that the newness of the enterprise of publishing popular literature in Onitsha had its effect on pamphlet language.  This awkwardly elegant English is evident in titles:

  • Money Hard to Get but Easy to Spend (page 105)
  • How to Avoid Corner Corner Love and Win Good Love From Girls (page 131)
  • Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven (page 125)
  • Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away (page 151)

in front matter:

  • “The Adventures of The Four Stars dedicated to Samuel A. Okponku And International guy whom I chance to meet during the brief writing.  He says: ‘A quittes never wins, a winner never quiter’. That is to say, ‘Once a Radical Star, always a Star.'” (page 245)
  • “This very short but highly amusing drama called ‘The Statements of Hitler Before The World War’ is intended to entertain you much anywhere you may be: whether in office, or market, or workshop or house or in journey.” (page 295)

and of course in text:

  • “The breakneck speed, was terrific.  It was a bottle neck type of a run, rearing the fatal full-stop of the speedometre.” (in Rosemary and the Taxi Driver, page 21)
  • “Since the world has broken into pieces, truth is not said again.  If you ask a little boy a question, he will not tell you the truth, instead he tells you lies.  The same thing with little girls.  When little boys and girls could give up the truth, then imagine the degree of lies with grown ups.” (in Man Has No Rest in His Life, page 51)
  • “You could see a parcel on the street and call it a bundle of money, when you open it, it becomes a box of sickness and bad luck.” (in No Condition is Permanent, page 82)

But beyond the special qualities of Onitsha market literature English, the pamphlets collected here are just good, and varied, reading: a play about Hitler on the eve of World War II, a highly erotic novella about a woman gone wrong, a polemic against drinking in bars, a spiritual tract advising caution in all aspects of life (for “things are not what they seem, and life you see, is nothing but an empty dream”), and a Wild West-style adventure story are among the contents.  Life Turns Man Up and Down is the kind of book you should have handy to read on your bus commute, at the beach on a summer weekend, or in bed before you go to sleep.  Its contents are doom-saying and optimistic, sober and ridiculous, humorous and thoughtful.

A prefatory chapter provides context for the collection with a description of the Onitsha market, a terse introduction to 20th century Nigerian political history, an account of the legacy of traditional and international slavery, a brief discussion of Nigerian English, and finally an account of the beginnings of Ontisha’s popular publishing industry.  Thometz’s afterword explains the provenance of the particular pamphlets reproduced in the book, and his own interest in the study of this body of literature.  There is no index, but the text is followed by a reader’s guide to the study of Nigerian market literature, and a bibliography of the works in the anthology.

31 – vindication
04.12.2006, 12:44 pm
Filed under: history & geography, literature

Vindication : a life of Mary Wollstonecraft / Lyndall Gordon. 
New York : HarperCollins, c2005.
[MCL call number: B-Wo836g 2005; eight copies, no holds]

Mary Wollstonecraft is famous for her book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, first published in 1792, but still in print and widely read in college women's studies classes even today.   Modern readers often remark that it is surprising how modern Wollstonecraft's ideas seem — quickly summed up, Wollstonecraft's argument in Vindication of Rights of Woman is that if we give women the opportunity to be whole people (an opportunity that they've never had but deserve), everything will work better for everyone. 

Think on this thesis for a minute, and consider what it might be like to be a woman who held such views in late 1700s England.

Then take note of some of the other features of Wollstonecraft's life:  When she was in her twenties, Wollstonecraft and her sister started a school for girls, with the central principle that education is about opening minds, encouraging questions, and loving your pupils instead of about rote memorization or the inculcation of order and respect for hierarchy.  Then she wrote a book about educating girls.  She went to Paris just at the time when the French Revolution was turning a bit sour and a lot bloody, and stayed even though she had to learn French and find a way to escape being taken to the guillotine for being English.  She wrote a book about this too.  She made a journey to Scandinavia, with her infant daughter on a mission to resolve a murky business matter for her lover.  She wrote a book inspired by this journey as well.

Wollstonecraft was famous for her writing, knew some of the most influential intellectuals of her time, and managed to live a life largely defined by her own interests and desires, despite the obstacles.  Her story is fascinating, and yet it is not well known. 

There are many reasons to read Vindication in particular.  It is a well-researched and thorough analysis of an interesting woman's story.  Gordon treats Wollstonecraft's life in light of her feminism, her commitment to her family, her vocation as a teacher, and above all, her passion to be, in her words "the first of a new genus" — a compassionate, creative, intellectually vital person determined to live as much on her own terms as possible.  Vindication is long, but I found myself relishing the sheer bigness of the story, and I was sorry to reach the end, even after 450 pages.  Read it.

28 – girl sleuth
01.2.2006, 5:03 pm
Filed under: literature

Girl sleuth : Nancy Drew and the women who created her / Melanie Rehak. 
Orlando : Harcourt, c2005.
[call number: 813.5 R345g 2005; 12 copies, no holds]

Just about 100 years ago, children’s author Edward Stratemeyer began a small empire based on a brilliant business notion.  He developed ideas for children’s book series, wrote plot outlines for each story, and (this is the wickedly brilliant bit) contracted the writing to other authors.  Stratemeyer retained rights to the characters, plot, stories, and pseudonyms under which the books were written, developed relationships with several publishing houses, and collected all the royalties for the series.  The entire business was operated under a cloak of secrecy so that little girls and boys would think the books’ stated authors were real people, and more importantly so that Edward Stratemeyer could control the management of the series and maximize his own profits.  By the 1920s he was a millionaire, and a 1926 survey reported that 98% of children asked about their favorite book named a Stratemeyer title. 

In 1929 Stratemeyer contracted the first three books in a new series with author Mildred A. Wirt, who had previously written books for his Ruth Fielding series.  The new series starred a teen-aged detective named Nancy Drew — a brilliant, level-headed girl, a natural leader with a head for a mystery.  Girl Sleuth is the story of Nancy Drew, her creators and authors (writing under the name “Carolyn Keene”), and the impact she has had on the publishing industry.  A bit of attention is also paid to Nancy Drew’s impact on American girlhood and on the feminist movements of the 1960s and later.

Girl Sleuth takes two of the most prolific “Carolyn Keenes” as its main characters: Mildred A. Wirt and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Edward’s daughter, who inherited the Syndicate on his death shortly after the first Nancy Drew books were published in 1930.  Although Wirt and Adams were not the only authors to write Nancy Drew books, they were arguably the most influential.  Wirt was the first author and forged the structure of the stories and shaped Nancy’s character and environment; Adams took over writing the Nancy Drew stories in the mid 1950s and acted as the public face of the pseudonym Carolyn Keene from the 1960s until her death in 1982.

Wirt’s and Adams’s lives and careers are the main thread of Rehak’s narrative, and the book provides a fairly detailed biography of each woman, with a discussion of their working relationship and each of their involvement in the creation and production of the Nancy Drew books, the history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and the development of Nancy Drew the character and the series over the years.  Although Rehak’s introduction gushes rather appallingly about Nancy and what she has meant to the generations of girls who read about her, the book as a whole is a rational, fascinating account and reads easily.

A thorough section of endnotes, a brief bibliography, and an excellent index follow the text.

26 – elements of style
11.22.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: literature

The elements of style / by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White ; illustrated by Maira Kalman.
New York : Penguin Press, 2005.
[MCL call number: 808.042 S927ei 2005; 21 copies, one hold]

Here is the classic manual of style, written for use in the United States. No doubt most of you have not only heard of this book but have used it, and perhaps you’re wondering why I think it’s urgent to inform you of its importance. The Elements of Style is a classic, it’s true, and among people who enjoy writing or who have been made to learn to write it needs no introduction.

But this particular edition is gracefully enhanced with paintings by the talented children’s book author and illustrator Maira Kalman. Kalman’s paintings bring Strunk & White’s usage examples to life in unexpected ways. For example: “Overly, muchly, thusly” (page 110, an ostentatious lighthouse) “Bread and butter was all she served” (page 20, a nurse and two children sitting down to a meal, with some lovely modern paintings in the background), “None of us is perfect” (page 19, a room full of people).

If you still need convincing that this is a great idea, take a peek at some of Kalman’s earlier triumphs — these include Stay Up Late, with words (from the song) by David Byrne (New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Viking Kestrel, 1987) and Chicken Soup, Boots (New York, N.Y. : Penguin Books, c1993), a fanciful exploration of the world of the jobs that adults have. You can look at illustrations from many of Kalman’s books at her website.

21 – politics and the english language
07.7.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: articles, language, literature

"Politics and the English language" / George Orwell, from volume 4 of the book: The collected essays, journalism, and letters of George Orwell / Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus.
New York, Harcourt, Brace & World [1968].
[MCL call number: 828 O79c; two copies (of volume 4), no holds — ask the library staff for help if you want to put volume four on hold, there’s a trick to it]

Everyone, it seems, complains about the decline of the English language.  Careless writers continually split infinitives, they put prepositions at the ends of clauses, they use too many acronyms, they indulge themselves with jargon, and in general they express themselves in ways that are, well, not totally easy to understand.  It's unconscionable.  At this very moment, parents and politicians and teachers and writers of newspaper editorials and the clergy are complaining bitterly about the sad state of our poor language — authority figures everywhere are wringing their hands.

But George Orwell, himself famous for clear, expressive prose, is here to do something about it.  (Actually, he was on the job quite a long time ago, as this essay was first published in 1946.)  What, indeed, is really wrong with the way people write?  As Orwell explains:

"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

Orwell considers five passages taken from contemporary (c. 1946) writing, and provides a brief analysis of the different kinds of problems he sees in these five passages and in writing in general.  Orwell's brief but effective plunge into the wilds of messy, confusing prose is instructional, amusing but also sobering, and generally a very good idea for anyone who plans to write anything explaining anything to anyone ever. 

So you can see I recommend it. 

N.b.: This essay was originally printed in the magazine Horizon (April 1946).  Multnomah County Library has back issues of Horizon, but not this one.  "Politics and the English Language" has been reprinted in several other volumes of Orwell's work, including the following: A Collection of Essays (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1954), Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays (San Diego : Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, [1984], c1950), and The Orwell Reader (New York, Harcourt, Brace [1956]).

It is also available online in full text in several places (though I haven't checked through them to see if they're all complete and good good): 1, 2, 3, 4, and there is a Russian translation.