Monthly Archives: January 2012

Anything Too Stupid to be Said…

is sung, at least according to Voltaire. “But,” I would add, “it isn’t sung by Stephen Merritt.”

I discovered the many worlds of Stephen Merritt in a rather roundabout way. Having become completely enthralled with Lemony Snicket’s dark, dire, and cleverly written “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, when I discovered that the audiobooks, at least the first few, were read by Tim Curry, I couldn’t help myself, and began at The Bad Beginning (which is a very good bad place to start). But the first recording began not with the story, but with a song—a dark, accordian-lurching waltz sung by an equally dark, melancholy voice, low and dead-eyed, forewarning the horrors of Count Olaf and his henchmen. (“You might be thinking what a romp this is, but wait till you meet his accomplices…”)

Extremes are a funny thing. For instance, there are some animals that are just so homely that they’re completely endearing. Likewise, the Snicket books are so gloomy and macabre that they’re hilarious and delightful—this is also true in the world of Stephen Merritt. Under the guise of The Gothic Archies for the Snicket books, he wrote a dreary, depressing tune for each book filled with tales of the terrible things to come, and about what a horrible world it is.

Lots of people have done this. Lots of people sing depressing songs about what a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad world it is. But they’re not funny. What makes Merritt’s lyrics hilarious is his wordplay, his juxtapositions of strange words and rhymes perched jauntily on top of dreary ukulele melodies that lurch under the weight of the awfulness to come. Anyone who can rhyme “accomplices” so cheerily and then fall into a folk song-y cadence of “run, run, run, run, or die, die, die, die die…” is a delightful genius in my books.

All thirteen songs from the Snicket series have been since compiled onto a standalone disc, The Tragic Treasury. But to my delight, I discovered that Stephen Merritt had yet another group, a “real” group, The Magnetic Fields, that had been recording long before Snicket and the Archies even existed. I picked up the “i” recording, more than a little nervous that it would be much more mainstream than the Archies. But not to worry… the same melancholy tunes, Merritt’s same melancholy voice, the same deadpan humor and despondency. A little more mature in content than the Archies in places, but all the same beautiful, terrible tales of love and lost love and fanciful desires. “I wish I had an evil twin, running round doing people in…”

There is laughter and mischief mixed in there with all the melancholy. And the world can be a very scary place—a little chuckle in between can take the edge off just a bit.

Categories: Audiobooks, From the Lips, In the Ears, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Abridged Over Troubled Waters (or, The Cheese Stands Alone)

I once picked up the audiobook of Chuck Klosterman’s “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.” I was hopeful. First of all, it had been recommended by a friend, and secondly, it was read/performed  by the author. (I always like hearing an author’s inflections while reading their own words.) And so it began, with Klosterman announcing the title of the book, the fact that he was reading it, and then (gasp!) that it was abridged. What?

I’ve never understood the need for abridged versions of anything, really. Either you read the whole book, or you get the Cliff’s Notes version of it—sort of an all or “almost-nothing” version of the text. But to read sort of most of a book? Almost? Without knowing what you’re missing?

When I was young, swiss cheese perplexed me. I honestly remember wondering why someone would cut holes out of perfectly good cheese. (I’m fairly certain this was influenced by my experiences of baking Christmas cookies.) Of course I am older and wiser now, and can enjoy swiss cheese without feeling short-changed, but I still harbor great resentment when it comes to abridged texts. I was eleven or twelve when I first read The Count of Monte Cristo—in its entirety. (And oh, what beautiful books they were—two volumes for just that novel alone, red textured covers with gold writing, printed in 1902, part of a 30-volume complete Dumas collection. The Three Musketeers volume in the collection still had some uncut page signatures. Delicious. However, I digress.) The point being that yes, there are sections of books of that genre and/or time period that ramble on a bit, describing things at great length that perhaps aren’t exactly crucial for plot development. But they are part of the book, and to chop out parts is an editor’s job before a work is printed, not to be cut out afterward!

Back to the cocoa puffs:  Confusion set in as to exactly why Klosterman’s book needed abridging in the first place. After all, it’s not as if it’s some aged, mammoth encyclopedic text that needs to be shortened for the modern attention span. I listened to a few chapters and was vaguely amused, but I couldn’t get past it. I was missing details—real words, not just gas bubbles. I was compelled to pop the disc out and give up. My overwhelming curiosity about what I was missing just got the better of me. If I ever pick the real book up to read, I will read the whole thing.

The cheese stands alone.

Categories: Audiobooks, On the Page | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

The OED: Possibly the Funniest/Saddest Read Ever

“This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel…”
– Horace Walpole

Depending on your view of the glass being half full or half empty, the Oxford English Dictionary could be either the funniest or saddest collection of words in existence. I suppose it depends on the order in which you read it. Having not read the entire work myself, I can’t say for certain, but I stumbled upon a book some time ago that has convinced me it’s quite the comical thing.

“Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” is Ammon Shea’s recounted adventure of reading the OED from cover to cover—all 150 pounds and twenty volumes of it. It’s remarkable. It’s death-defying. And, most importantly, it’s hilarious.

Shea’s book is divided into 26 chapters, A-Z, each chapter beginning with a description of his current emotional and physical state during the mammoth undertaking, followed by short commentaries on a handful of words beginning with the chapter’s alphabet letter. If you read the book in alphabetical order (which you don’t necessarily need to do), you’ll follow along with his descent from exuberance into just a little madness, eye strain, backache, and his eventual return to pleasure upon reaching the final pages.

As one could expect, the experience became completely surreal at times, with words and sanity losing context in the real world—somewhat like watching any more than five episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a row.

Shea’s book is such a fun read, and his short asides on words often made me laugh out loud, which created some interesting complications when reading excerpts to friends. The peculiarities he chose to share are delightful and odd and enlightening. There are words we use today that we would never think to connect with their origins. And there are those I simply fell in love with, even though I can’t bring myself to use them casually in conversation. It’s where I fell in love with “epizeuksis,” and how I found out that “petrichor” describes the smell of rain on the ground.

True, Shea’s is an abridged adventure through the OED, but it’s a fantastic one, and it will do for now. Some things can get away with being abridged. Others cannot. More on that later.

Categories: From the Lips, In the Lexicon, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What to Read in 2012: A Good Start

Even just a few days into the Aardvark’s existence, I was asked, “What should I read in 2012?” Where to begin? (We do read a lot of books here.)

For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention just two books (well, one is a trilogy), that I was enormously glad I read last year and can’t stop recommending to people.

Fiction for good story

The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins). Is there a word for “fear of trends?” I can’t seem to find it (let me know if you do), but I was deeply skeptical about picking up such popular books. However, I was deliciously surprised and impressed. It has been a very, very long time since I’ve encountered such a strong female protagonist in Young Adult fiction. Courage, harsh conditions, battles, politics, humanity, compassion, etc. (Yes, this is YA fiction—I could hardly believe it myself.)  I was describing it to a friend, and surmised that it’s somewhat similar to the battle school children of Ender’s Game, only with a female lead. (And if you haven’t read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, you should really do that, too. I re-read that series in 2011, if that counts.)

Non-fiction for learning

Your Money or Your Life (Vicki Robin). A few years ago I’d read the first edition of this, originally published in 1992. It was updated in 2008, and I was compelled to read it to see what they’d added. There are a lot of money books out there. What make this one good isn’t just how it guides you in finding out how you’re actually earning or spending your money, although it does that in practical, objective exercises. What makes it great is that it looks at what money really is and is used for, defining money (spoiler alert) as “something you trade your life energy for.” Then it helps you discover what you’re doing with yours. Robin steps back to non-monetary questions such as “What do you value in life?” and “Are you spending your money in ways that reflect what you value?” which are really at the root of anyone’s financial situation, regardless of how much you have (or don’t). Whether you do the more major tracking exercises they recommend or not, it’s fairly revelatory even just for the reading. It definitely triggered a few epiphanies for me.

So there’s the start of “books we love.” There are millions of books out there. Sadly, a large number of them are not that great. Some are really good. Some are great. Even fewer are those that are crafted so well we feel compelled to tell everyone we know about them.

We’d love to hear which books fall into that last category for you (mostly because we’d love to read them, too).

Categories: On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moped… Motorcycle? Motel?

There’s a review on The New York Times.com today about Wordnik, a site aiming to be to dictionaries what Wikipedia is to encyclopedias, providing more up-to-date, open-sourced information than an official hard copy publication. Just one little thing—it appears there’s no vetting process for the veracity of the information you’re getting. However, the site appears to be in trustworthy hands. The founder of Wordnik, Erin McKean, was previously a principal editor for the New Oxford English Dictionary. If there are better credentials to be had for a project like this, I don’t know what they’d be.

The home page mimics Google’s sparse layout, even to the inclusion of the “I always feel lucky” button, and the site provides a spread of information on your search. What it’s pulling from, though, are definitions and usages from all over the web, and there’s no real guarantee that the usages are correct. There are obviously complex algorithms pulling the information, but we all know what a finicky thing language is, and how many of us don’t use it correctly (the search algorithm even pulls Twitter content). Obviously, intelligent human beings are programming the algorithms to be as exacting and content-aware as possible, but to not have  human intuition or qualified experts involved in vetting the information would make me a little nervous if I was writing a quality term paper.

A search on Wordnik for one of my favorite words, defenestration, brings up a nice, clean layout (much more aesthetically pleasing than the same search on Dictionary.com), and the source material it’s pulled for definitions seems trustworthy (and/or funny, like the third usage in Wiktionary), but some of the usages aren’t really helpful.

There are plans in the future for having the site be gifted enough to recommend books you might like, and there are evidently new business partnerships coming in the near future (though I hope they don’t muck up their nice clean layout with a bunch of ads).

So for now, I think I’ll stick to verifiable sources for the serious stuff, but the site has fun possibilities, if only just for the sake of curiosity. And we’re always curious.

Categories: In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Weltschmertz (and a Happy New Year to you, too)

Weltzschmertz: Fun word to say, terrible lifestyle choice. It translates directly from German as “world weariness,” and is defined here as “sorrow that one feels and accepts as one’s necessary portion in life; sentimental pessimism.” Egads. You know what that looks like? It’s a solemn kid who grows up without laughter in a grim, dust-coated house, who’s told that he shouldn’t even bother looking outside because it’s grim and dusty everywhere else, too, and that’s just how life is. It’s Eeyore, except less cute and purple and fuzzy. What a way to live.

In presenting a somewhat shinier alternative, I have to admit to a terribly embarrassing guilty pleasure: a couple of years ago I ran across the Disney movie Pollyanna (1960, Hayley Mills) while flicking through tv channels, and I was fairly horrified to discover that the more I watched it, the more I liked it. (My ego compels me to tell you here that Fight Club ranks high on my top-five favorite movie list, just to retain some semblance of credibility with you.) But there’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln in Pollyanna (though in truth actually written by director David Swift) that really struck me:

“If you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.”

And you know, I believe it. You’ll find it in yourself. You’ll find it in everyone around you. You’ll find whatever you’re looking for, and looking through grime-colored glasses is a choice. Yes, Pollyanna is a Disney movie. And I know the word “optimistic” is often considered a synonym for “ignorant.” But her good-seeking game didn’t stem from some loopy, mindless dementia that denied reality—her kind of optimism took guts. (You try finding a way to confront the political and religious leadership in your life, not to mention your own family, and just see if that doesn’t require guts, results notwithstanding.)

There is actually a very similar (and verified) quote of Lincoln’s, in which he says, “People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And so, for this new year, I wish you Pollyanna’s guts—to look purposely for the good in and around you. Not to pretend away the very real, terrible and tragic things that we keep doing to each other on varying scales. (And by all means, let’s try not to add to them.) But just don’t settle for only seeing those things.

Bah, weltschmertz. Who needs it?

Categories: From the Lips, In the Lexicon, Movies | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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