In other book news, I happened to catch a reading of a very interesting book on the radio last night. Here in DC we have C-SPAN radio, and they occasionally air the audio from their “Book TV” broadcasts (Yes, radio in DC is pretty bad, and that’s why I end up listening to C-SPAN radio). The book was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche and his account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea was riveting. Also in the book: modern day pirates in Indonesia and the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to secure 95,000 miles of American coastline.
I first experienced ennui while solving a crossword puzzle -- no, not the actual feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction; rather, that’s when I first encountered the word. My adventures in a new tongue had begun, a strange language called Crosswordese, which consists of words used often by crossword makers but rarely experienced in the real world. (By the way, in Crosswordese, a crossword maker is known as a cruciverbalist.) Do you speak Crosswordese? When you lose a button from a shirt and can’t find the sewing kit, do you ask your partner where the etui is kept? Might you sometimes mischievously refer to margarine as oleo? Have you ever stridden into a church just to point out what a great apse it has? I started a life of crossword-solving as a teenager, almost three decades before my first novel, Black Chalk, was published, and I give credit to the world of puzzles for helping foster my interest in language. But crosswords are about more than accumulating words: crosswords are about having fun with words; crosswords are, in fact, about loving words. Among my favorite crossword clues are the following (answers at the bottom of this piece in case you want to solve): HIJKLMNO? (5 letters) Site of unexpected change? (4 letters) Where there’s a Will? (12 letters) See, crosswords encourage you to play with language. And, as a novelist, I get to play in the sandbox of words every day. But more than just aiding in a love of language, more than just encouraging you to have fun with words, crosswords also stimulate skills such as lateral thinking, humor, and synonym use. You could say that crosswords are the ideal training tool for a novelist. But the ways in which puzzles have affected my life as a novelist go deeper than the mere enjoyment of solving crosswords. In my early 20s, having discovered that I absolutely loathed Law (the subject of my college degree and subsequent training, and the area in which my parents wished me to work), I needed to find a job. I had known for some time that I wanted to be a novelist, but at that tender age I think I felt too young to write fiction. (And I know I felt considerably too scared.) So instead of turning to novels right away, I got a job in another area I loved: puzzles. And for years, I edited and compiled all sorts of puzzles -- crosswords, logic problems, word searches, sudoku, riddles, spot the difference...How could all of this fail to leach into my fiction? If Black Chalk reads like a puzzle (and many reviewers have stated as much) then it is as much because of my work in that field as it is because I enjoy challenging myself -- I really do like tormenting myself with plot problems, it seems. As a writer you sit on your own in a small room for a very long time -- and one of the ways I like to keep myself entertained, it turns out, is by constantly pivoting and twisting my plots like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube until I come across a pattern I find particularly pleasing. It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible. Because, let’s face it, what better way is there than solving puzzles to stave off the feeling of…I’m stumbling for the right word here…It’s something like boredom…Dammit, I’m supposed to be good at synonyms…Ah, that’s it: ennui. ⅄∀M∀H⊥∀H ƎNN∀ ؛∀ℲOS ؛(¡O oʇ\ᄅ H) ᴚƎ⊥∀M :sɹǝʍsu∀ Image Credit: Flickr/Chip Griffin
India's economy is growing at a tremendous clip with its expanding, highly educated workforce competing for jobs with Western economies. Pakistan, whose President-General is allied with the U.S., in many ways has become a crucial partner (and some say a liability) in America's adventures and misadventures overseas since 9/11. Both countries have made the world nervous with nuclear posturing over the last decade or so. So it is natural that on the sixtieth anniversary of both countries' creation via bloody partition, a number of books have recently been published chronicling this pivotal moment in recent history. I've listed five of these books on the birth of Pakistan below (Please use the comments to let us know about any I've missed.)Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann - New Yorker review; excerptIndia After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha - San Francisco Chronicle reviewThe Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future by Martha C. Nussbaum - NYRB review; excerpt (pdf)Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India by Stanley Wolpert - Times of India reviewThe Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan - The Economist review; excerptThe Great Partition and Indian Summer seem to be getting the most press, with both being discussed in a recent Slate article.
The CS Monitor gives us some tidy capsule reviews of the finalists for the National Book Award in the fiction category. These should get us all up to speed. And also check out Dan Wickett's interview with the book bloggers, and not just because I'm one of the interviewees. There's some good stuff in there. Have a good weekend.
Millions contributor Ben penned a post in February about a documentary called Operation Homecoming about the National Endowment of the Arts' (NEA) program of the same name which is designed to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan put their experiences into words. (One participant in the program was Brian Turner whose book of poetry Here, Bullet was reviewed here a few months back.)As was noted in a comment on the original post, Operation Homecoming is also going to be covered as part of a PBS package called America at a Crossroads. That series is set to air beginning this weekend. The 11-part, six-night series covers "the war on terrorism, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan' the experience of American troops serving abroad, the struggle for balance within the Muslim world, and global perspectives on America's role overseas." The Operation Homecoming installment airs Monday at 10pm (check your local listings, of course.)
The other day I found a fascinating blog devoted to words, linguistics, languages and other related topics called Languagehat. I have been meaning to mention it for a while, and today I have good reason to. I don't often talk about reference books on The Millions even though I use them every day. Lucky for us, Languaghat keeps track of these sorts of things. Today, he posts links to interesting reviews of new editions of two popular reference books, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.