Posted by: Sara Jean | May 16, 2010

Anyone Up for Some Fried Enema?

I stumbled across this article from the New York Times and it brought joy to my heart.

Apparently, the Chinese government has been trying to eliminate “Chinglish”–the often humorous result of Chinese being sloppily translated into English–from its signs, menus, and other written materials in preparation for Expo 2010. According to the article, an organization called the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use has corrected more than 10,000 public signs in Shanghai.

Apparently, Chinglish can be blamed on a combination of human error, bad translation software, and the Chinese language itself, which can sound quirky to the English ear. My favorite example of the latter tendency is a “Keep off the grass” sign that reads, “Don’t Hurt Me. I Am Afraid of Pain.”

I’ve never been to China, but I think it would be sad to lose Chinglish–and its many linguistic cousins around the world–altogether. Sometimes something “wrong” bring new meaning to an old, familiar sentiment. Sometimes it’s just good for a giggle.

(For more giggles, check out this slide show, also from the NY Times.)

Posted by: Sara Jean | May 10, 2010

It’s Still Early, or How I Learned to Love a Game

Every spring, I welcome baseball back into my life after the long, seemingly endless winter hiatus, during which I’m forced to watch football (of all things). I love baseball. If I could, I’d watch every Seattle Mariners game on television–or better yet, in person (if that wouldn’t send me to the poorhouse). As it stands, I don’t subscribe to cable television, which means I’m forced to huddle close to my computer screen every evening, pushing the reload button on the ESPN website and imagining what must be happening as the pitch count slowly changes or the second and third out are called.

Being a Mariners fan is not exactly the same as being a Yankees or Red Sox fan. We don’t have the long, storied past full of legendary players and World Series titles. We have this:

"The Double": 1995 ALDS


I was in high school in 1995, and up to that point, had never really shown an interest in sports. I was more of a bookworm–I know, you’d never guess–and sports were linked in my mind with people who enjoyed traveling in RVs and watching Married…With Children. But something about those Mariners (and I won’t lie, it could have been their muscular forearms) drew me in, and I’ve never looked back.

In college, I wrote my senior thesis on baseball literature. This means I’ve read about baseball a lot. I can honestly say, the sport probably gets a bit more literary attention than it deserves. That said, I take pleasure in reading about baseball because it reminds me that these two seemingly distant passions of mine don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, as I discuss at length in my thesis, classic literary themes intertwine quite neatly with the game, making it the perfect setting for novels, poems, and philosophical essays.

The Celebrant, by Eric Rolfe Greenberg, turned out to be my favorite of all the novels I read for my thesis. I’d never heard of it, but read it on the recommendation of my thesis adviser, and loved it immediately. Like a lot of baseball novels (Shoeless Joe comes to mind), it’s a fictional account of real people. Like Shoeless Joe, it tells the story of a baseball hero you might not have heard of, in this case early twentieth century pitcher Christy Mathewson, from the perspective of a baseball fan. It’s beautifully written, and even if you don’t like baseball, it provides a very rich portrait of old New York–particularly Jewish New York–during the 1910s and 1920s.

On my long list of books to read in the next year is The Universal Baseball Association, by Robert Coover. I don’t know much about it, but according to an interview with NYU president John Sexton on an episode of Bill Moyers Journal, it’s the best baseball novel ever written. Sexton teaches a class at NYU called “Baseball as a Road to God,” so he should know.

Posted by: Sara Jean | March 17, 2010

The Great Language Debate

I’ve been something of a grammar snob since seventh grade, when I learned what prepositions were and how to diagram sentences like a pro. This sort of thing came pretty easily to me. I’ve always liked studying languages, and even now I generally prefer editing other folks’ writing to writing things myself.

In college I was (ahem) sort of proud of being nerdy about grammar. It was a game I played with friends, pointing out other people’s mistakes and correcting them. It felt like a secret language–the language of nouns and verbs and participles and gerunds and predicate nominatives–that only a select few were privy to.

My view on the topic of grammar has shifted quite a bit since then, mostly because with the perspective of history, it’s easy to see that language  is something that shifts over time and constantly evolves. There are certainly a lot of things influencing  language in these modern times, but hasn’t that always been the case? After all, Shakespeare was able to change the English language with every play he wrote.

That said, it does pain me to see things like C U l8r in a text message. (It’s hard to say whether that’s because of the slaughter of the English language or because it makes me feel old). However, I don’t think text messaging makes people bad spellers. Bad spellers are born bad spellers and there’s not much that can be done about it, especially because English has virtually no rules that can be consistently applied to words to make them more intuitively spelled. I do like Twitter, because the brief nature of the messages forces the writer to be creative and succinct.

By the way, this article from the British newspaper The Independent is what got me thinking about all of this. The author sums up everything very nicely.

Posted by: Sara Jean | February 25, 2010

A Little Gem in the Podcast World

I have a plug for my favorite podcast. (Full disclosure: I only listen to about three.) Public radio reporter Nate DiMeo’s The Memory Palace is a series of short history lessons, usually about people you might have heard of already. Even if you know your history, though,–and I don’t–you’ll be surprised at the things you’ll learn from these brief and enlightening sojourns into history. For instance, there’s one episode about the death of Edgar Allan Poe, another about John Wilkes Booth’s brother (also an actor, but not an assassin, as it turns out). Each one is simply read by DiMeo, with music as the only soundtrack, but DiMeo is a great writer, and I’m always completely mesmerized as the story unfolds.

Posted by: Sara Jean | February 20, 2010

OK, I’m a Week Late, But Happy Valentine’s Day!

When I was single, I didn’t really like Valentine’s Day all that much–for obvious reasons. Now that I’m not single, I still don’t really love it, at least not as much as its purpose demands. The Valentine haters are right. It’s a Hallmark holiday.

But still, it’s fun to think about all those great works of art inspired by love. I meant to think about some of them a week ago, when it was actually Valentine’s Day. On the day in question, though, I was busy walking around the Fremont  Market looking for a coat rack, and afterward I was busy preparing for Lent by consuming lots and lots of red meat (and red wine). Even with the day off for Presidents’ Day this left practically no room for contemplating love-related literature.

Now I’ve got loads of time, though. So here goes…

First of all, trying to narrow down the best words about love is like trying to narrow down the best Beatles song. It’s pretty much an impossible task. However, everyone has her favorite book, song, or poem about love. We need such things because love fills us up and we don’t know what to do with it, so we either make our own creations (if we’re lucky enough to possess the talent for it) or borrow from others. These are just some of my favorites, but I could truly go on and on.

William Butler Yeats wrote some of the best love poems of all time. If you read them, it helps to know that he proposed to the same woman five times–and was rejected five times. Such pathos, such longing. It breaks your heart again and again.

Here’s one of my favorites (and one of the most famous).

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. (1899)

Here’s another:

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars. (1892)

One of my favorite love songs is America, by Simon and Garfunkel. You can enjoy it below:

It’s not really about love, but that’s what I like about it. It’s more about being in love, and how love makes you full of hope and full of sadness at the same time. The lyrics remind me of all those silences spent with loved ones: in the car, on the bus, sitting on the couch reading, even lying next to each other before sleep comes. If you’re in love you have to be comfortable with silence.

(Incidentally, Paul Simon said in an interview that his favorite line from all the Simon and Garfunkel catalog is the one about the moon rising over an open field. And it is a beautiful line.)

Posted by: Sara Jean | January 31, 2010

What if the DVD Had Never Been Invented?

I used to record television shows onto VHS tapes and watch them over and over again. I know I recorded every single episode of My So-Called Life. I also recorded a couple seasons of LA Law, several Saturday Night Lives, and the Canadian sketch-comedy show Kids in the Hall.

Thank God for DVDs. I don’t even watch real television much (and don’t have cable) but I have to say I don’t really miss it. In the past two years I’ve watched every recorded episode of the two best television shows ever in the history of the world, The Wire and Deadwood. I think I love them–especially Deadwood–more than I love any movie. In fact, I would say Deadwood is sort of like a really good movie that, to your utter delight and surprise, lasts for thirty-six hours. A longer story arc makes for more beloved characters and more personal investment in the fictional events of the series.

(Sadly–nay, tragically–Deadwood was cut short by cancellation, a fate unique to the television format that tinges any fan’s discussion of the show with a layer of sadness and cynicism.)

But back to DVDs. Without them, we wouldn’t have bonus features, or audio commentary, or Netflix. I would have had to subscribe to HBO to watch the best shows on TV (and, let’s face it, that’s pretty unlikely). I would have never been able to revisit My So-Called Life at the age of thirty-one and realize, somewhat regrettably, that it’s not quite as good as I remembered. And I wouldn’t right now be looking forward to the first episode of The Sopranos with cautious optimism, about to embark on an unknown journey into a new (Jersey) world.

Posted by: Sara Jean | January 29, 2010

Another Salinger Story

Like most people, I read Catcher in the Rye in high school.  The librarian told me it was great, but that it contained a lot of what she called “the b-word” (apparently that was “bastard”–clearly we weren’t yet in the South Park era). But blue language aside, I really loved the book.  I really loved it, in a way that only a high school girl prone to mega-crushes on fictional characters could. I was absolutely nothing like Holden Caulfield, but I still identified with the story–not necessarily with the rebellion, or the depression, or even the sarcasm (well, maybe a bit with the sarcasm)–but I certainly identified with the feelings of sadness and alienation Holden felt about growing older.

I’ve heard a lot of discussions about whether Catcher in the Rye holds up to the cynicism of adulthood, whether one can read the book the same way as a thirty- or a forty-year-old. I don’t really have an answer. I’ve read it many times since that first magical introduction and I still love it, but maybe I love it for the memory of that time, when every new book was like a wonderful revelation.

Sadly, professing your love for Catcher in the Rye has become a bit hackneyed. Because it was regarded as such a counterculture masterpiece, it became cool, I suppose, and then it just became not cool. I’m not ashamed, though. I will always love JD Salinger.

That brings me to my main point. I would never write about Mr. Salinger without mentioning my favorite of his stories. I loved it so much I referenced it in my wedding program. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters was published along with Seymour: An Introduction in a slim volume. If you’ve read any of Salinger’s post Catcher work then you’re surely familiar with the Glass family, who became the focus of almost all of his later work (Franny, Zooey, and some of the Nine Stories). Raise High is a simple enough story–the brother of an AWOL bridegroom rather accidentally spends the day of the wedding with the jilted bride’s friends and family–but it’s funny, smart, and spiritual. It’s also mature in a way that Catcher in the Rye isn’t.

For my money, Salinger’s writing holds up to literary scrutiny, even if he was a little bonkers. I hope with his passing more people will take a look at his entire library. (For a great analysis of Seymour: An Introduction, see this Slate Magazine blog entry.)

Posted by: Sara Jean | January 4, 2010

Resolutions (In the Literary Sense)

I used to think New Year’s resolutions were really silly. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, but the past few years I’ve started making resolutions every January. My theory is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you follow them. In the end, it’s all about the effort.

I won’t bore you with the details of my 2010 resolutions. I do have a few that relate specifically to books, however, and I thought I’d share them here.

  • I must read some of the books I have sitting around my apartment. Usually I check out books from the library, but I love bookstores–especially used bookstores–and occasionally something will call to me that I simply must purchase. On my current “unread shelf” are Graham Swift’s Last Orders, Cormac McCarthy’s play The Stonemason, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
  • I’d like to start looking up words I don’t know in the dictionary as I read. Of course, this isn’t really practical while reading on the bus (since I don’t have an iphone), but if I’m at home and near a dictionary or computer, looking up new words as I find them would probably help improve my vocabulary, which hasn’t really changed since I took the SATs.
  • I’d like to read a biography of someone I know virtually nothing about. I’m open to anyone, but right now I’m considering Beethoven and Walt Whitman as possible candidates. Mad genius is always fascinating to me.
  • My dream in life is to write a non-fiction book about something related to baseball. I wrote my senior thesis on baseball literature and love reading about baseball-related things. I don’t have any pretensions of writing a book this year, but it would be really cool to find my topic.
Posted by: Sara Jean | December 29, 2009

I Love End-of-Year Lists!

And I’ve never written one before, so here goes:

The Top Five Books I Read This Year (In No Particular Order)*

  1. Einstein, by Walter Isaacson.  I’ve always had trouble finding historical figures to admire.  It seems that once you learn a bit about most people, you realize they’re not as cool as you thought.  But Isaacson’s book gave me a real hero in Mr. Einstein.  Was he perfect?  Of course not.  I just happen to think his philosophy of the universe was pretty right on.  Plus, in case you haven’t heard, he was really smart.
  2. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson.  Even if you’re not religious, the narrator’s sense of spirituality will make you question everything you thought you believed (or didn’t believe) about God.
  3. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemmingway, is a classic I never read in high school.   And I guess there’s a reason it’s on all those reading lists.  It’s a funny, suspenseful, and ridiculously simple story, but I like that it doesn’t try to be anything it’s not.
  4. The Border Trilogy, by Cormac McCarthy.  This is actually three books, but it’s difficult to choose my favorite.  All the Pretty Horses is a great adventure story and romance; The Crossing is more serious, introspective, and spiritual; Cities of the Plain is a tragic bromance (I can’t believe I just used that word).  McCarthy is my favorite writer.  And I’m in love with John Grady Cole.  There, I said it.
  5. Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand.  I read this on my honeymoon, and, while in some ways it’s a strange book to read on the beach, in other ways it’s the perfect book to read on the beach.  Exciting, historically informative, and very well written, it was the best page-turner I read all year.

*Keep in mind that these are books I read this year, not books published this year (you might have figured that out when you saw Old Man and the Sea on the list).  I’m usually too poor frugal to buy new books, and they take too long to get from the library.

Posted by: Sara Jean | December 22, 2009

Lovely Words for Our Wedding

So a few weeks before the wedding, I read a few things to my fiancé, and his reaction to most of them was never much better than lukewarm.  Sometimes he outright laughed at my suggestions (one of the poems said something about the heat of our bodies and that was just too much).  Luckily, I had this little book:

In it is a little poem by Vernon Scannell entitled No Sense of Direction.  I’d never heard of the poem, nor of its author.  No Sense of Direction describes how the poet does not feel he has a good sense of direction in general, but that he owes a debt to this lack, because

It made me stray

To this lucky path

That ran like a fuse

And brought me to you

And love’s bright, soundless


It’s that last line that gets me.  First of all, I like the description of love as a “bright, soundless detonation.”  It seems about right–not shocking or frightening, but nonetheless spectacular and unexpected.  I like how that last word is set off by itself, leaving the image of a bright, silent explosion hanging in the air for the reader (or audience) to catch.  Finally, the story of the poem moved me the first time I read it because I saw my own story in it.  I didn’t include the entire text here, but, like the author, I ended up in place I had no idea I was going to.  Thankfully, it was the right place.  I think the poem conveys that sense of amazing grace very nicely.

By the by, I looked up some information on Mr. Scannell, mostly because I’d never heard of him before.  He died in 2007, at the age of 85.  He was an Englishman without much formal education who fought in World War II and whose experiences in the war greatly informed his writing (now the “detonation” at the end of the poem has even more meaning!).  Much of his poetry and fiction had a tough, ironic tone (No Sense of Direction being an obvious exception), but he was more famous in England for his award-winning children’s poems and stories.  You can read his full Times of London obituary here.

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