Summer Reading Update II: Snotty, City of Dragons, Um, and Tillamook 1952

Snotty Saves the Day

Imagine if your name were Snotty. What kind of a kid would you be? In Tod Davies’s fictional world Snotty is an “ugly boy,” inside and out. Snotty’s from Megalopolis, and he’s the kind of city kid who “knows nature when he sees it” and doesn’t much like it. The title Snotty Saves the Day tells you what happens—or does it? What exactly does Snotty save when he falls down a hole and ends up in Arcadia?

The ostensible fairy tale has a parallel story—told in introductions and in footnotes written by imaginary scholars in the land of Arcadia, whose great Queen was Sophia the Wise. In the main story, Snotty becomes Sun God of the Garden Gnomes and, later, leads an army of Teddy Bears against them. He is tempted by devilish Luc and saved when Lily (later to become the first queen of Arcadia) appears. The story-in-footnotes—told through Arcadia’s Professor Devindra Vale provides a running commentary on the traditional mythic themes in Arcadia and Megalopis (bad smells, dog messengers, sun gods, the loss of a finger, the turning of treasure-to-trash, selective blindness, and transformation of frightening creatures into helpful ones). The story-in-footnotes teases us with the history of Arcadia and Megalopis and the main story even asks questions about the meaning of meaning. Imagine Lewis Carroll with footnotes by Jonathan Swift. Snotty Saves the Day is, like all good fairy tales, an optimistic book for children of all ages. It’s also an origin story, steeped in real cultural myths.

The History of Um

I bought Michael Erard’s book Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean a few years ago and for some reason have put off reading it until now.

There is the expected recounting of the Reverend Spooner and Sigmund Freud, but Erard digs deeply and comes up with new insights and tells the story of Um through the stories of those who have studied it. I’m fascinated by the cleverness too of some of the researchers like the one who used Kermit Schaffer’s old blooper albums as data for example. Erard writes well, and even the digressions (such as the one about prison chapters of Toastmasters) are interesting. Some of this will be familiar ground to linguists but some is less well-known and Erard has done some nice first-person interviewing (and naturally reports in the speech of his interviewees).

I’m glad I waited and glad too that I’ve gotten to it. I’ll be teaching an introduction to linguistics in the fall and will want to incorporate some of Erard’s observations into (it’s too late to add another book, but maybe I’ll add Um as a supplementary reading…). Here are some of the discussion questions I’ll try to shape into the class:

    What’s the difference between uh and er and haw?

    What’s the difference between uh and um?

    Are there uhs and ums in sign language?

    What do malapropisms, like “strawberry” for “library” tell us about the organization of our mental dictionary?

    How come the Reverend Spooner made errors like “You have hissed my mystery lecture?” but not “You have misstory by hissed lecture?”

    Who was the first writer to collect speak errors?

    Do uh and um occur more often at certain places in the sentence?

    Who uses more uhs and ums—humanities scholars, social scientists or natural scientists?

    When (and why) did public-speaking teachers and start to think that uh and um were a problem, rather than something natural?

    Why does Erard consider Kermit Schafer’s radio and television bloopers to be a kind of dialect humor?

    What’s the relevance of speech errors for Noam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance?

As the book progresses, Erard gets the feel for talking to his readers about the prescriptive-descriptive debate. That’s always a tricky balance for writers whose audience includes linguists and scolds. And there are a few funny errors in the book (like substituting [Ben Franklin] for [Victoria] Fromkin), which is what you’d expect given the subtitle.

City of Dragons

I’m reading Kelli Stanley’s City of Dragons in anticipation of visit to the Rogue Valley this week. City of Dragons introduces 1940s private investigator Miranda Corbie, who is trying to solve a handful of murders in pre-war Chinatown. Corbie is an intriguing character–her father is a drunkard college professor, she has a love-hate relationships with some cops (in one case, a hate-hate relationship), and she’d been a Red Cross nurse in a Spain and a paid escort in San Francisco before becoming a private detective. She 33 years-old and she subsists on whiskey, Chesterfields, and aspirin.

We get glimpses of a sad past, smacking into an uncertain future. It’s the eve of World War II. Miranda’s never been a member of the go-along to get-along boys club so she’s sensitive to outsiders and when she sees a Japanese teenager killed the in the middle of the 1940 Chinese New Year in celebration, she takes up his cause. She’s also contacted by a scheming widow who wants her to look into a husband’s death and missing step-daughter. And soon, Miranda’s up to her pearls in Italian gangsters, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and pre-war international politics.

I’m ready for a trip to San Francisco.

Tillamook 1952

Tillamook 1952 is the story of Lou Kallander, the youngest son in an Oregon gothic family. Kallander returns to Tillamook for his mother’s funeral, and discovers both her diaries and the diary of her brother Verlin. Verlin had been a fire-fighter, disfigured when a flaming tree trunk slammed into his face during the Tillamook fire of 1933. He hid, Shadow-like, from the world for nearly a year before dying in a gunshot accident. Or was it? Kallander digs in and scratches at his uncle’s death until things begin to unravel. He learns about his family, his town and himself in the process.

Verlin’s death makes for a good, in some ways spooky, mystery. And Lou Kallander is the opposite of the traditional postwar hero. He fits into society (as an insurance agent, ironically) but is dead inside from his family not the war. Kallander grows into his own life as he unravels his uncle’s last months.

I realized that I’ve read George Byron Wright’s Oregon trio out of order—I started with Baker City 1948 and moved on to Roseburg 1959. With Tillamook 1952, I seem to have saved the best for last.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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