What I’m Reading

Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day by Judith Tschann

The words that we use for food and eating say a lot about the history of the world and they ways that humans build culture. In Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day, Judith Tschann, an emerita professor of linguistic and English, gives us the etymologies of hundreds of words for food and drink (I didn’t count—but the word index seems to be about 500). Tschann seasons the work with relevant linguistic concepts and Peter Grimm’s clever illustrations provide the garnish. We get not just the words from Old English (brēowa > brew, eyren > eggs, raedic > radish) and French (estuve > stew, dresser > dressing, ragoûter > ragout) but others like toddy (from Hindi), port (from Oporto, Portugal), ketchup (from Chinese) and yogurt (form Turkish). Bread, spaghetti, and eggs are staples and there is plenty to drink. Tschann is clearly having fun with the book and occasionally treats readers to some etymologies or food facts “Off the Menu.” It’s a great complement to Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food.

Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass by Bill Meuelemans

Bill Meulemans is a political scientist who gets in the thick of his profession—in his 47 year career at Southern Oregon College, the University of Belfast, and Portland State University, he’s studied the mindsets of diverse political groups—mainstream and extreme in the US, Israel, and Northern Ireland. Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass is a memoir of his experiences teaching and doing research in southern Oregon, Israel, and Belfast. Many of the stories are centered in Oregon where he taught for 28 years, had a radio show on Jefferson Public Radio, and worked as a political organizer. Meulemans invited extremists left and right to visit his classes and tell their stories, and he often researched groups by showing up at their meetings.

We learn about a group of right-wing patriots who practiced dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass separating California and Oregon–convinced that one day they would have to stop California Communists from invading. We hear about a planned protest and counter-protest over the raising of the campus flag after the Kent State killings which was thwarted by some quick-thinking campus maintenance workers. When members of the John Birch call for Meuelmans to be fired, he crashed their Christmas Party to set them straight. Meulemans visited the Rajneesh compound, interviewed the leader of Oakland’s Hell’s Angels, interviewed Ku Klux Klan members in Louisiana, and talked his way into the Soviet Embassy in Washington when he took students on a field trip. Meuelemans has also worked as a journalist, political organizer, and as a staff aide in the House of Representative, so the stories have a fast-paced journalistic tone rather than being ponderously academic. He offers more than just stories though. The memoir is filled his bits of political and sociological analysis—the role of empathy, single issue politics, the Hell’s Angels’ political views, and more. A first-rate memoir.

Chris Ware Conversations edited by Jean Braithwaite

I had not known about the University of Mississippi’s before I read this. It’s are series of carefully selected interviews with the Chris Ware—the author of Jimmy Corrigan, Building Stories, ACME Novelty Library and Rusty Brown. Spanning 25 years, the interviews bring us Ware unique voice, personal history, literary, his influences, and creative process. Bonus material includes Braithwaite’s interview with Marnie Ware, and Chris Wares own cover design, and over 40 illustrations from Ware’s work.

The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay

Mark Genevich is a Boston private detective who suffers from narcolepsy and narcolepsy-related hallucinations, who starts unravelling a long-buried secret when the DA’s celebrity daughter appears in his office—or does she. Genevich evokes Jonathan Lethem and Raymond Chandler: Genevich is part Phillip Marlowe, part Lionel Essrog; And his mother is his helper. Some good plot twists and it all adds up in the end.

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The first of the Department Q series, featuring Danish homicide detective Carl Mørck. Injured in a shooting that killed one colleague and paralyzed another, Mørck is promoted out of the way to head a cold case squad. But he discovered begins to suspect that a five-year old death has more to it that it seems. Good characters and a good plot, but I have to quibble about the somewhat unrealistic methods of the villain. I’ll definitely read more of this series.

The Golden State by Ben H. Winters

I’m a big fan of Ben H. Winters’ world-building books (the Last Policeman Trilogy, Underground Airlines, etc.). In this one, he drops us into the future in the a “The Golden State” a dystopia where lies are illegal. Greetings are replaced by the recitation of facts “Two plus two is four”) and everyone tracks events in a collection of daybooks which one another by spouting facts. An elaborate system of tracking and archiving the minute details of everyone’s lives has been set up. The line between lies and other bits of speculation, imagination, and non-literalness is thin do a whole bureaucracy and enforcement arm are required to monitor and verify information. The enforcers of the truth are part of the Speculative Services, elite agents who can detect lies and are also licensed to speculate, hypothesize or lie themselves, in pursuit of the truth.

This is their story. It’s centered around Laszlo Ratesic, a bulky loner with a unruly red beard and a failed marriage. As Laszlo explains it to his trainee:

“Unwarranted speculation is no better than lying, Ms. Paige. It is worse. You want to see how it’s done, here’s how it’s done: it’s better when it’s not done at all. Our job is to reinforce the Objectively So. Not conjure realities, every one of which might extend, evolve, metastasize.” “And none of those realities can be collected back once released. Our job is to find the facts and travel between them, walk carefully along the lines of what’s true. And when we do speculate? When we do hypothesize, we do it carefully, conscientiously, in a controlled environment, and we don’t do it at all unless and until the facts support it. The Speculative Service is a bulwark.”

And later “Shared understanding is a bulwark. Clear and agreed-upon definitions of common terms are defenses against infelicity. Words mean what they fucking mean.”

Laszlo discovers the truth about the truth and the state dedicated to maintaining it. What’s especially fun it’s the extent to which Winters has thought through the ideas about language. There is, for example, a Court of Small Infelicities, which deals with “knucklehead kerfluffles like when a car dealer is challenges about the truth of “lowest rates around.”

There is The Everyday Citizens’ Dictionary, where some words are redefined, such as novel: “A true story, that is, organized into chapters or incidents, featuring a historical character or characters, building to a conclusion, suggesting or implying an inspirational message about the nature of the Golden State.”

Humor is allowed, however:

”Humor causes no oscillation in the So, any more than any other form of small social falsehood: obvious hyperbole, inoffensive teasing, plain flattery—the whole constellation of innocuous and lubricating half-truths.” Idioms too are permitted “Given that their intention and literal meaning can be gleaned from context and familiarity. They’re like humorous remarks in that regard.”

Thought provoking stuff for linguistically-minded readers.


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An Interview with Judith Tschann, author of Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day

Judith Tschann is medievalist and Professor Emerita at the University of Redlands where she courses the History of the English Language, English literature, and Food in Literature, among others. She has a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University and has received numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Mortarboard Professor of the Year Award.

Judith Tschann grew up in the Midwest and now lives, writes, and enjoys meals in Redlands, California.

Her book Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day: The Delightful History of Food Language was published by Little, Brown in 2023 under its Voracious imprint.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day. How did you get interested in food history and the history of food words?

Judith Tschann: As a kid from a family of eight, I loved our crowded, noisy dinner table. I was also a dictionary reader, flipping pages in that fat book and marking words that intrigued me. In graduate school I specialized in Old and Middle English literature and language, and as a professor teaching those subjects and various topics in linguistics, I amassed a huge pile of notes on interesting etymologies. During the pandemic, I pulled the notes on food words together into a book, and in some ways the pandemic inspired the work. I was reminded daily of missing the pleasure that comes from talking and eating with a big group around a table. Writing about food and language was not only a consolation but a source of joy.

EB: Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day has a lot of great world and word history. How long did it take you to track all of these down? What was the hardest to pin down?

JT: The word history research started long ago and included (sometimes serendipitously) other research projects, including a study of French loan words in English as evidenced by a thirteenth-century trilingual manuscript. Many of the literary works I taught over the years, from Homer’s Odyssey to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, gave me the chance to investigate the symbolic importance of food. I also read medieval recipes, cookbooks, and menus (some included porpoise and hedgehog) and many helpful historical studies like William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, and Judith Bennet’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England. The final checking and tracking down of information took about a year and a half.

One time-consuming but enjoyable aspect of pursuing the history of food language was getting caught up in stories about (e.g.) the role of coffee in the invention of the webcam, and the influence of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake on physicist Gell-Mann’s choice of the word quark. Likewise, it was fun to get caught up in the many webs of words that spin out from the same source, like sass, sassy, saucy, salsa, salad, salami, sausage, and salary, all coming from Latin sal, “salt.”

Words that proved tricky include carrot, parsnip, celery, and parsley, because it was not always clear what exact vegetable a particular word referred to centuries ago.

EB: A lot of food terms seem to be related to the who or where of their origin, but they sometimes take mysterious turns, like the word cocktail. Can you tell us about that?

JT: The history of the word cocktail sounds like the kind of explanation you might hear when playing Fictionary. The word comes from the practice of docking a horse’s tail, cutting it so it stuck up like a cock’s tail. A carriage horse’s tail might be docked, but not a thoroughbred’s, so if a racehorse was found to have a cocktailed horse in its lineage, its pedigree was considered impure. By the time the word cocktail was applied to mixed drinks in the nineteenth century, it had lost the sense of impurity, suggesting only a mixture—to many people, a delicious, sophisticated mix of spirits and other ingredients like bitters, fruit juice or liqueur.

EB: There were so many surprising etymologies, but one that will stick with me is cabbage. I had never made the connection of cabbage and Latin caput, so now I’ll never think the cabbage the same way again. Have you ever called anyone a little cabbage?

JT: I think I did call my children mon petit chou (“my little cabbage”) on occasion when they were little. It’s amusing that cabbage is both a term of endearment and a slur (if you call someone a cabbagehead). I also like cabbage for a slightly embarrassing reason. The coffee cup I reach for, when I’ve put tushy on the cushy and fingers on the keyboard, has a charming scene on one side of a man and woman tending a cabbage patch, and a huge rooster with an impressive cock’s tail on the other side. I’ve wasted a lot of time analyzing this cup—the ways in which it depicts nature vs. culture (as if!). Like the lilies of the field, the rooster looks glorious and doesn’t toil. The man and woman, on the other hand (or side of the cup), with their tidy house and little fence in the background, have clearly worked hard cultivating those many neat rows of cabbage. To me the scene says, “Get to work,” “Weed that messy essay,” though often I only get up and peer longingly into the pantry.

EB: I was amazed at the number of food words that seemed related to smells–and farts in particular—and also to body metaphors. Do you have a couple of favorite examples?

JT: Souffle, pumpernickel, partridge, and nuns’ farts come to mind, because they illustrate different aspects of lexical evolution or semantic change, as well as the difficulty of fully accounting for a word’s history and meaning. The Latin word flāre, “to blow,” gave us a many words, including flavor, flatulence, conflate, deflate, inflate, and (via French) souffle. Even if some members of this group of related words seem almost contradictory, it’s still possible to see how they could all come from a word meaning “to blow.” But with food terms like pumpernickel, partridge, and nuns’ farts, it’s not a matter of how words with very different meanings can derive from the same ancestor word, but rather a question of how some foods ever acquire a seemingly unappealing name, one that suggests yucky rather than yummy. The why and how of the name are often a matter of speculation.

Pumpernickel comes from early German pumper, “to fart,” and “Nicholas,” a personal name that could also mean a “lout or bumpkin.” Perhaps this coarse-ground bread was called “farting Nicholas” because it was hard to digest, and when others got wind of the nonce name, it stuck, and eventually over many decades, the literal meaning faded away. A similar process probably occurred with partridge, from Greek perdesthai, “to fart,” apparently because the bird makes a whirring noise when startled. The history of “nuns’ farts” isn’t about literal meaning being forgotten but rather highlighted. English speakers have usually absorbed food words from other languages without translating those words (though Anglicizing goes on), from beef to taco, bibimbap, pho, jollof. But the fritter called “nuns’ farts” is a calque or loan translation of the French “pets de nonnes.” Perhaps “nuns’ farts” sells more fritters.

Thinking about food and body connections, I’m reminded of the first time I came upon the term pets de nonnes, in a 1966 book of recipes written by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant and illustrated by Toulouse-Lautrec. The pets de nonne recipe is printed on top of a dancer’s rear as she bends over and her tutu fans out, encircling the recipe. The drawing doesn’t sound subtle, but perhaps because the name of the recipe isn’t translated into English (editor’s decision?), it’s easy to overlook the visual pun, a backside version of “you are what you eat.”

Thinking about smell, food, and body connections, I’m reminded of a cluster of words pertaining to the nose. Speech sounds sometimes acquire semantic associations, and the “sn” sound of nose words can be mildly derogatory (sniffle, snivel, snort, snout, snooty, snot, snotty). Does “sn” seem like a sound-combination to avoid when naming a new food? Maybe, but not in the case of Snickers. What about positive associations between speech sounds and nose words? A vital bit of nose work is to pass along to the brain the information that something smells good. It’s an essential part of enjoying the taste of something. There doesn’t seem to be a long list of words indicating that a particular sound cluster is associated with good smells, though the oh ah mm of aroma comes close.

Sneeze, by the way, isn’t etymologically related to any of the words noted above. It derives from the Middle English word fnese, and may be the result of scribes misreading the letter “f” for “s” and then preferring the misreading, maybe because of the “sn” association with the nose.

EB: I see that you grew up in the Midwest. Are you a dinner person or a supper person?

JT: I started out a supper person in a small town and turned into a dinner person when we moved to the big city. I remember my parents discussing the words dinner, supper, and lunch when I was about five, and we were eating a meal at noon. This was ages ago, in a town small enough that my father could easily go home for the noon meal. My parents declared that farmers called a midday meal dinner and an evening meal supper. Like the farmers, we also called the evening meal supper, but like urbanites, we called the noon meal lunch. Later, when we moved to the Twin Cities, the word dinner became the more common word for the evening meal. That conversation made an impression on me. I suppose it reinforced the simple fact that different people use different names for the same thing, and it also made that fact more complicated. It mattered what words you used, because it said something about you, and others might judge you by it.

EB: Do you have another writing project in the works? I hope so.

JT: I have a novel that I hope may someday leap out of the drawer and onto the bookstore shelf, many short “food adjacent” articles, and a couple academic papers underway. One of them concerns ways of reading in the sixteenth century.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Bon appétit.

JT: My pleasure, thank you!


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Interview with Bill Meulemans, author of Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass: And Other Short Stories from Oregon and Beyond

Bill Meulemans is an emeritus professor of political science at Southern Oregon University, where he taught from 1964-1992. A former Danforth Fellow, Fulbright scholar, and Army veteran, he has a PhD from the University of Idaho and also taught at Queen’s University in Belfast, and at Portland State University.

Meulemans is the author of How the Left and Right Think: The Roots of Division in American Politics, published in 2019, and Belfast: Both Sides Now published in 2013. His latest book, Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass (Hellgate Press 2023), recounts experiences from his forty-seven-year career studying political forces that have shaped American society. His first-hand research includes interviews with Southern Oregon minutemen, members of the Rajneesh cult, and Hells Angels.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on your memoir, Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass, which I really enjoyed. What prompted you to write a book based on stories?

Bill Meulemans: I’ve always been aware that my students learned the most when I could present ideas in the form of a story. I firmly believe the human mind is rigged to better remember information in a story form rather than in points of isolated knowledge. I also discovered that story-telling was a great instructional tool. My students always did better in examination questions when stories were involved. An interesting anecdote gave them a context in which to remember information that might otherwise be forgotten. This book gave me an opportunity to find various “lessons” that were embedded in memorable tales. Story-telling for me is the best form of teaching. It also makes reading more enjoyable.

Ed Battistella: I was impressed with the way in which you got out into the community, interviewing people of political different views, some quite extreme. Was that sort of community involvement unusual for an academic at the time? What sorts of reactions did you get? I read that some community members wanted you fired and you even got death threats.

Bill Meulemans: I found that regular folks love to tell the stories of their lives; they want to talk about things that make them angry or proud. I enjoy listening to people and letting them develop their ideas without interruption. I always counseled my student to ask “soft-ball” questions if they really wanted to learn what makes a person tick. People who are passionate about their beliefs are more truthful when you let them talk. With this as a backdrop I invited in persons of extreme points of view into my classroom. My only rule was they couldn’t bring weapons into the room. I found that other academic people often focused on how to convert controversial speakers to a peaceful approach or proving that they were “wrong’ in their beliefs. I told my students that our job was to understand the other person, not change their minds. But my invitation to welcome extremists into the classroom was very controversial. Some local folks didn’t think my students could handle “dangerous ideas.” It seemed to me that many people missed the opportunity to understand why these guests were challenging our democratic institutions. As a people we will never be able to combat anti-democratic ideas unless we first understand why those ideas were being propagated. We need to listen to people’s stories especially when their accounts are politically disruptive in the body politic.

Ed Battistella: You mention some of your teaching experiences, inviting extremists left and right to campus. What did students learn from those visits?

Bill Meulemans: My approach in teaching was to build models that enabled students to understand the basic differences between the left and the right in political affairs, and to understand why some folks justify violence. First of all, I set out the models, then my students and I brought in moderates, activists and extremists to see if their realities fit into the models. Again, it was critical that each visitor could tell their story without interruption. When we had a friendly atmosphere, they would voice the “truth” as they perceived it. But that was also when right-wing groups thought I was endangering the minds of our youth. I found that many people spent all their energies shutting down extremists without giving any thought as to why those radical ideas were being believed.

Ed Battistella: You had some great stories. I had heard about Vortex 1, which people called Governor Tom McCall’s Pot Party, but I didn’t know about the Kent State protests at Southern Oregon College and the clever action by the college’s maintenance staff. Could you tell our reader a bit about those?

Bill Meulemans: The killing by the Ohio National Guard of four unarmed students in 1970 at Kent State University sent political shock waves to college campuses across the country. In response, students a Southern Oregon College in Ashland decided that the US Flag should fly on campus at half-mast the next day in commemoration of the those killed at Kent State. When word of this leaked out to the right-wing non-student population a determination was made by them to be ready to use any means available to raise the Flag to full-mast. Early the next morning a small fleet of pickup trucks with gunracks in the back windows showed up to raise the Flag despite the unarmed students who, by this time, were afraid for their lives. At this point it looked like another “Kent State” was in the offing. But when the Flag was attached to the rope, it was discovered that the pulley had been smashed, perhaps by a hammer. The students were relieved, the fleet of pickup trucks left, and everyone breathed a little easier. Several days later everyone on the campus found out that two unnamed college maintenance men had smashed the pully to “save us from ourselves.” These state workers became local heroes, demonstrating that maybe a bit of common sense had saved some lives that morning on a small college campus in Oregon.

Ed Battistella: You’ve also written on the roots of division in politics and the different mindsets of both ordinary voters and extremists. Do you think that things have gotten more divisive over the years? I’ve often thought that the loss of the Fairness Doctrine was a crucial turning point.

Bill Meulemans: You raise the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine which I believe is one of the fundamental reasons why we are so politically polarized today. President Ronald Reagan appointed members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that repealed the requirements for radio and television stations to provide equal time for competing ideas and candidates on the American airwaves. When Congress tried to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan vetoed the measure. Since then, some radio and television programs have intentionally permitted lies to be told in the form of newscasts. The American people are now subject to a barrage of propaganda presented as though it was the work of “fair and balanced” journalists. In my mind the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021`is directly linked to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.

Ed Battistella: You’ve also taught in Northern Ireland and done research in Israel. How would you compare the political situations there with that in the US?

Bill Meulemans: One of the stories in the book records the account of young Protestants and Catholics from Belfast I brought to Oregon on a program funded by the British government. In Oregon these young Irish students were asked about the Northern Ireland conflict is a searching question: “What’s it all about?” They couldn’t offer a meaningful answer. One of my colleagues at The Queen’s University of Belfast once told me, “The conflict was about everything and nothing.” By this he meant the dispute included everything in their lives, but it couldn’t be reduced to one topic that could be delineated and understood. I think the conflicts in Israel, Northern Ireland and the United States are all about “everything and nothing.” So much of the conflict in these three countries are in the realm of mythology, half-truths, and propaganda. Because of this, the average person is often deluged by a maze of disturbing ideas that cause them, in anger, to turn on each other. In my judgment, it would be wise, in all three nations, that a Fairness Doctrine be observed by the media. It is absolutely necessary for both sides to be heard honestly if our democracies are to survive.

Ed Battistella: You were involved in researching groups as diverse as the Hell’s Angels, the Rajneeshees, the Ku Klux Klan and more. How did you manage to gain access to these groups?

Bill Meulemans: My approach was to ask simple questions in such a way that individuals could analyze themselves. For example, when I was with the Hell’s Angels, I asked their leader, Sonny Barger, how he visualized himself in the stretch of history. At this point his eyes sort of glazed over and he said if he had been born in the middle of the nineteenth century, he would have been an outlaw that led a gang on horseback that robbed stagecoaches. I found that the rank-in-file Rajneeshees loved to see themselves as being the first to create a “perfect society” where “complete freedom” could prevail. And Ku Klux Klan members I interviewed saw themselves as an embattled minority that were sorely misunderstood by the American people. I found these folks loved to tell their stories, and we owe them the respect to listen, especially when they are threatening to undermine American democracy.

Ed Battistella: You taught at SOU—then-Southern Oregon College—for almost 30 years and served as chair of the faculty Senate. Any favorite campus recollections you’d like to share?

Bill Meulemans: First of all, I am a firm believer in faculty governance. Members of the university community should bear responsibility for the quality of education and the manner for handling academic disputes. But I am also aware that college faculty members are not noted for making clear decisions. After being on the faculty senate for several years, I became aware that our agenda was often like a carousel, in that the same issues came up again and again, year-after-year. We discussed all the finer points of academic policies without finding any solutions. Our disagreements were often lively and memorable, but we seldom changed important procedures. This topic reminds of a comment made by a colleague at The Queen’s University of Belfast. He said, “the debate among college professors is so vicious because the stakes are so low.” I say this as one who was deeply involved in the process.

Ed Battistella: As an expert observer, do you have any predictions for the current election cycle?

Bill Meulemans: I go back to the comments about the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. So far that action is, in part, responsible for the near destruction of one of our two great political parties and the deterioration of our former widespread believe in democratic values. In my judgment, the upcoming primary and general elections may decide whether American political institutions will stand or be put aside in favor of an emerging authoritarian system that is evolving in the current campaign. This may be the most important election season of our entire political history.

Ed Battistella: Thanks for talking with us.

Bill Meulemans: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you.


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What I’m Reading

Like, Literally, Dude by Valerie Fridland

Like, Literally, Dude is one of those books that makes me wish I was still teaching, so I could assign it. Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada, Reno, brings together the research on just about all of the bits of usage that your misinformed, snooty relatives rant about: the use of uh and um, the use of like, vocal fry, saying workin’ rather than working, referring to any manner  of dudes and, of course, the much-maligned figurative use of literally. I learned new things about each of these phenoms. What’s more, Fridland writes in an engaging and funny manner without stinting on linguistic accuracy. So before you opine about anyone’s bad English—or fret about your own—give Like, Literally Dude, a read.

Voices of Our Ancestors: Language Contact in Early South Carolina. By Patricia Causey Nichols.

For a long time, I’ve hoped that some publisher would produce a series of linguistic histories of all 50 states (publishers, are you listening?). When they do, they can use Patricia Nichols’s fine sociolinguistic history of South Carolina as a model. Nichols brings together insight from has historical records and social sciences along with her own observations as field researcher in her home state. The book is organized in two-parts: the first describes the people in colonial South Carolina (Natives, Europeans, and African) and their diverse languages – more than I imagined—The second part focused especially on Gullah (drawing on Nichols’s own field research) and on the English that arose from the language contact situation in the state. Nichols pays careful attention to the rhetorical situations of speech communities and offers a number of illustrative short narrative texts to round things out.

The Thief  by Fuminori Nakamura

A noirish tale about a veteran pickpocket, an anonymous crook who steals by reflex and lives a solitary life, hiding from his past. He gets pulled into more a new crime when an old partner makes him an offer he can’t refuse and he becomes enmeshed in forced beyond his control. Some interesting social criticism, but I though the ending was disappointing. I’ll read more Nakamura though!

The Critic by Peter May

A book I was supposed to read last summer but just got around to. It‘s the story of a Scots-Italian criminology professor who gets involved in solving the murder of a wine critic. The plot was good and the wine detail fascinating, but I’m not sure I liked the self-involved main character Enzo Macleod.

Ratking by Michael Dibdin

The first in the Aurelia Zen series and I’m trying to decide whether to recommend it for my mystery book club. The scheming and creepy Miletti family in Perugia was a lot of fun to read about and Zen is a good character—a cynical outside. The pace may be a bit slow. Bonus fact: apparently a ratking is a real phenomenon and a good metaphor as well.

Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the creation of game theory: from chess to social science, 1900–1960 by Robert Leonard, 

I stumbled upon this while looking for a biography of Emanual Lasker, the world chess champion from 1894–1921,  whose is undergoing a resurgence of interest. Robert Leonard’s book (not the linguist/Sha-Na-Na Robert Leonard, btw) is mostly about John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, who co-authored the 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Leonard draws in biography, history, and politics of the early twentieth century and does a clear, efficient job of explicating the mathematics and economics. Plenty of archival detail and sociohistory.

Hammett: A life at the edge by William Nolan and Raymond Chandler by Jerry Speir

These have been sitting on my to read pile (don’t ask) for a while now and I’ve finally gotten to them, curious about these two writers and the milieu of early twentieth century detective fictions. Speir’s book is light on the biography of Chandler (1888-1959) and focuses on works — The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely along with nearly two dozen short stories. Speir draws out the interplay of irony and social criticism, recounts Chandler’s career and marriage to Cissy Pascal, his drinking and depression, and his sad death. Speir’s book makes me want to read Frank MacShane’s The life of Raymond Chandler.

William Nolan’s biography of Hammett (1894-1961) is longer and more detailed, recounting his recurring tuberculosis, career as a Pinkerton, service in both world wars, his relationship with Lilian Hellman, his drinking,  his growing activism and his courage and persecution during the McCarthy era. And we learn much about the Continental Op, Sam Spade, and the Thin Man.

Hammett and Chandler apparently met just once, in 1936 at a dinner for Black Mask writers.


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