Bugs and bonanzas

Lexical by Brett JordanWE’VE been well and truly wamble-cropped in our house lately. As if it isn’t bad enough that I’ve been battling an evil, recurring infection for months, the beloved’s just been felled by a different kind of bug.

I’ve been ducking and diving out of his germ-laden way as much as possible, but to no avail – as of two days ago, a painful, hacking cough has had me in its clutches.

Multiple sneezes and a fuzzy, aching head tell me a rotten cold isn’t very far behind.

Health-wise, it definitely hasn’t been the best of times chez Godson recently, but I’m happy to report that when it comes to words, there’s been a bonanza. I haven’t even had to search for them; they’ve come winging my way as purposefully as a swarm of bees.

Take wamble-cropped (as indeed I have, wholeheartedly!). Popular in England between 1485 and 1603, it means unwell, according to Paul Anthony Jones, a writer, musician and author of word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, who I came across on the Mental Floss website the other day. On its own, he explains, the word “wambles” was used more specifically by the Tudors of merry old England to describe queasy tummy rumbles, of which I’ve had more than my fair share lately.

They could also be described by another of Mr J’s obscure words – borborygmus, which derived originally from an onomatopoeic Greek word. “Borborygmi are produced as the contents of the intestines are pushed along by waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis,” he says.

I know them well after my ghastly preparations for a recent colonoscopy. Several glasses full of liquid laxative, as well as jugs full of water – not the best way to spend a day! – guaranteed the sensation for me.

Now, to add to my woes, there’s the cough and incipient cold.

Always on the lookout for a silver lining, and bearing in mind my late mother-in-law’s admonition to feed a cold and starve a fever, when I stumbled across an entry on the Macmillan Dictionary blog about “starve” and “cold” I thought I’d found a consoling wordy connection to that, too. I should have known better: Starved WITH the cold, the entry was headed.

Reading on, I discovered it bore no relation to the folk remedy at all. “In Ireland”, explains the blog’s Stan Carey, “… you will sometimes hear people say starved or starving to mean cold or freezing instead of the usual very hungry.”

“Starve” derives from old English word “steorfan”, which originally meant “die”, albeit in an unspecific way. The definition narrowed in the 14th century to mean “die of cold”, later narrowing even more to its current meaning – to die of hunger.

Such narrowing – also known to linguists as restriction or specialisation – is a common semantic process, says Mr C, throwing in some surprising examples. “Accident used to mean any occurrence, before it took on the more restricted sense of something unfortunate that happens by chance,” he says.

Similarly, an undertaker was anyone who undertook to do work. Deer meant animal, and meat was any kind of food. And that’s exactly what I’m looking for right now. A tasty snack, that is, to feed my cold (but nothing so rich it will set those wambles off again).  – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)

Photo: Lexical by Brett Jordan

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Putting a name to it

Chicken by steve p2008IT BEGAN in the most unlikely way, my search for aptronyms. It was during the course of an animated cyber squabble some time ago about genetically modified produce. The “debate”, between a few like-minded journalists (myself included) and a large national retail chain, raged around certain social media websites for a while. Furious posts filled Facebook pages and tweets twittered back and forth – entirely appropriate since its trigger was chicken-feed – and in the process, I came across the aptronymical Mr Ralph Peckover, hired by the retailer in question to certify its organic eggs.

Friend, website editor, travel writer and “Frankenfood” foe Caroline Hurry had written to the retailer asking where (or if) GM-free food was sourced for the hens that produced their organic eggs.

Alas, this particular retailer, despite its boasts to the contrary, seems not to be averse to a little greenwashing (a newly discovered but fairly rampant condition spread by companies trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes about their “green” credentials): in the space of a year, instead of reducing the GM products on its shelves, it had almost doubled the number. Wrote Carrie, who was trying to source non-GM food for her own egg-laying chickens: “It is very concerning that all maize in South Africa is genetically modified – which includes hen food. If these ‘organic eggs’ are being laid by hens that are fed GMO corn, then calling them organic is highly misleading.”

After what seemed like purposeful delaying tactics, and “egged” on by questioning tweets and Facebook posts from the rest of us, the retailer finally put Carrie in touch with said Mr Peckover.

The news was not good.

“South Africa does not even have an ‘organic regulation’,” the independent food inspector told her, “… so anyone can label a food ‘organic’ and there is nothing anyone can do about it even when it is not. Countries like Ethiopia have an ‘organic regulation’ but ours I think remains a pipe dream.”

Not to my determined friend, though. She rounded up all her contacts and put together her own list of GM-free-foodstuff producers around the country. You can find it on her website: Travelwrite (none from the Eastern Cape so far – do tell me if you know of any).

So Carrie ended up finding her GM-free chicken-feed elsewhere, and I ended up with yet another word-nerd obsession – finding aptronyms: real names which are, as Oxford Dictionaries says, “regarded as amusingly appropriate to their occupation”.

Well-known ones include Usain Bolt, who’s almost as fast as lightning; Tiger Woods, who wields them on the golf course; and comic actor Martin Short, who’s extremely vertically challenged.

Among the less well known listed in British linguist David Crystal’s book Words, Words, Words are a Cardinal in the Philippines called Sin and an American police chief called Lawless.

A famous example, recalls Crystal, is Dr Russell Brain, a leading British neurologist, not to mention the medical journal Brain’s one-time editor Dr Henry Head.

But none of them can beat the one I discovered in a journal published by the American Medical Association: Dr Richard “Dick” Chopp, a Texan urologist who spends much of his time carrying out vasectomies! – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

Pic by stevep2008 //creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/


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Look who’s been cooking the books

Mma Ramotswe's CookbookWHEN I discovered, while researching the virtues of olive oil the other day, that the endearing Mma Ramotswe, of  No I Ladies’ Detective Agency fame, had put all her prize recipes into a cookbook, I knew it was one to avoid. I feared I’d enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s fictional character’s culinary creations far too much.

The book’s sub-title was the giveaway – Nourishment for the Traditionally Built.

I could ignore the mopane worms, that’s for sure, but not all the puddings, stews and other tasty treats.  It certainly wouldn’t take much persuasion for me to try out her Persuasive Fruit Cake or Lemon and Condensed Milk Biscuits.

Food in fiction adds another dimension to an imagined character but it’s nothing new, of course. The first time I was aware of it was years ago when family friend – and ex-US state senator, broadcaster, journalist  and fellow food addict – Jack Robinson was reading and eating his way through crime writer Lawrence Sanders Deadly Sin books (all seven of them).

Well, he couldn’t really help himself.

The books’ hero, Detective Ed Delaney, apart from being an ace at getting psychotic killers off the streets, never met a New York deli-style sandwich he didn’t like, and he described them all in sublime detail. As a result, whenever Jack read one of the novels, he’d salivate so much he always had to break off and whip a couple of sarnies up; monster masterpieces dripping with mayonnaise, cheese, salami, dill pickles, tomatoes and anything else he could cram into them. If I was around, he’d have to make me one too, which is probably why I remember them so vividly.

My own foodie fiction experience started with Nora Ephron’s novel, Heartburn. Revenge, it’s said, is a dish best served cold: Nora Ephron dished it up cold, hot and every other which-way. “Loosely” based on the breakup of her marriage to cheating All the President’s Men/Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, it’s all about a cookbook writer who’s married to a cheating reporter. It not only launched a load of novel recipes – everything from perfect pasta to peach pie – it topped bestseller lists and became a movie, too, starring Meryl Streep.

Another of my foodie fiction favourites is Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (be warned, though – it features a most nauseating food episode, too).

I tried cooking Ms Flagg’s fried green tomatoes. They’re delish. She later published Fannie Flagg’s Original Whistle Stop Café Cookbook. Chock-a-block with Southern recipes like black-eyed peas, fried chicken, and pecan nut pie, it reads like a novel even though it’s not.

I won’t, however, be trying any of the recipes concocted by crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s fictional medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta. How people who work in gruesome environments can ever eat, let alone cook, is beyond me. The spin-off cookbook’s title, Food to Die For, is enough to persuade me never to glance at the pages within its covers.

I’ve been off my food for the last 24 hours, as it is – ever since I inadvertently washed (and spun dry) a small frog. Shame. Thank goodness it was in the washing machine and not the dishwasher. – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)


Between You & Me …

…  Confessions of a Comma Queen

by Mary Norris

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson


Confessions of a Comma Queen“Let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning,” says Mary Norris. “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had, the summer I was 15, was checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland.”

As if that isn’t odd enough, Norris became a “milkwoman”, too, but that’s another (funny) story entirely in this almost certainly unique part- memoir/part-history/part-style guide of a book.

“. . . you put the milk between the storm door and the inside door, and shouted ‘Milkman!’ I wasn’t a man, but I didn’t like the word ‘lady’—it seemed too feminist—so I wouldn’t holler ‘Milklady!’, and ‘milkmaid’ was a little too fanciful. I settled for ‘milkwoman’, which was a bit too anatomically correct and made me sound like a wet nurse,” she recalls. (And maybe that’s what laid the foundation for her admitted confusion—style-wise, that is—about sex and gender, covered at length later on in the book.)

Whether she intended to or not, Norris did, indeed, become a comma queen, learning from the strictest, the best and the downright eccentric at The New Yorker, where she’s worked for more than three decades—two of them in the copy editing department.

In a way, she became the grammar geeks’ grammar geek, the one with whom oft-revered others, including author John McPhee and professor of English and journalism Ben Yagoda acknowledge they’d happily confer.

Modest and, at times, disarmingly blunt, Norris distils wisdom, anecdotes, and plain “comma” sense in almost equal measure, often winding family stories and office politics into graphic illustrations of good grammar at work—particularly affecting and effective when it involves her transsexual brother’s deep distress over the pronoun with which she refers to him.

Her “lessons”, woven as they are from her wit and experience, are generally memorable but perhaps none more so than one on hyphenating compounds, illustrated by the memory of a letter to The New Yorker from a reader complaining about the term “star fucker.”

The reader wasn’t the least offended by seeing the term in print, only by its lack of what she called the “activating hyphen,” recalls Norris, who goes on to explain most matter-of-factly: “. . . without the hyphen, each word has equal weight: a fucker who is a star. But in ‘star-fucker’ the hyphen tips the weight to the first element, the object (star) of the activity embodied in the noun (fucking).”

Profanity has its own chapter in the book, by the way: “Whose delicate sensibilities are we catering to,” Norris asks.  “Certainly not mine—not any more.”

And even though she agrees no one wants to be constantly pummelled by four-letter words: “If we are going to use them, let’s use them right.”

Tackling the niggliest of grammatical issues — from apostrophe catastrophes to the perils of possession—with a bit of history and autobiography thrown in, her sound knowledge is tempered always by a delicious sense of the ridiculous.

Take the semicolon, if you will. “What the fuck is a semicolon anyway,” she asks.

“No mark of punctuation is so upper-crust,” she reckons, adding that Americans can do without it “just as they can give Marmite a pass . . . We are a plainspoken, cheerfully vulgar people.”

Firm but open-minded when it comes to the subject she clearly adores, “I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch . . . ,” she says at one point, recalling the time a young editorial assistant, on hearing she was a copy editor, “jumped back as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas.”

And that’s simply not so.

In any case, as she points out, everybody makes mistakes: “Regularly, my grasp of the subjunctive slips, and I need to visit the grammatical equivalent of a chiropractor,” Norris says, deftly spinning the thought into a lesson on just how much easier than it looks the subjunctive really is.

Her witty take on the puzzles of punctuation—mostly dictated by the rules of The New Yorker, to which she is professionally bound—is, to use one of her own descriptions, a “big-ass” delight.

Her fondest wish, the author says, is that whoever looks at her book’s title will learn to say fearlessly “‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’), whether or not you actually buy the book and penetrate to the innards of the objective case.”

Stevie Godson is a columnist, a copy editor and a former books page editor.

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Just My Typo

Just My TypoLUCKY me. I’ve really hit the jackpot when it comes to internet competitions – especially on Twitter.

Over the course of a couple of years, my loot has included such treasures as a hefty two and a half kilogram Chambers Dictionary; and Scar Tissue, the award-winning memoir of Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis – a brutally frank, eye-poppingly outrageous page-turner of a book.

Unfortunately, I fear our ongoing – and largely unreported – postal strike has scuppered my very latest wordy win: Ritual Lighting, a special edition of UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s work, illuminated with sublime calligraphic art. Weeks after I was notified, there’s still no sign of it.

I’ve also gained a tea towel! Emblazoned with a clever quote from Sandy Toksvig’s last book in a contest dreamed up by the undomesticated but erudite Danish-born author and broadcaster’s publishers, it’s among my oddest wins so far.

Almost as odd is the laser-cut necklace produced especially for me by a rather zooty English custom jewellery company and displaying that fine word “fudgel”.

“Pretending to work when you’re not actually doing anything at all,” it means, which is what I was doing when I submitted it.

The common denominator among all these goodies – apart from their obvious literary links – is that I had to enter competitions to win them. I’m quite strict with myself about such things: I won’t compete for anything that requires me to promote the prize or company in any way; and I won’t enter more than once. I answer a question and then forget about it. What will be, will be, I reckon.

Imagine my surprise then when, out of the blue, a Twitter message popped up on my computer screen a month or so ago from one Drummond Moir, editorial director of a leading UK-based literary imprint, telling me I’d won something for which I hadn’t even competed. Not that I’m complaining – it’s right up my literary lane.

“Hi Stevie,” said his message. “Thanks for tweeting about Just My Typo – you’ve won a free copy!”

So how did I win? Simply by adding “Oops” and sending on someone else’s tweet featuring a rude but funny typo from the book, it seems.

Luckily, Mr Moir’s book wasn’t caught up in the strike. It was couriered to my door – and how glad I am that it was.

Here’s a couple of my favourites so far from its entertaining collection of “typographical errors, slips of the pen, and embarrassing misprints”:

“The man blew out his brains after bidding his wife good-bye with a shotgun.” [Who says commas aren’t necessary?];

and, from the UK Times: “The queen herself graciously pissed over the magnificent edifice.”

Now I can only hope this column doesn’t fall prey to Muphry’s Law (as opposed to that of its better known, similarly named cousin):“If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.” - Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)

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Typo Positive …


Sub-editing fail, pic courtesy tweet by Bern_Morley

(Sub-editing Fail – originally tweeted by @Bern_Morley)

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The Mockingbird Next Door …

… Life With Harper Lee

by Marja Mills

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson


The Mockingbird Next DoorTHERE can be few people in the English-speaking world who don’t know anything about Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which is more than can be said about the life of its author, the reclusive, elusive Harper Lee.

Her groundbreaking—and only—book, first published in 1960, has sold more than 40 million copies and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck.

Miss Lee, unlike her close childhood friend Truman Capote, has always eschewed the limelight, granting very few interviews through the years since the book’s release, preferring to live in quiet obscurity with her lawyer sister Alice in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

Until 2001, that is, when the then 75 year old allowed Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills into her home and, subsequently, her small circle of trusted friends.

To Kill a Mockingbird—a now classic tale of childhood innocence and racial prejudice in 1930s America, as well as one of the 20th century’s best-loved books—had been chosen by Chicago Public Library as the first selection in its One Book, One Chicago program. Mills’ editor thought it was worth her going to Monroeville despite the famous author’s reclusive reputation.

Once there, Mills first made an impression on Alice Lee who, although in her 90s, was still practicing law—real estate transactions, tax returns, and wills were at the heart of her practice.

It turned out to be the key to the door, leading Harper Lee herself to call and ask if they could meet.

“It was as if I had answered the phone and heard ‘Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.’ I felt my adrenaline spike,” Mills recalls.

She was not, explained Nelle—Harper Lee’s first name and the one by which she is known to friends and family—granting an interview for her newspaper, “but a chance to visit.”

The interview, however, was finally written, by which time Mills felt she and the Lee sisters had forged a kind of friendship.

By the time, a few years later, and as a result of her battles with the auto immune condition lupus, she was put on her newspaper’s medical disability plan, Mills wondered what was stopping her spending her time off—a couple of months to a year, tops, she reckoned—in Alabama.

In 2004, and apparently with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. The idea of writing a book took about them took root in their conversations, she reports.

“Nelle had already told me several things she thought I could write about and correct regarding ‘the 40-year file on Harper Lee’.”

And there’s the rub.

That there is a fascinating story to tell is indisputable.

That Mills does a good job putting across the information she claims to have been given is also completely clear.

What the book lacks is objectivity.

Not only does the author note that she never asked questions she felt would be unwelcome, she is awestruck to the point of obsequiousness.

It is to the book’s and the readers’ detriment that her hero worship of her often grumpy subject is so glaring.

Planning to drive to New Jersey, for example, Mills is ecstatic when Nelle agrees to accompany her. Nauseatingly, she soon finds herself “fighting the overwhelming urge to get a window sign that said: Please Be Careful. National Treasure on Board.” [Capital letters included!]

The famous author’s phone number is recorded in her little pink address book under a made-up name. “I was afraid,” she explains, “if it were ever lost or stolen I would feel compelled to leap from the Sears Tower rather than owning up to the security breach.”

The inordinate privilege she feels, and to which she often refers, is an ongoing intrusion.

Respect is one thing, obsequiousness an uncomfortable other.

“Nelle wanted to go over my file of stories about her over the years to point out inaccuracies and set the record straight,” writes Mills at one point.

Nelle had originally wanted to call the book Having Their Say, also used in the title of a bestselling book about two African American sisters, one sweet, the other saltier, looking back on their lives, reports Mills. If that is indeed the case, there’s no chance of any confusion about this book’s intent. Perhaps it was a simple case of a willing person with a talent for writing being in the right place at the right time, not to mention having the right attitude.

“Three things out of Nelle’s control were in the works. Not one but two movies were being filmed about Truman Capote researching his 1966 bestselling book In Cold Blood in Kansas with his friend Harper Lee [Infamous, with Sandra Bullock as Nelle and Toby Jones as Truman; and Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.] Worse still, the first major Lee biography was under way by someone she didn’t know or trust. Charles Shields, the man working on the biography [Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee] had written Nelle to request her help. She wanted nothing to do with it.”

Mills acknowledges she wouldn’t have been around the sisters at all if she’d included anything they didn’t want to share in the first article. “Even the fact that I’d never asked her to autograph a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for me factored in.”

The result: instead of an insightful look at the life of Harper Lee, we have an extended literary love letter—and even that’s marred by a surfeit of sycophancy.

Footnote: Despite author Marja Mills’ assertions to the contrary, Harper Lee denies The Mockingbird Next Door was written with her approval. “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my co-operation is a falsehood,” she said in a statement released just before its publication. Penguin Press stands by the book.

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My Salinger Year …

… by Joanna Rakoff

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson


My Salinger YearNEW York in the mid-1990s—not a bad place to be for a young woman with writerly aspirations, especially one who’s found work at one of the city’s many literary agencies.

It was Joanna Rakoff’s dream job. “. . . there were hundreds, even thousands of us, she recalls, “. . . all of us clad in variations on a theme—the neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith—each element purchased by parents in some comfortable suburb, for our salaries were so low we could barely afford our rent. . . .

“Years ago,” she wryly observes, “. . . we would have been called secretaries.”

E-readers were nonexistent then; blog was an odd word for a little-known concept; and vanity presses were just that—expensive succor for self-delusional scrawlers.

Publishing was a respected profession, not a pay-as-you-go template on a computer screen (just hit send and it’s done.)

Agents were essential—as integral a part of the book world as the content itself.

Good writers were cherished; a few practically deified. Writers like Jerry.

“We need to talk about Jerry,” says Joanna’s new boss. “People are going to call and ask for his address, his phone number. They’re going to ask you to put them in touch with him. Or me . . .  Reporters will call . . .  Don’t tell them anything. Don’t answer their questions.”

“I understand, I told her, though I wasn’t sure I did,” writes Ms Rakoff. “This was 1996 and the first Jerry that came to mind was Seinfeld . . .”

All becomes clear a little later, when the young assistant notices what’s on the bookcase opposite her desk. It’s a collection of books she’s seen many times before: on her parents’ bookcase, in the English department closet at her high school, at every bookstore and library she’s ever visited ….

“Books so ubiquitous on the contemporary bookshelf I barely noticed them: The Catcher in the RyeFranny and ZooeyNine Stories . . .

“Salinger. The Agency represented J. D. Salinger . . . Oh, I thought, that Jerry.”

Her friends are stunned when she tells them:

“Did you speak to him?” asks one.

“Was he nice?” asks another.

“He’s a fucking phony,” insists yet another.

Joanna’s life is precariously balanced between glamor and poverty. Every working day, the 23 year old leaves the plush, wood-panelled Agency (always deferentially capitalized) and goes home to a rundown apartment and a selfish boyfriend—one of those secretly chauvinist socialists.

Responding to Salinger’s voluminous and ardent fan mail is among her duties, though they’re “sort of” the least important. Only answer them when all your other tasks are done, she’s told. They’re just fans.

The form reply, from which she may not deviate, is just as contemptuous: “As you may know, Mr. Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him.” It does, at least, offer a thank you for the correspondent’s interest in the reclusive author’s books. What’s not clear is whether or not the author knew quite how cavalierly his fans were treated.

Among the many fan letters are what Joanna comes to think of as the Tragic Letters: “missives from people whose loved ones had found solace in Salinger during their years-long struggles with cancer, who’d read Franny and Zooey to their dying grandfathers,” etc. “And then there were the Crazies, of course, ranting about Holden Caulfied in smudged pencil, a dirty lock of hair falling out of the creased paper and onto my dark desk. But probably the largest group of fans were teenagers, teenagers expressing a sentiment that could only be summed up as ‘Holden Caulfield is the only character in literature who is truly like me . . .’”

Even though they’re given such short shrift by the Agency, she must read every single one, Joanna’s told.

“They’re mostly harmless, but occasionally we’ll get a death threat,” explains a colleague. “Back in the ’60s, Salinger got some pretty scary letters. Threatening him. And his kids. . . . We’ve been pretty careful since the Mark David Chapman thing.”

That thing was, of course, the shocking assassination of Beatle John Lennon. After he’d done it, Chapman sat reading The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield had made him do it, he insisted.

Be that as it may, Joanna’s heart is tugged by many of the letters she reads. Realising that what most fans want is simply some kind of personal interaction with the man whose books have meant so much to them, she defies the strict instructions she’s been given, and writes her own responses.

Over the course of her year at the Agency, Joanna—who is now a poet, journalist, critic, and prize-winning novelist—“finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s.”

Does she ever get to chat to the enigmatic author whose life becomes so much a part of her own? You’ll have to read her beautifully crafted memoir to find out.

Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.


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Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson


Tibetan Peach PieWith an appetite for enchantment honed in the hillbilly setting of rural 1930s Appalachia where, as a boy he roamed free, Tom Robbins has always managed to imbue his novels with a captivating otherness.

Interacting with a motley crew of “squirrel hunters, rabbit trappers, berry pickers, banjo pickers, moonshiners, tramps, real Gypsies, snake handlers, mule-back preachers (like my grandpa), eccentric characters with names such as Pink Baldwin and Junebug Tate, and perhaps most influential, bib-overalled raconteurs, many of whom spun stories as effortlessly and expertly as they spit tobacco juice,” the author was bound to see the world through different eyes.

Add to that an adult life that’s included a flirtation with the circus, learning to love kimchi (breath-fouling fermented cabbage) with a Korean bargirl, an ongoing affair with Japan, experiments with sixties’ psychedelia, and a moment as the Unabomber suspect, and it’s almost inevitable he’d end up weaving such wondrous tales as Still Life with WoodpeckerJitterbug PerfumeHalf Asleep in Frog Pajamas, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

Now the eccentric wordsmith turns his offbeat talent to nonfiction with a book about his unconventional life. But this isn’t an autobiography, he says: “God forbid! . . . only authors who are household names should write autobiographies, and not only is my name infrequently tumbled in the lapidary of public consciousness, those rare homes in which it’s spoken with any regularity are likely under police surveillance.”

He’s not really happy for Tibetan Peach Pie (sub-titled A True Account of an Imaginative Life) to be described as memoir, either, “although it waddles and quacks enough like a memoir to be mistaken for one if the light isn’t right.”

What it is, he reckons, is a sustained narrative of absolutely true stories, arranged in more or less chronological order, although he insists he’s never kept a journal in his life and concedes “. . . some folks who were involved at the time may recall them a bit differently.”

Whatever it is, one thing’s for certain: little Tommy Rotten, as his mother was wont to call him, was destined to become a writer. Almost as soon as he started talking in complete sentences, he announced to his parents that was his intention. Too impatient to wait until he could spell or even scrawl words on paper, aged five he dictated full-scale stories to his besotted mother, whom he turned, he says, into his private secretary.

“I’d call on Mother to stop whatever she was doing and take dictation.”

A frustrated writer herself, she was a willing accomplice, although her tendency to occasionally change the wording to “improve” her precocious son’s style saw him throwing tantrums until his original words were reinstated.

And he was right to be miffed, because if there’s one thing Tom Robbins has in abundance, it’s an unerring way with words.

Tibetan Peach Pie, he promises up front, provides “intimate verbal snapshots of, among other settings, Appalachia during the Great Depression, the West Coast during the sixties’ psychedelic revolution, the studios and bedrooms of Bohemian America before technology voted privacy out of office, Timbuktu before Islam fanatics crashed the party, international roving before ‘homeland security’ threw a wet blanket over travel, and New York publishing before electrons intervened on behalf of the trees.”

Required reading for those who like their literature oozing with imagery, Tibetan Peach Pie is as engrossing as it is eccentric—just like the author’s life. His powers of observation and his eye for the offbeat, not to mention his penchant for the truly peculiar, remain undimmed.

Feel the sizzle with such evocations as: “Summer lay on the rural Southeast like a sheet of flypaper. Men, dogs, farm animals, commerce, time itself, seemed stuck to the page with a yellowish narcotic glue.”

As he once explained to his one-time editor Alan Rinzler: “Metaphors have the capacity to heat up a scene and eternalize an image, to lift a line of prose out of the mundane mire of mere fictional reportage and lodge it in the luminous honeycomb of the collective psyche.”

A word master indeed.

(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

The TranscriptionistAS NEWSROOMS lie bleeding, victims of both technology and budget-slashing corporatisation, Amy Rowland’s debut novel could hardly have come at a more appropriate time. Set in fictional New York daily newspaper The Record, which is battling both, it’s a cautionary tale of embeddedness and exclusion–the decommissioning of conscience as one newspaper battles to survive, and ethics take a back seat to bottom-lines.

“The newsroom is more updated than anywhere else in the century-old building,” notes the novel’s protagonist, Lena, “where instead of bald, bespectacled men typing with one heavy hand and reaching into the drawer for the bourbon bottle with the other, it is the usual corporate subdivision: well-medicated activity, soundless keypads and clusters of low-partitioned cubicles in a rectangle that spans the entire floor.”

She sits on the 11th floor, an anachronism—Lena the transcriptionist. Not many people can even find the lonely room in which she works out her numbered days hooked up to a headset and a dictation machine. In fact, Lena isn’t even a transcriptionist any more. She is, “in the perplexing language of the corporate world, a Recording Room operator – and an endangered one at that.

“There is basic equipment required: a headset, a Dictaphone to play the tapes that must be transcribed, and patience, a willingness to become a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.

”Three black phones are mounted on a panel and linked to recorders so that reporters can call in and dictate their stories.

Most of what Lena types goes straight through her, like the undigested remains of a gulped-down meal. “I’m turning into a tape recorder,” she says. “It’s frightening.”

Her body is merging with the newspaper, Lena fears, and she’s unspooling just as surely as the interminable tapes she’s come to despise. “I thought soon I would not possess a single thought of my own, would not possess even my own dreams.”

She’s tired of her second-hand life, Lena tells Kov, a mysterious, tie-wearing fellow misfit she discovers hiding out in another abandoned room in the newspaper building, cataloguing the obituaries, repairing ancient newspaper binders in a desperate attempt to give them some kind of permanence in an unhingeingly throw-away world.

Then, a photo in The Record of someone who looks vaguely familiar pulls Lena out of her robotic reverie. “The woman broke into the Bronx Zoo two days ago, invaded the lions’ den and was killed,” says the accompanying article. “She was blind.” The dampness of her clothes indicates that she swam across a moat to gain access, adds the report.

Searching her memory, Lena remembers a brief encounter when she sat beside the woman, who was reading a Braille book on a downtown bus. “The blind woman … is frozen except for her fingers, which move across the empty expanse, stroking the invisible letters to bring them to life,” Lena thinks at the time. “She is a transcriptionist, too, except the words enter her fingertips where they exit mine.”

Obsessed with finding out why she would choose such a disturbing death, Lena determines that the blind woman’s story will be told. Shards of surrealism pierce the narrative, highlighting Lena’s own growing sense of unreality. Her overwrought campaign for the truth rocks the newspaper out of its corporate rut, and shows Lena that her own life is far from over.

The Transcriptionist is suffused with prescient insight into journalism, ethics and alienation. Hardly surprising, then, to discover that the author was herself a transcriptionist at The New York Times before moving to the Book Review. A thought-provoking, original work.

(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)

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