Friday, February 20, 2009

7 Quick Takes - Misc. Edition

1) As I was shelving in nonfiction I noticed a title on the shelf which spoke volumes to me: Why Women Need Chocolate. I don't actually know anything about this book, but it seems to me that the title states an eternal truth. Women need chocolate. And I've discovered that the craving for it is distinct from the craving for sweets.

Because I'm prediabetic, I cut sweets from my diet about a year ago. And I found that the craving for sugar really does fade after a month or so. Not so with chocolate, not so! When life is stressful there's still nothing like it. But now I've discovered a way to eschew sweets yet still self-medicate: Trader Joe's Belgian Unsweetened Baking Chocolate. No sugar at all and a smooth chocolate taste! It's not at all bitter or harsh. Of course, it probably helps that I've always been a fan of bitter sweet chocolate. (Milk chocolate is for wimps!)

2)Darwin recently wrote about the toy appeal of Amazon's Kindle 2. Though I love the feel of a book in my hand, I have to admit that I have occasionally considered the advantages of a Kindle, most recently on my trip to Texas to visit Fillius Major and his family. I always try to travel light which is not easy to do if you're also worried about running out of reading material during the trip. Books are heavy, and I can't take just one thanks to the current security regulations which require arriving at the airport as much as two hours ahead of flight time -- because I can read through a lot in two hours! And then there's the flight time, and maybe a layover. And what if that doesn't leave me enough reading material for the trip home? Talk about midflight panic! It was this sort of fear that had me standing in an airport book stall, with my carry-on firmly clutched between my feet and my purse dangling from my arm, reading about Dewey (the only palatable selection in the whole store). A Kindle would be so much lighter to carry than a stack books, and I'd never have to worry about running out of something to read.

3) Dewey Decimal Conundrums: The Dangerous Book For Boys is at 031.02 which is right next to the Guinness Book of World's Records. Why is The Daring Book for Girls at 606.7008 right next to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy?

4) Yesterday the unthinkable happened: I forgot to take a book with me on my trip to the doctor's office. I surveyed the magazine offerings in the waiting room. The inevitable Sports Illustrated (ugh!), various automobile magazines (zzzzzz), Parents (been there, done that), Golf (the most boring game on the planet), various financial magazines, and Arthritis (don't need that yet!). So that left JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. (I did read one interesting article there in which the author was reminiscing about the lone family doctor who served his tiny hometown and who sparked his desire to enter the medical profession.) But it would have been another good time to have had a Kindle. Except I probably would have forgotten to bring it with me.

5) I've just discovered that one can subscribe to a Spanish Word of the Day at

6) I bought a copy of MindFlights, Issue 4 in order to read "Dragonsaint" by D.G.D. Davidson, the proprietor of The Sci Fi Catholic. The author has described his novelette as featuring, "such things as ancient legends, dragons, coffee, attractive women with glasses, dragons, wildland firefighting, dragons, unrequited love, and dragons." I thought the story was a lot of fun and had some interesting world-building. And ya gotta love a dragon who wears a scapular. Why a Catholic dragon? Well, that would be the fault of St. Philomena, a spunky little girl who, after taming her dragon, insists that he be baptized. (After being catechised, of course.) But has the dragon really been converted? Or has he only restrained all these centuries by the power of St. Philomena's cord around his neck?

7) In a previous post, I spoke about mentally mispronouncing words I encountered in my reading which I'd never heard spoken aloud. But I forgot to confess that (despite the title of this blog) I've no idea how to pronounce "bibliophagist"!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jules Verne and Nellie Bly

Jules Verne was one of my favorite authors when I was a kid, and I was pleased that Fillius came to share my taste for 19th century authors in general and Jules Verne in particular. Lately he has been reading aloud Five Weeks in a Balloon to me while I wash the nightly dishes. I had never read it before because it was not readily available when I was young. (This was back in the Pleistocene, dear children, before one could read obscure works on Project Gutenberg or order them online from used booksellers.

Though his first published novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon already has the hallmarks of Verne's more well known works: a scientifically ingenious apparatus, stalwart comrades, personal bravery, a loyal servant (who also provides comic relief), exotic scenery, and exciting adventure. The story concerns Dr. Ferguson, an Englishman, his faithful servant Joe, and his Scottish friend Kennedy, who have set out in hot-air balloon to cross the continent of Africa. Dr. Ferguson has invented a new apparatus which eliminates the need to either release gas or to drop ballast in order to control the balloon's altitude thus allowing longer balloon voyages than have hitherto been possible. It's a jolly good adventure story.

At various points in their journey, our heroes rescue a Catholic missionary about to be killed by hostile natives, nearly die of thirst while becalmed in a desert, are attacked by condors, are mistaken for gods by credulous natives, and discover a gold deposit from which they are unable to profit since its untold wealth is much too heavy for them to cart away in their balloon. Not to mention the incendiary pigeons! And throughout the novel, the exotic flora and fauna of Africa are breathtakingly described. (Well, I suppose it was breathtaking to the Frenchmen reading the novel when it first came out.) Towards the end, the balloon begins to suffer technical difficulties and sinks lower and lower. Unless Dr. Ferguson can think of a remedy, our heroes will either be permanently stranded in the wilds of Africa, or will fall into the clutches of the fierce horsemen who are currently pursuing them. Whew!

(N.B. Modern readers may be surprised at Kennedy's enthusiasm for shooting big game as well as the author's depiction of non-Europeans as being fierce, primitive, and superstitious. I did not find this to be a problem because when I travel in time, I Expect Things To Be Different.)

As a follow-up to this novel, I am now reading Around the World in Seventy-two Days by Nellie Bly, an American journalist who set out to beat Phileas Fogg at his own game. (Fogg was the hero of Verne's novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.

When Bly originally proposed this stunt to her editor she was turned down.

"It is impossible for you to do it," was the terrible verdict. "In the first place you are a woman and would need a protector, and even if it were possible for you to travel alone you would need to carry so much baggage that it would detain you in making rapid changes. . . . so there is no use talking about it; no one but a man can do this."

"Very well," I said angrily, "Start the man, and I'll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him."

A year later her editor gave her the go-ahead -- but with only one day's notice! Despite his skepticism, she was she able to beat Fogg's travel record, and she was able to shop and pack for the trip in less than a day. This was quite a feat when you consider that when she began shopping for her traveling dress at 11:00 in the morning, it was still just a length of fabric. By 5:00, and two fittings later, it was complete. She confined her baggage to a single piece of hand luggage.

One never knows the capacity of an ordinary hand-satchel until dire necessity compels the exercise of all one's ingenuity to reduce every thing to the smallest possible compass. In mine I was able to pack two traveling caps, three veils, a pair of slippers, a complete outfit of toilet articles, ink-stand, pens, pencils, and copy-paper, pins, needles and thread, a dressing gown, a tennis blazer, a small flask and a drinking cup, several complete changes of underwear, a liberal supply of handkerchiefs and fresh ruchings and most bulky and uncompromising of all, a jar of cold cream to keep my face from chapping in the varied climates I should encounter.

. . . Over my arm I carried a silk waterproof, the only provision I made against rainy weather. After-experience showed me that I had taken too much rather than too little baggage. At every port where I stopped at I could have bought anything from a ready-made dress down . . . .
Well, I found all of these details fascinating. It's the sort of thing a male writer wouldn't have mentioned. I was also interested in reading about the challenges she faced as a woman traveling alone. And I very much enjoyed reading about her brief visit with Jules Verne and his wife as she passed through France. Both of them were very gracious to her despite the language barrier.

Through her translator she asked how he came to write his novel.
"I got it from a newspaper," was his reply. "I took up a copy of Le SiƩcle one morning, and found in it a discussion and some calculations showing that the journey around the world might be done in eighty days. The idea pleased me, and while thinking it over it struck me that in their calculations they had not called into account the difference in the meridians and I thought what a denouement such a thing would make in a novel, so I went to work to write one. Had it not been for the denouement I don't think that I should ever have written the book."
I'm enjoying Nellie Bly's book, but I wish I had a real copy of it. Like Nellie Bly, I prefer to travel light.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Words, Words, Words

The biggest disappointment of my childhood was that no one would teach me to read until I went to school. And then, when I finally entered kindergarten, I discovered that I'd still have to wait another year. In those days, kindergarten confined itself to preschool activities such as smearing tempera paint onto newsprint with big clumsy brushes and learning to be away from one's mother for half a day. I felt rather superior to the other children because I knew how to write my name. I'd managed to wrangle that and the alphabet out of my mother. But she was afraid to teach me more for fear she'd do it wrong and ruin my academic career. (What can I say? It was an age of reverence for Experts.) I felt cheated all over again when I went to college and discovered that many of my friends had learned to read long before first grade! In fact, my husband-to-be couldn't even remember learning to read -- that's how young he'd been.

At any rate, I was finally initiated into the mysteries of written language and the monosyllabic world of Dick & Jane. "Look, Spot. Oh, look. Look and see." My parents have a home movie of my two younger brothers unhappily sitting beside me on the couch as I proudly read aloud them from my reader. Every so often they'd try to wriggle off , but I'd pull them back into position telling them, "Just wait -- the good part is coming."

I don't think they stuck around because I have no more memories of reading aloud to anyone except in school. Like most children who love to read and have access to a library, my reading level was soon far above my grade level though my everyday speech did not reflect my reading vocabulary. I had not yet read Anne of Green Gables, but like Anne, I already knew that children who used unusual words were either laughed at or thought uppity. Besides, I didn't even know how to pronounce many of the words I commonly read. After all, I'd never heard anyone say them! I'd been taught sight reading in first grade, so "sounding it out" was not my first response when meeting a new word. And though I later acquired phonics, I was reading too fast and furiously in those days to apply it or to look up the word in a dictionary. Besides, who can ever make heads or tails of those dictionary pronunciation keys?

Consequently, I mentally pronounced "melancholy" as meh-latch-o-lee for quite a long time. And the latter pronunciation still has a more poignant feel to me. And even when I got the vowels right in a new word, I'd usually misplace the accent.

Even now, I still discover long-held mispronunciations. I've always pronounced "victuals" as vik-tchuals. Thanks to's Word of the Day, I've just discovered that it's actually vit-ulz. How disappointing! I've seen "vittles" in print before which, as it turns out, is a variant spelling, but I'd thought it was a separate word. What a cheat! "Victuals" looks so Latinate, yet sounds so Appalachian. (Actually, it turns out that its original Anglo-French spelling vitaylle was changed by 1523 to conform to its Latin root, victualia. But the pronunciation remains vittle.)

Which is why I love online dictionaries! I click on the little speaker icon and it tells me how to say the word. Sometimes I sit there clicking it over and over, trying to overwrite a mispronunciation from my youth.

(I subscribe to two Word of the Day services,'s and's. Both include definitions, a little etymology, and examples of the featured word used in a sentence. provides more example sentences than Merriam-Webster, but both are good.)